The Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library in Winterthur, Delaware is home to the world’s foremost collection of American Decorative Arts, in addition to stunningly beautiful grounds visitors can explore. The land was originally purchased by Philadelphian gunpowder magnate Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours in 1810-1818. A skilled chemist, Éleuthère had become one of the richest men in America after noting that American gunpowder was of poor quality and refining the process and founded his company at what is now the site of the Hagley Museum on the bank of the Brandywine River in Delaware.
E.I. du Pont sold a portion of the land to his daughter Evelina Gabrielle duPont and her husband Antoine Bidermann, who built a 12-room estate on the property and named it Winterthur after Bidermann’s home in Switzerland. Their son sold it to his uncle, who gave it to his son Colonel Henry Algernon duPont, who added to the home and purchased more property to add to the grounds. Henry Algenon’s son, Henry Francis du Pont, took over managing the estate and inherited it when his father died. Henry Francis, who went by H.F., was Henry Algernon’s only child to reach adulthood, as five of his siblings died as children.
H.F. was primarily interested in botany and cattle-breeding, and used the estate’s over 2,500 acres to indulge in his pastimes. The estate has its own railway station for guests, and 250 people lived in nearly 100 cottages on the grounds. During a trip to Vermont to visit a farm H.F. became enamored with American antiques and tripled the size of the mansion so it could accommodate his burgeoning collection, in which rooms were organized according to time periods from 1640 to 1840 and sometimes entirely removed and replicated from homes that were being demolished. Winterthur would grow to include over 89,000 objects in 175 rooms, and Jacqueline Kennedy even consulted H.F. about her famous White House renovations in the early 1960s. In 1951 H.F. opened the mansion as a museum and moved to a smaller building on the property, and helped create programs centering on art conservation and material culture at the University of Delaware. Sixty acres of the grounds were open to visitors wishing to explore the botanical wonderland H.F. created, and the library onsite contains 500,000 manuscripts, photos, and 87,000 books. Upon his death in 1969, the estate was preserved for future generations to marvel at.
When visiting Winterthur it is hard not to reflect on how unfathomable wealth is amassed by individuals and passed on, but it is also difficult not to appreciate that such a collection of artifacts was ultimately opened to the public to enjoy. If you’d like to take a tour of the mansion it is strongly recommended that you book it in advance through Winterthur’s website, although no reservations are required. General admission is $22 for adults and the museum is closed on Mondays except during winter. A variety of rotating exhibits, tours, and events take place on the grounds also, including the Artisan Market, concerts, crafting and yoga classes, and wine/food tasting.
Matthew Christopher DE Jun 21, 2022 History Museums People