Monday, November 16, 2009

Winterthur, Part One

I just returned from two glorious days at Winterthur, and I was dazzled. I don't really know where to begin because it was all so incredible. I'll first say, though, that if you ever have the opportunity to visit, you must. And if you don't know if the opportunity will present itself, then make it happen. I don't see how anybody could not be inspired after a visit there.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Winterthur, the Delaware estate (now a museum) was the vision of the late Henry Francis du Pont, one of the 20th century's foremost collectors of Americana. du Pont inherited the house and the sprawling property from his father and immediately set about creating a home in which to display his more than impressive collection of early American furniture and art, porcelain and ceramicware, and textiles. Through the years, du Pont enlarged the original house and created period rooms that were a shade different from what you might find in other museums. The look of the room- the interior decoration- was just as important to du Pont as historical accuracy, so it could be said that du Pont's rooms were curated through the eyes of a 20th century aesthete.

Now it's no surprise that I am a lover of history, so the provenance of the objects within the rooms was of great interest to me. However, I know that there are many people who don't have the same interest as I. (And if you don't like history, that's really okay.) But please don't think that because the words "history", "Americana", and "early American" are associated with Winterthur that the house has no relevance to design today. Hardly! If you really look at the rooms, you'll find architectural details, fabrics, curtains, and such that would look right at home in a 21st century house. I don't want to demean Mr. du Pont's work because it obviously has great historical significance. But you really can apply some of what you see at Winterthur to your own home. Just take a look...

This is the pine cabinet that sparked du Pont's love affair with collecting. Both the cabinet and the pink Staffordshire china once belonged to another famous collector, Electra Havemeyer Webb. And to think that this rather humble piece inspired all of this:

The room that I was most anxious to visit was the Chinese Parlor. Now who wouldn't want to have a room like this? The wonderful antique wallpaper was found by Nancy McClelland, a prominent decorator and wallpaper dealer. In order to accommodate the height of the paper, du Pont chose to create a cove ceiling. Note too that terrific chandelier. The room, where cards were often played, seems quite comfortable. I like the Early American antiques as this was the kind of furniture with which I was raised. However, if you're a fan of French antiques or even early 20th century pieces, just think how well they would look in a setting like this.

Many rooms feature interior architecture that was purchased from early American homes ranging from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. Those pilasters framing the fireplace, the broken pediment, and dentil molding is stunning.

And that fabric on the armchair? Looks like something many of us would use today to great effect.

This mantel was purchased and removed from a Pennsylvania home. Isn't the detail incredible?

Molding in one of the rooms. A bit blurry, but I think the picture speaks for itself.

Another architectural detail, this time in the sleeping porch.

du Pont liked to entertain, and everything- flowers, linens, food- was carefully thought out. This room contains du Pont's candelabra and candlesticks. Ruby Ross Wood, the late, great decorator, wrote of dining at Winterthur and admiring the most perfect Battersea candlesticks.

And speaking of Ruby Ross Wood, many decorators clamored to visit Winterthur while it was still du Pont's private residence. du Pont's approach to collecting and decorating was so novel that decorators just had to see it for themselves. Wood wrote to du Pont of her employee's awe after visiting Winterthur. That employee was none other than Billy Baldwin. I wonder if this room below, decorated by Baldwin in the 1950s, could have been inspired by his visit to Winterthur:

I think that after my visit to Winterthur, I look at design and collecting much differently. du Pont believed that no one piece should dominate a room; rather, a room should have impact in its cohesiveness. (That may not hold true for the Chinese Parlor. That paper definitely packs a punch!) Well, that's not the way I have ever approached design. I always look for the statement piece. But I completely understand du Pont's point, and now I think I'll start looking at a room as a whole rather than a sum of its parts.

And in regards to collecting, once you see du Pont's porcelain, you'll never want to buy cheap or mediocre accessories again. You'll want to save your pennies to buy a piece that has value, not just monetarily but aesthetically too.

Tomorrow I'll post about the "Chic It Up!" design conference that I attended last Friday (it was really fantastic), and on Wednesday I'll share some photos of the textiles in the Winterthur collection. Actually, I could go on for days about Winterthur, but I'll try hard to condense it into a few days' worth of posts.

Oh, one more thing, Christmas decorations were being installed while I was there. The talented floral artisans at Winterthur created a dried floral Christmas tree. The flowers were collected from the Winterthur garden throughout the year and then dried in anticipation of the holidays. How great is that?

(All photos with the exception of the first photo were taken by me.)


  1. Isn't it the most extraordinary place? Even some of the smaller house museums of that family are terrific. We were in Philly this weekend visiting some historic houses.

  2. I would love to visit this most historical property, Great images, insight to the past and many can be applied today.

  3. Absolutely stunning. You have convinced me to visit ...
    Incidentally, I am new here, only caught a few posts, but love what I see... a great blog. Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. Love this post! We always stop off and visit Winterthur on our way from NYC to Monticello. It is just an incredible safe bastion of architecture, art and furnishings. So happy to see you bring this for us to see. The gardens in the spring are out of this world! and the most wonderful hospitality center and gift shop...thank you & best from Jefferson's Table

  5. Winterthur is a silent treasure we have around here. While the Yeultide Tour and Point to Point are the big money makers, and wonderful to attend. If you ever get the chance walking the gardens in spring is quite wonderful.

  6. You just go on as long as you like - I'm enjoying every word and picture.

  7. John Tackett11:01 AM

    What a great post! I can hardly wait to see more!

  8. If you ever have the time, Winterthur's fall and spring Institutes are amazing. Two full weeks of total immersion and in-depth study -- and hours spent in those glorious period rooms.

  9. Simply magical!! I had the honor of going with 10 other designers on a tour of Winterthur, that Brunchswig & Fils, had set-up. It is so lovely to see it once again in your lovely photo's. All Deck out for the holiday's. Great article.

  10. What a wonderful Winterthur story! The museum is really incredible - the only thing that may surpass this amazing treasure is the staff that work there. Their knowledge and passion is inspirational. Everyone should put a visit to Winterthur on their list of things they must do in their lifetime!

  11. The duPonts have quite a family history themselves. They've contributed a great deal. I have heard of Winterthur and have always wanted to visit. I will definitely go there in the spring.
    Thank you, I enjoyed reading your blog post.

  12. Quite incredible. Love the view of this historic home!


  13. Anonymous11:46 PM

    AMAZING POST! If not for Winterthur the White House would be Versailles lite. An amazing man and legacy. Thank you. It's my dream to visit.

  14. Jennifer -- Thanks for the virtual adventure. I so agree about that blue and white wing chair! And I love how you brought in the Billy Baldwin room.

  15. Hi,

    Love to take a visit to places over to the world. Thanks to share this with us. Love the candlestick room :-)