October 23 — For a long time now, a return trip to Winterthur in Delaware has been on my list of come-back-to places. Winterthur is a combination of museum, gardens, and a library developed by Henry Francis du Pont, one of the heirs to the du Pont fortune, who was born here back in 1880. [Trivia for Mom (it’s been awhile!) – The E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. company was started by Eleuthère Irénée du Pont who came to the U.S. from France in 1800. He had nothing, but knew a little something about black gunpowder. The rest is history, and it resulted in gazillions of dollars for the du Pont family.]
About the museum: Henry du Pont married Ruth Wales in 1916, and began collecting American decorative arts and architectural elements, no doubt thanks to great-grandpa Eluthère’s booming (no pun intended) success. Henry inherited the property in 1926, and greatly expanded it between 1928 and 1931 into what today is an 8-story, 175-room mansion.
Into all these rooms Henry installed important interiors from early American houses and filled them with his burgeoning collection of American antiques which date from the 1640’s through the 1860’s. Throughout the next two decades, Henry, Ruth, and their two daughters lived in their museum-in-progress.
In 1951, Henry Francis du Pont opened his house to the public as the Winterthur Museum. The family moved into a smaller home on the grounds called the “Cottage,” which serves as the Museum Store today.
In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy visited Winterthur and invited Henry to head the Fine Arts Committee which oversaw the restoration of the White House. Until his death in 1969, Henry spent time at Winterthur and in several of his other homes in the U.S.
Today the collection numbers over 90,000 objects. A variety of tours are offered to see parts of the house, and other wings feature their large collections.
About the gardens: a 1,000-acre estate with streams, rolling hills, meadows, and forests, planted with choice plants from all around the world. Henry viewed himself the master gardener, even though he had plenty of help maintaining Winterthur. A life-long devotee to horticulture, he arranged his plantings in lyrical color combinations and carefully orchestrated a succession of plants that bloom from January through November. If you visit – and you should! – be sure to take the 20-minute garden tram tour that will take you through the 60-acre naturalistic garden, Azalea Woods, Magnolia Bend, and the Enchanted Woods designed especially for children.
About the library: The preeminent research library and graduate programs make Winterthur an important center for the study of American art and culture.
About Downton Abbey: As good timing would have it, we visited Winterthur during the Costumes of Downton Abbey exhibition that featured 40 historically-inspired costumes that were featured on the show. These were supplemented by photographs and vignettes inspired by the fictional TV program and real life at Winterthur. Now I finally know what a valet and footmen do!
P.S. In case you’re noticing that outside garden pictures are missing, you are right. There are two good reasons for this: 1) we visited Winterthur as the ol’ Nor’easter was passing through the east coast, so our outside time was pretty much limited to the tram ride; 2) they are replacing all of the windows on the mansion/museum, so the whole thing was covered up with green safety netting – not very attractive for photos.