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A Fantasyland of Americana
Bob Brooke


The name Winterthur has a fairytale quality to it. It lodges in the imagination like the name of a remote, imaginary kingdom. The actual place is far more tangible, for here in hundreds of rooms lies the one of our country’s greatest collections of Americana.

The visitor turning in at the gates to Winterthur, which lies six miles outside Wilmington, Delaware, enters a nearly 900-acre estate of garden, meadow, and woodland snatched during the late 19th century from the encroaching urban sprawl. The house itself, now a museum open to the public, is a huge structure, sheltering behind its facade nearly two hundred rooms and display areas, and so many objects that its staff can only estimate their number at somewhere around 90,000. Nearly all of this once belonged to one man, Henry Francis duPont, who assembled the collection and engineered its installation in rooms with period woodwork from all the original 13 colonies. His goal was to show America as it had been, and he did so with objects produced between 1640 and 1840.

The first duPonts settled in the Brandywine Valley in 1802. The valley appealed to Éleuthère Irénée duPont, who was the original founder of the vast duPont fortune, because of the water power the Brandywine River provided. This encouraged the industry with which his family became associated—the production of black gun powder. Henry Francis duPont's father, Henry Algernon, a West Point graduate known as "the Colonel," expanded the family mansion in 1902, converting it into a manor house suited to the era's idea of the landed gentry. Here, he and his family entertained lavishly. He inherited his father's love for country-house life and nature. As an avid horticulturist, he developed Winterthur's exquisitely landscaped grounds into a showcase of botanical splendor.

DuPont started collecting American antiques in the 1920s, long before it was popular to do so. In 1928 he decided to add an American Wing to Winterthur. Building an addition onto the existing house, he filled it with architectural interiors from historic houses. The earliest room in the original Winterthur ensemble is from the 17th-century Wentworth House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

DuPont insisted that not only did the overall look of a room have to be right, but also every detail, such as the period fabric used in the Wynkoop Bedroom.

A generous host, duPont arranged for Winterthur's extensive servant quarters, and all modern facilities–bathrooms, light switches, telephones, radio speakers, the screening room, the bowling alley, the ice-cream, squash, and billiard rooms to be cleverly hidden from public view. Among his guests were some of America’s best antiques dealers.

Through these dealers, but also through highly secretive bidding at auction, duPont collected the finest antiques his money could buy. In 1929 he broke all previous auction records for a piece of American furniture by purchasing the important Van Pelt highboy from the Reifsnyder collection for $44,000. High-style pieces like this posed a collecting challenge. Original pieces of Chippendale furniture, duPont’s favorite style, grace many of Winterthur’s rooms, especially in the Chippendale Dining Room.

Other notable rooms include the Chinese Parlor, lined with handmade Chinese wallpaper from 1770, the home of a Dutch family along the Hudson River, and the Chestertown Room from a home in the Chesapeake Bay area.

What impresses the visitor to Winterthur, beyond the quality of the collection, is how right it everything seems. DuPont purchased great numbers of lighting fixtures, along with pottery and glass, English Delft and Chinese export porcelain, silver pewter and other metalwork, fabrics from the Continent and England, wallpaper, and Oriental rugs to complement the pieces in his collection. In contrast to these largely high-style pieces, there are also extensive collections of country arts. The 1823 scenic wallpaper in the Baltimore Room, for example, is French.

Exhibited without cases or barricades in appropriate room settings, Winterthur's unsurpassed collections not only evoke the spirit of their time but also speak individually. They have been combined for reasons beyond their functional or visual harmony in order to showcase their cultural meanings and create essays in style.

Visitors who haven’t been to Winterthur before should take the 45-minute Two Centuries Tour


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