By now, the gardens of Winterthur will be painted in brushstrokes of every color like an Impressionist painting. Winterthur in the spring is a play of light and shadow, accentuating the beauty of its centuries-old, expertly curated landscape. When I had the pleasure of visiting in early March, however, Winterthur Estate was a vision in gold.
I walked down the curved path to the Visitor Center surrounded by the glistening branches of trees just beginning to bud for the year. Though I could not yet see it, I could already feel the pull of Garden Lane leading me deeper into the thousand-acre estate. The Visitor Center was quiet and well set up to accommodate COVID-19 safety precautions. I felt quite safe as I picked up my admission ticket and garden map. Ready to go, I stepped outside and turned to my left to start my day at Winterthur.
Opened to the public in 1951, Winterthur House and Gardens is the legacy of Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969). H.F. du Pont made the decision to open his childhood home as a museum dedicated to the decorative arts of the United States of America from roughly 1640 to 1860. To this day, Winterthur describes itself as “the premier museum of American decorative arts,” and aims to keep the legacy of H.F. du Pont alive by maintaining the collections and gardens, providing access to the house, organizing myriad programs, and hosting graduate programs to inspire and train future generations of material culture experts.
The gardens themselves, though organic in style, were carefully designed by H.F. du Pont. An avid horticulturist, du Pont was inspired by the grand, Naturalistic gardens of Europe. The Wild Garden, a book by Irish gardener and journalist William Robinson, was a cherished resource for du Pont. In line with Robinson’s teachings, du Pont sought to create a Naturalistic, ever-changing tableaux of plants that bloomed from the ground up. Over the course of the year, colors ascend from the forest floor all the way to the treetops and peak by early autumn. Every season presents the visitor with a different, picturesque version of du Pont’s creation.
As I walked up the hill from the Visitor Center to Garden Lane, my version of the gardens was one of deep browns and tips of pale green; of golden grass and tan leaves ready to give way to great fields of spring flowers. Knowing I would later have time to wander the gardens to my heart’s content, I set off down the “Low Path” to the house. The Low Path takes you past a network of large, glass greenhouses; past the Peony Garden, a late-spring favorite; finally to the front lawn of Winterthur House.
The house in any other setting would appear handsomely overwhelming. Yet among the high trees and great lawn, Winterthur House’s abundance of windows reflect the late-morning light in perfect proportion to its surroundings. Since restrictions were put in place to ensure the safety of visitors and staff alike, only the fifth floor of the house has been available to tour during the pandemic. I’ve been through the house many times, but I never entered through the greenhouse and it felt like a completely new experience. I passed through the North doorway, between a pair of stately, eighteenth-century marble busts, and into the house. Directly inside, to my left, was the incredible spiral staircase that H.F. du Pont salvaged from a house in North Carolina. To my right, the journey began.
What remains open to the public is the most lavish floor of the house. Home to the great entertainment rooms, the Fifth Floor of Winterthur House contains such treasures as a set of 6 silver tankards made in 1772 by Paul Revere, Jr. (1734-1818), Benjamin West’s famous unfinished painting of the Treaty of Paris (c. 1783-1784), and myriad American furnishings decked out in exquisite period textiles.
To facilitate a socially-distanced experience, Winterthur has created a self-guided tour that you can load onto your phone through a QR code provided at the entrance. Capacity is highly limited as well making the tour a serenely intimate encounter. The docents, seeing significantly fewer visitors than they did pre-pandemic, were delighted to speak with me at length about any questions I had. During the half hour I spent meandering through the fifth-floor rooms on a Wednesday morning, I saw one couple three rooms away and no other visitors.
The very first docent who I encountered was in charge of the first and second rooms on the newly-marked social-distancing tour, and provided excellent insight into both the design choices of Mr. du Pont as well as the relationship between the docents and Winterthur House. Through this discussion, I learned that H.F. du Pont acquired an extensive collection of period textiles, and that he used this collection to accurately repair pieces of furniture, curtains, and other assorted fabrics throughout his house. She also touched on the fact that Mr. du Pont understood the value of reproduction textiles and their role as the future of period-accurate repairs.
I most enjoyed the conversation I had with this docent about staff favorites. We spoke about how the different docents and staff at Winterthur have their favorite corners of the house or pieces from the collections. She had a particular fondness for the various eagles scattered amid the decorations of the stately rooms. She informed me that the wooden eagle guarding the plants out in the greenhouse was lovingly nicknamed Edgar. Interactions like this, personalized and heartfelt, are what turn a trip to Winterthur from fun and informative to truly meaningful and memorable.
The windows of the fifth floor rooms are treated to filter out light that would be harmful to the various delicate fabrics, finishes, and paintings on show. Even so, the early-spring light came through the panels and harmonized perfectly with the golden tones chosen for the upholstery. Just as in the gardens, the interior of Winterthur House was a symphony of warm yellows, coppers, and browns.
Perhaps the most exquisite room on view is the famous China Parlor. Purchased by H.F. du Pont in 1928 from Nancy McClelland, an accomplished interior decorator and friend of du Pont, the hand-painted, historic Chinese wallpaper lends its intricate beauty to one of the most iconic rooms at Winterthur. It is easy to get lost in the ornate details of the China Parlor, for every space that is not covered in hand-embellished elements is filled with bouquets of seasonal flowers. It was the wish of Henry Francis du Pont that there would always be fresh flowers in Winterthur House. Throughout the year, flowers from the Winterthur gardens are arranged throughout the house. When they begin to pass, the flowers are kept and dried for the dried-flower tree at Christmastime.
