Published: November 6, 2001
Life at Winterthur:
By Pauline K. Eversmann
WINTERTHUR, DEL. – On September 1, Winterthur continued its celebration of its 50th anniversary with the opening of a new exhibition, “Life at Winterthur: Henry Francis du Pont’s Country Estate.” The show explores Winterthur’s history as a great American country estate between 1902 and 1951.
What are country estates and why did the du Ponts seek to create one? Since the 1500s in Western Europe, country estates represented seats of power. As self-sustaining agricultural enterprises, they provided their owners with an economic base as well as political, social and cultural authority.
The change from an agricultural to an industrial economy in the 1800s paralleled a change in the country estate tradition as well. Wealthy industrialists, particularly in England, began to build country houses as symbolic representations of power, using them as weekend retreats rather than sources of power or income. As Americans grew increasingly wealthy, they, too, enthusiastically adopted this country-house tradition.
Since 1839, members of the du Pont family resided at Winterthur. Over a period of years, the original three-story, 12-room Greek Revival manor house underwent alternations to meet the changing needs of its new owner.
In 1901, Henry Algernon du Pont, the then-owner of Winterthur, and his wife, Pauline, undertook a large expansion of the original 1839 Winterthur manor house, adding an imposing marble stair hall, a billiard room and a large library, all requisite entertaining spaces in a proper country estate.
Before the addition was finished, however, Pauline du Pont died in 1902 and the job of household manager fell to her only son, Henry Francis du Pont, who returned to Winterthur in 1903 after his graduation from Harvard College. The younger du Pont, who, up until that time had shown a serious lack of ability in the many fields at which his father excelled (academics, sports, business and history), proved to have a real aptitude for management.
Within a short period, he was overseeing not only the furnishing of the newly enlarged house, but also the planting of new garden areas. To both of these areas he brought a talent for detail, decision making and, most importantly for future endeavors, aesthetics. He personally oversaw the selection of just the right fabric for the drawing room curtains and the perfect color mix of bulbs to be planted in his “wild garden” of spring bulbs.
In 1914, in recognition of these considerable talents, Henry Francis was named manager of the Winterthur farm by his father. He immediately set about reorganizing the agricultural landscape, converting the many small tenant farms on the estate to specialty farms and developing a superior strain of Holstein-Friesian dairy cattle. At the same time, he continued to expand the garden areas around the house, oversaw a never-ending series of country-house weekends, and perhaps most significantly, began to collect American antiques.
In 1923, H.F. du Pont and his wife, Ruth, headed north to Shelburne, Vt., to visit the dairy operation of J. Watson Webb. While there, he was invited to visit the home of the Webbs’ son and daughter-in-law, Seward and Electra Havermeyer Webb. Years afterward, du Pont described this social call and its impact on him: “We were staying at the house of Mrs Webb in Shelburne, Vermont, and Mrs Webb said, ‘Would you like to see Electra’s house [Electra was her daughter-in-law]? She has fixed over an old farmhouse.’ So I went to see this very attractive, old brick house and I was looking at the furniture. I hadn’t thought a thing of American furniture at all. I went upstairs and saw this dresser – this pine dresser, and I thought it was charming, quite lovely. It just took my breath away. I had never seen pine furniture, or heard of it in fact…”
From Shelburne, the du Ponts continued eastward to Massachusetts and du Pont continued his narrative of the journey: “…and then we went to stay with my sister, Louise Crowninshield in Marblehead and then we went to see the house of Harry Sleeper in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which was very attractively arranged, so I said to my wife, ‘Why don’t we build an American house? Everybody has English houses and half the furniture I know they have it new. Since we’re Americans, it’s much more interesting to have American furniture.'”
The following Sunday, du Pont, a devout Episcopalian, skipped church and went antiquing in nearby Chester County, Penn. He purchased a 1730 chest of drawers, an object subsequently viewed as the “first” American antique in du Pont’s collection. Although further research has shown that du Pont had occasionally purchased American furniture prior to 1923, this chest does represent the beginnings of his deliberate collection of Americana.
Bitten by the collecting bug, du Pont began to acquire American furniture and decorative objects made or used in America for his summer home, Chestertown, in Southampton, Long Island, N.Y. Largely self-educated in antiques, he relied on the advice of dealers as well as his own superb ability to recognize beauty.
An innate sense of proportion, form, color, and line came naturally to du Pont. In later life, he attributed his fine eye to having grown up with flowers and to having “absorbed an appreciation of proportion, color and material.” The latter statement was a tribute to his beloved mother, who had taken young Harry and his sister into the Winterthur garden and taught them to love flowers.
Henry Algernon du Pont died on New Year’s eve in 1926. The very next day, his son inscribed his own name in the Winterthur guest book, thus signaling his ownership of his beloved Winterthur. He immediately began to plan for a large expansion of his father’s house, to better accommodate his growing collection of American antiques.
The addition, a two-room-deep wing added down the back of the existing house, more than tripled its size. Over the next four years, du Pont filled the addition with “period rooms” outfitted with historic architecture and furnished with American antiques. The result was nothing short of stunning.
The Walpole Society, an elite group of collectors of whom du Pont was one, held their annual meeting at Winterthur in 1932. The minutes from the meeting reflect their appreciation for du Pont’s achievement: “No collection has ever been made comparable with the variety and beauty.”
