Thursday, October 06, 2011

Weekends at Winterthur

The Dining Room at Winterthur

I hope that some of you are planning to attend next week's Chic It Up! event at Winterthur. Seriously, you will be so glad that you did. When I toured Winterthur a few years ago, I was absolutely fascinated by Mr. du Pont's connoisseurship in all matters of living including decorating, collecting, and entertaining. His efforts at designing a home that was both historically accurate and aesthetically dazzling helped to cement his reputation as one of this country's most esteemed tastemakers. But what has especially intrigued me is the way in which H. F. du Pont approached entertaining. It seems that a night or a weekend at Winterthur was absolute perfection with no detail overlooked. I asked Maggie Lidz, Estate Historian and Curator of Garden and Estate Objects at Winterthur, to send me some archival information about du Pont's style of entertaining. I have to say that some of the anecdotes blew my mind. This is the kind of entertaining that one doesn't experience today.

If you were invited by the du Ponts to be weekend guests at Winterthur, you would arrive on a Friday afternoon, just in time for tea. As Mr. and Mrs. du Pont greeted you, footmen would take your coats while the houseman would deposit your luggage in your room. A maid would then unpack your suitcase. After tea, you would retreat to your room so that you could dress for cocktails and dinner. Cocktails began at 7:30 with dinner served at 8:00.

Brooke Astor recalled that the cocktail hour at Winterthur was most special. du Pont would have small card tables set up outside of the drawing room or in the hall at which guests could enjoy caviar and iced vodka. This was a seated affair where, according to Astor, "one could enjoy the delicious treat comfortably and to the full, which one cannot do standing up with a plate in one hand and a glass in the other." Susan Mary Alsop was also impressed by "the caviar on the pink covered card table outside the conservatory on our cozy Friday evening."

Afterwards, it was into the dining room where dinner was served á la russe with one footman to every two guests. By all accounts, the food was delicious. Mr. du Pont also paid much attention to his table settings. A few days before the dinner, he would start to plan the setting with the head gardener who would bring a selection of flowers to Mr. du Pont. Once du Pont chose flowers for the table, he then selected the proper china which best matched the flowers.

A Butler's Pantry filled with candelabra and Battersea candlesticks

After dinner, the male guests would retire to the library or the Marlboro Room where they would enjoy cigars and drinks. The ladies went to the Chinese Parlor for coffee. But even then, the evening was not over. Guests would then play bridge, watch a movie in the Court, or even tour the house.

The Chinese Parlor

Breakfast was served in one's room. You would fill out a menu card the night before, one which read: "M__ (name)___, Hour, Coffee, Tea, Hot milk, Cream, Eggs, Bacon, Toast, Fruit, Remarks". The next morning at the requested time, a footman would deliver a tray with your breakfast, a copy of the Herald Tribune, and a rose in a silver bud vase.

The day's activities included an informal lunch, tennis, swimming, golf, bowling, touring the gardens, and at times trips to Longwood Gardens and Eleutherian Mills.

The Enclosed Porch

And in terms of the guest rooms, it seems that they never ceased to impress guests. They were beautifully appointed with the finest antiques. One guest, Joe Kindig III, recalls that a "period textile was present on the bed upon your arrival, but was replaced when you retired to your room. A valet was available for my needs and a maid for my wife's." Antiques dealer Bernard Levy was quoted as saying that H. F. du Pont "had a staff that gave you the feeling that when you turned over at night they fluffed the pillow." And Walter Heacock said, "One [footman] checked the labels in the clothes of the guests to find out how much service they were accustomed to." Heacock went on to say that during one of his visits, he retired to his bedroom one evening to find that his shoelaces had been pressed and toothpaste had already been applied to his toothbrush.

Like I said earlier, I can only imagine the cosseting that the du Pont's guests must have felt during a weekend at Winterthur. It's no wonder that people like Jackie Kennedy, no slouch herself, were enthralled by Henry Francis du Pont. I didn't know the man but I am enthralled by him as well!

And by the way, the relationship between H. F. du Pont, Jackie Kennedy, and the Fine Arts Committee of the White House is just one of the topics that will be covered next week at Winterthur. If you do attend, please let me know. I want to hear all about it!

I would like to thank Maggie Lidz for providing me with the information used to write this post. The first and last photos are courtesy of Winterthur. The middle two were taken by me.


  1. I understand that the guest rooms have changed little since the house was opened as a museum. They were always like a period room, I have read, and that a servant would bring in an electric lamp so there would be light during the guest's stay, and then removed again. But each guest room had its own modern bathroom.

  2. I just moved back to that area (not even 2 miles from Winterthur), and would you believe I am away and will miss this event. I'll have to pay more attention to their schedule so I won't miss another one.

  3. Oh the Chinese Parlor!!

  4. Sounds divine! The ironed shoelaces-heaven!

  5. Do you happen to know if there is a book about Winterhur that includes Mr. Dupont's entertaining style? If not, shouldn't there be.

    Merci for a wonderful post.

  6. Went to Winterthur with Atlanta's Ceramic Circle a few years ago. We were divided up into groups of 5 or 6 with a curator as tourguide. She asked what out interests were and took us to specific rooms to see Chinese export, Federal silver, whatever. The variety and volume of the American decorative arts represented at Winterthur are amazing.

  7. GBL- I agree that it's amazing. A must-see for anybody interested in the decorative arts. Lucky you to get a private tour!

  8. Lost in Provence: I don't know about a book, but there used to be an "Elegant Entertaining" tour at Winterthur.

  9. Anonymous1:37 PM

    How gorgeous the Chinese room!

    I agree! There should be a book!

  10. I love the dining room, especially the rich carpet. Looks very elegant and classy. The Marlboro Room looks seems very inviting.