DuPonts and Wyeths Lived Here

The Brandywine Valley gave rise to two 20th-century dynasties: one aristocratic and one artistic. Their homes can tell you stories.

WINTERTHUR

A period room inside Winterthur. Photo by Lizzie Himmel, courtesy of Winterthur Museum

It’s hard to imagine another nearby attraction rivaling Longwood Gardens in the big-spending category, but the estate of Henry Francis du Pont does just that—albeit with an obsession of a different sort. Winterthur is an imposing nine-story, 175-room house that can only be called gargantuan. (Downton Abbey comes to mind.) And it contains one of the world’s most renowned collections of American furnishings and antiquities.

I make a conscious decision on arrival to take the tram through the gardens. They’re less formal than those of Longwood but no less lovely. An antiques collector and trained horticulturalist, Henry preferred natural landscaping that blended with the hills and forest. Swaths of blue blooms (scilla and chionodoxa, our tram driver informs us) blanket the March Bank, which is blooming right on schedule.

As we reach the mansion’s grand front door, I imagine being a party guest back in the day. Four generations of du Ponts lived on this nearly 1,000-acre estate, from 1837 to 1951, until the house was opened to the public and its incumbent residents moved into the “cottage” (now the gift shop). With 90,000 objects inside, Winterthur is considered the world’s premier museum of 17th- through 19th-century American antiques and decorative arts. Much of the collection is on display in both the period rooms and the galleries.

Once inside, a guide leads us through rooms decorated to represent different historic genres, with a focus on the spaces the family used when entertaining in the 1930s and 1940s. A quick elevator ride and we’re suddenly immersed in opulence, later making our way down to an Empire-style room from 1933, all marble and gilt.

As my eyes dance from priceless object to priceless object, I have to confess that my senses are a bit overwhelmed after the relative simplicity of the Wyeth sites. Winterthur’s collections are so vast that you can even book a customized tour of, say, Chinese export porcelain or just Chippendale furniture.

Soon, the sunny gardens lure me back outside to wander and think about how we humans interpret and play with our surroundings—until it’s time to meet a friend for dinner. 

Categories: Travel