It makes sense that the China Parlor is the last room you pass through on the fifth floor tour. I contentedly left the house with a renewed energy to explore the surrounding woodlands and gardens. Turning right out of the greenhouse’s entrance there is a path that leads to the rear of the house and the Formal Gardens. On the day of my visit, the back lawn was bathed in a brilliant lilac light reflecting up off of the thousands of crocuses covering the ground. I wandered through the Formal Gardens, and admired the reflecting pool designed by Marian Coffin, landscape architect and longtime friend of H.F. du Pont. Of course, I stopped to say hello to the koi fish. It would be rude not to.
At the East gate to the Formal Gardens, it is up to the visitor which way they will go. A map is provided with every admission ticket, but I find it so much more fun to wander independently. Starting from the gate, I ignored the path and walked up Oak Hill and breathed in the crisp air of a cool and cloudless day. From here I could go to my left, into the charming and whimsical Enchanted Woods and further to the hauntingly beautiful Sundial Garden. I could continue going forward and relax for a moment at the Quarry Garden. I won’t detail the last hour and a half of my visit that day which was spent wandering. Instead, I implore the reader to take a trip to Winterthur and create a path of their own.
No matter how many times I have visited, leaving Winterthur Estate feels bittersweet; I always leave wanting more. More greenery; will I ever see every bloom and blossom the gardens have to offer? More splendid interiors; will I notice the slight seasonal changes made to the rooms? More questions; what was that crest above the doorway in the greenhouse? How many sets of china are in the collection? Did Mr. du Pont prefer coffee or tea? No two trips to Winterthur are alike, and one trip will undoubtedly lead to another.
Thankfully, Winterthur is more than just a physical location. It is an inspiration for academics and crafters alike. Whether studying material culture in the United States, or studying needlework for fun: Winterthur has a multitude of offerings. Though most programs offered by Winterthur used to take place in-person at the estate, the past year has caused those same programs to shift online. There are still outdoor, socially-distanced events taking place at the Estate, such as an Artisan Market scheduled for July of this year, but some of the most engrossing content coming from Winterthur at the moment is from their graduate students.
Since the 1970’s, Winterthur has hosted several graduate programs in Art Conservation and Material Culture. The collections of H.F. du Pont serve as a starting point from which to explore material culture and the decorative arts on a larger scale. Normally the grad students would curate an exhibit that would be on display in one of the gallery spaces next to the house. Since studies were remote in 2020, the students curated an exhibit to be accessible online. Justyce Bennet of Winterthur’s American Material Culture Class of 2021 proposed an exhibit using pieces from Winterthur’s collections to “highlight the creativity, ingenuity, and complex lives of their creators: Black women.” And so Re-Presenting Black Womanhood, a fully online exhibit created and curated by Bennet and her classmates was created and made publicly available through the Winterthur website. I urge all readers of this article to read through the students’ incredible work on this project.
Just as there is research being done inwardly on the Winterthur collection, so too is research being done using the Winterthur collections to look outwardly on a larger picture of material culture. I had the pleasure of speaking with Molly Mapstone, another American Material Culture student in the class of 2021. Mapstone uses the library at Winterthur almost every day, studying that which is “less tangible” about the collections: the ways in which materials inform creation and how contemporary artists pull from historical forms. Her research topic? Glitter. More specifically, “the circulation of glitter through a variety of communities and people.” It is a subject I would not have expected to be tied with Winterthur, but one that fits so well among the glistening, gleaming, glittering rooms of the mansion. As Mapstone said to me, “material culture is vast,” and it seems Winterthur is a font of inspiration for those attempting to grasp just how vast it is.
What a perfect note to end on, no? If you are looking for a casual day out, or a personalized tour of a magnificent house; If you are looking for a place to find a moment of peace, or a jolt of inspiration; Winterthur is the place to go. A historic estate with an eye on the future, Winterthur House and Gardens has a charm and complexity that will leave you looking forward to your next visit.
The Garden and Estate are open Tuesday-Sunday, 10:00am to 5:00pm.
Self-guided tours of the fifth floor are available Tuesday-Sunday, 11:00am to 2:00pm.
General Admission prices are as follows:
Senior (62+): $18
Student: $18 (12 and older; valid ID required for college students)
Child (2-11): $6
Infant (under 2) get free admission
Please remember to bring a mask and keep social-distancing measures in mind.
You can find Winterthur online at winterthur.org and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at @winterthurmuse.
I would like to thank Mark Nardone for his help on this article, all the staff of Winterthur for making my March 10th visit a safe and enjoyable experience, and Molly Mapstone for speaking with me about her research.
Goodreads. “William Robinson (Author).” Accessed March 10, 2021. https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4095923.William_Robinson
Wees, Beth Carver. “Paul Revere, Jr.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Published on metmuseum.org October 2003. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/rvre/hd_rvre.htm
Winterthur. “About Winterthur.” Accessed March 10, 2021. https://www.winterthur.org/visit/about-winterthur/
Winterthur. “History of Winterthur.” About Winterthur. Accessed March 10, 2021. https://www.winterthur.org/visit/about-winterthur/history-of-winterthur/
Winterthur. “Metalwork.” Museum Collection. Accessed March 10, 2021. https://www.winterthur.org/collections/museum/metalwork/
Winterthur Program in American Material Culture Class of 2021. Re-presenting Black Womanhood. Accessed March 10, 2021. https://preview.shorthand.com/iFpyk3nZ8hVNosFv
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Caitlin Wright (she/her) is an emerging museum professional in the Washington D.C. area. Her background is in Art History and Archaeology and she is currently completing a master’s degree in Museum Studies at the George Washington University. When she isn’t studying museum history, French 18th century art, or writing papers on any number of topics, she is likely reading a book with a cup of coffee and a cat on her lap.