Henry Francis du Pont impressed us even before we arrived at his house. Ruth & I had been to Winterthur many years before. It was, in fact, the only major tourist attraction in Delaware we were familiar with. The desire to see it again and what else there was for travelers in this State, where the name du Pont seems to come up in every conversation, were the reasons we were back.
Born in 1880, Henry was a very monied du Pont who traveled among 4 homes–Philadelphia, Park Avenue in New York City, Florida, and Winterthur, surely his favorite. Named for a town in Switzerland, Winterthur is just a few miles from downtown Wilmington. A typical visit now begins with a 20 minute bus ride up to the house. It stops at the Enchanted Woods where I glimpsed a fairy cottage, passes some enchanted trees like an almost 300 year-old elm, grazes a meadow where Henry once played a nine-hole golf course with piped in opera blaring, and moves slowly through an area that once dazzled with 8 acres of azaleas.
Suddenly Henry’s house, which still looked to me like a Canadian hotel/chateau, loomed ahead. By this time I was well aware of Henry’s background and main passions–horticulture, Harvard, Holsteins, and his house’s furnishings. Due to increased crowds, the tour was quite different from years ago. By the time one of Winterthur’s 50 enthusiastic volunteer guides greeted us, we’d been assigned to a group of 10 for a walk that included small elevators, themed rooms, and lots of information about American decorative arts.
Henry, who died in 1969 collected warehouses full of furniture and decor made only by American crafters between 1750 and 1850. The best of the best is seen on the basic tour, including his 1st purchase, a massive yellow pine hutch. Henry was an absolute purist when it came to putting rooms together, and he had plenty to fill since there are 175 of them in this home. For example, he decorated rooms to honor each of the 13 original colonies.
It’s fun while wandering about to imagine what it must have been like to be a weekend guest of Henry and his wife Ruth, who entertained on the piano. You’d sleep in a bedroom full of exquisite, hand-made early American furniture and get to use one or more of the du Pont’s 57 sets of dinnerware. One requirement was that you play bridge. As dummy, you might look up from the game table and find yourself staring at 6 silver tankards made by Paul Revere.
Our Winterthur host told us that this is the “finest collection of American furniture anywhere”, and that claim is hard to dispute. For frequent visitors, tours can become specialized. There’s one that studies only clocks, for example.
21st century guests delight in temporary exhibitions like the current Common Destinations: Maps in the American Experience. But they’ll be enraptured by the one that opens March 1, 2014–Costumes of Downton Abbey. The staff told me they’re already getting tour bus inquires. No surprise there.