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The present 175-room house consists of several elaborate additions to the original 1837–1839 Greek-revival residence.

Several years after turning his family home at Winterthur into a museum, Henry Francis du Pont mused on his vision for the future. “I sincerely hope,” he wrote, “that the museum will be a continuing source of inspiration and education for all time.” This year marks the 50th anniversary of the museum’s founding, and Winterthur continues to fulfill du Pont’s vision as a center for the study and enjoyment of American decorative arts in both the country and the world.

Winterthur was not always a museum and educational center. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Winterthur was a thriving country estate that encompassed more than 2,400 acres with extensive orchards, gardens, greenhouses, livestock, and more than 250 people including the du Pont family. It also boasted its own train station, saw mill, post office, and golf course. In 1914, Henry Algernon du Pont appointed his son, Henry Francis, then a 34-year-old bachelor, manager of the Winterthur Farms. The young du Pont applied to this task the skills he had already demonstrated while collaborating with his father on the development of the naturalistically landscaped garden, the same devotion he would later put forth in amassing a world-famous collection of American decorative arts: strict attention to detail, continual experimentation to achieve the desired goal, and, above all, an unwillingness to accept anything less than perfection.

A family gathering at the Winterthur estate, ca. 1930s.

The year 1923 was a watershed in the life of Henry Francis du Pont, the collector. He and his wife, Ruth Wales du Pont, traveled to Shelburne Farms in Vermont to visit the Watson Webb family and examine their dairy operation. A social visit to the Webb’s daughter-in-law, Electra Havemeyer Webb, changed du Pont’s life. This was the moment, as du Pont loved to recount, when he fell in love with American antiques and decided to collect them. “I hadn’t thought of American furniture at all, I went upstairs and saw this dresser…and it just took my breath away.” On the same trip, the du Ponts visited well-known decorator Henry Sleeper at his summer home, called Beauport, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Here du Pont was further inspired by Sleeper’s use of architectural fragments from American interiors and his artful display of collections.

Fig. 1: Van Pelt High Chest, Philadelphia, ca. 1765–1780. Mahogany.

When du Pont inherited the Winterthur estate in 1926, he continued to oversee the livestock and grounds, but also focused on building a collection of American decorative arts (Fig. 1). He began by constructing a massive wing to house a portion of his antiques. As the collection grew, he realized that it “was too good to be dispersed after my death and hence the idea of a museum gradually came to me.” To expedite his vision, du Pont hired Joseph Downs, curator of American Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and dealer and collector Charles Montgomery; Downs became Winterthur’s first curator, and Montgomery its first director. It was Montgomery who established the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture in 1951, a graduate program offered in conjunction with the University of Delaware that has established Winterthur as the premier research institution for the study of America’s cultural heritage. Du pont later told his trustees, “I really believe that [this program] is quite as important as the museum itself. Years after all the books on the museum have been written, I feel that the training and the education of these young people at Winterthur will make the museum a living force through the ages.”

Winterthur opened as a museum on October 30, 1951; an extensive decorative arts library and rare book collection, photographic library, conservation labs, and curatorial departments have since been added. Although he left the daily operations to the curators and staff, du Pont continued to expand the collection. In the years since his death, the collection has grown to more than 49,000 objects, with new acquisitions made according to the same principles that guided du Pont: rarity, beauty, historical association, and history of ownership.

To celebrate the museum’s 50th anniversary, Winterthur has planned a series of special events. The exhibition Life at Winterthur: Henry Francis du Pont’s American Country Estate explores Winterthur’s history as a great American country estate and runs through May 5, 2002. A new 3-acre children’s garden recently opened at Winterthur, the first major addition to the famed garden since du Pont’s death. In January 2002, Winterthur will be featured at the Winter Antiques Show in New York City with a special display from the museum’s collection. As a grand finale to the golden anniversary celebrations, a first-ever exhibition of masterpieces from the Winterthur collection titled An American Vision: Henry Francis du Pont’s Winterthur Museum opens at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and runs from May 5 to July 28, 2002.

Pauline Eversmann is the Deputy Director for Public Programs at Winterthur and curator of the 50th anniversary exhibition Life at Winterthur: Henry Francis du Pont’s American Country Estate. She is the coauthor with Rosemary Krill of Early American Decorative Arts,
1620–1860 and has written several books on Winterthur.

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