Building and furnishing a large addition was only one of du Pont’s endeavors during the years between 1927 and 1932. At the same time as he was overseeing the addition to the house and adding to his collection, he was also working with landscape architect, Marion Coffin, to redevelop the Winterthur garden. Coffin, a friend of du Pont and his sister Louise, was a perfect complement to du Pont and his tastes.
She supplied the design ideas; he selected the plants. The two exchanged letters regularly as they plotted and planned the formal areas around the new addition. Once, leaving the design arena temporarily, Coffin advised du Pont to select a “White Willow (salix alba) by the pond instead of weeping? Why must a willow weep?”
Assembling a large collection of decorative arts, overseeing a large building project and actively supervising the design and planting of new garden areas were not du Pont’s main focus during these years, however. That honor fell to the development of his prize-wining breed of Holstein-Friesian dairy cattle. Under du Pont’s careful supervision, the Winterthur herd became one of the most famous in the nation.
Year after year it won numerous honors for producing Holstein-Friesians with a high butterfat content, that era’s standard of excellence. In perfecting the herd, du Pont relied on the same attention to detail and continual experimentation that marked his collecting and gardening endeavors.
After studying the available research, du Pont began a systematic breeding program that involved the purchase of proven Holstein sires and the inbreeding of the best cows and bulls. This approach to breeding continually produced results that broke records in the registry of the Holstein-Friesian Association of America.
As busy as Winterthur was during the week, it truly came alive on weekends when a seemingly endless succession of guests poured onto the estate to enjoy Winterthur’s fabled country house weekends. Both Henry Francis and Ruth loved to entertain and with its house and grounds, particularly the garden, Winterthur was the perfect venue.
A frequent weekend guest to Winterthur once described a typical country house weekend: “You’d arrive, probably around teatime, and there would be Ruth, behind the tea table, and you’d be having tea, and you’d probably play bridge before dinner, and certainly play bridge after dinner.” She then went on to note that she frequently lost her way in the evening trying to find her way back to her bedroom.
Weekend activities included inside sports such as bowling, squash, billiards and bridge. Outside, tennis and croquet were played on courts in the garden and swimming was available in a pool at the foot of the formal garden. Harry du Pont loved golf and guests were invited to play on Winterthur’s own golf course. To add to the ambience, he had speakers installed on the course through which opera was broadcast on Saturday afternoons.
Needless to say, du Pont did not accomplish all of these many achievements unaided. Rather, he was assisted by a large and devoted staff, many of whom were born and raised at Winterthur. In the years between the two World Wars, more than 250 people lived, worked and played at Winterthur. House servants, gardeners, farmers, dairymen and chauffeurs together formed the heart and soul of the Winterthur community.
In preparation for the anniversary exhibition, team members conducted oral histories with current and former staff who had grown up at Winterthur when it was still a country estate. Their warm memories of growing up at Winterthur, as well as their affection for “H.F.,” were tape-recorded and can be heard at audio stations throughout the exhibition.
For Winterthur employees, life on the estate involved much more than work. The grounds were totally accessible to families and they enjoyed sledding and ice skating on the ponds in the winter, fishing in the summer, and bike riding or hiking all year round. In addition, there were organized activities such as the Winterthur baseball team, dances in the community club house and, at Christmas, a lavish party hosted by the du Ponts for all employees, known informally as “Mr Harry’s party.”
Shortly after he began collecting American decorative arts in earnest, du Pont began to explore the idea of having his collection become a museum. At first he thought that his home on Long Island, Chestertown, would be the ideal location. He soon realized, however, that Winterthur was his true legacy. As early as 1938, he wrote to a colleague saying, “This [Winterthur] may be a museum some day.”
At first he envisioned Winterthur becoming a museum after his death. At some point, however, he changed his mind and began to plan to open his home as a museum during his lifetime. He later wrote, “One day I got to thinking, if I want a museum here I ought to see the job through myself. Besides, I suspected there would be some fun connected with it, and I wanted to be in on it.”
On October 30, 1951, Winterthur officially opened at the Henry Francis du Pont Museum. The du Ponts moved into a new house built within view of their former home. From his bedroom window, du Pont could look up the hill to the dairy barns on Farm Hill, down the slope to naturalized plantings of daffodils along a nearby stream and over to his family home, now a museum. Thus, all three of his consuming interests were clearly in view.
Once the house became a museum, du Pont lessened his involvement in its day-to-day operations. He remained, however, until his death in 1969, the “head gardener” and continued to list his occupation as “farmer” on applications and formal documents.
An intensely private individual, du Pont refused all public speaking engagements and rarely gave interviews. He preferred to let his achievements speak for themselves. Thus, it is not surprising that he was able to sum up his feelings for his lifelong home in a very few words. “I was born at Winterthur,” he told an interviewer, “and have always loved everything connected with it.”
Years after his death, his daughters more fully expressed the same sentiment. “Henry Francis du loved Winterthur. It was his achievement, his birthplace, his home and the place where he died. His enthusiasm for the house, the museum, and the land speaks to us still.”
Pauline K. Eversmann is deputy director for public programs department and curator of the “Life at Winterthur” exhibition. “Life at Winterthur” runs through May 5, 2002 at the Walter J. Laird, Jr. Gallery. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 9 am to 5 pm, and Sunday, noon to 5 pm. For information, 800-448-3883.
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