Winterthur Museum is the premier museum of American decorative arts and is an easy and worthwhile day trip year-round for people living in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Originally a 60-acre mansion and estate of the Dupont family located within a 1,000 acre preserve of rolling meadows and woodlands, Winterthur (named after the Swiss town of the same name) was transformed into a museum of more than 90,000 objects (furniture, ceramics, etc…) made or used in America between 1640 and 1860 by Henry Francis du Pont, who was born at Winterthur and lived there until his death in 1969. The main house contains more than 175 rooms, and there were at one time more than 90 buildings on the estate, including a farm which provided the food for the residing family, a golf course, tennis courts, multiple gardens, swimming pools, and even a pool with koi fish.
Access: The Winterthur Museum is less than an hour’s drive from Philadelphia, one hour from Baltimore, an easy two-hour drive from Washington DC, and only slightly more from New York City. It is located a few miles off the Route 52 exit (exit 7) of I-95 in Wilmington DE. There is a very large parking lot on the property, as well as a separate handicapped parking area next to the Visitors’ Center. Free trams make a continuous loop to carry visitors between the Visitors’ Center and the main mansion (museum) on the other side of a hill, although it is barely a five minute walk to make the trek by foot via a very well marked and paved walkway. Also departing from the Visitors’ Center, a separate free open-air tram provides a twenty-minute guided tour around the many gardens of the property at regular intervals.
Tours: It is important to understand that you cannot visit the Winterthur mansion unless you are part of an organized tour. I was quite unaware of that when I showed up at the Visitors’ Center. I had, of course, visited the Winterthur Museum website prior to our trip, and read about the option of reserving one of various listed tours. However, my reaction was that I would prefer to get a feel for the place first and walk around those 175 rooms before committing to any specific tour. I was quite surprised, therefore, to learn that you can only enter the mansion as part of an organized tour group. Fortunately, we were still able to sign up for a “Yuletide” tour when we purchased our entrance tickets at the Visitors’ Center. To the basic $20 Winterthur entrance fee, one must add another $2 to cover the price of the one-hour tour.
Visitors scheduled for the tour at our appointed time were divided up in groups of ten, and guided through a very precise route of approximately thirty rooms in the basement as well as on the fifth and sixth floors of the mansion.
Most of the rooms we toured on the upper floors were relatively small with low ceilings, particularly in comparison to the rooms at Biltmore and the Hearst Castle, two other famous American castles open for touring. However, every room was completely and very tastefully furnished, and exquisitely decorated for Christmas. Of particular note were the many different types of Christmas trees, from a giant twenty feet high majestic Christmas tree in the large solarium to the stunningly beautiful dried flower Christmas tree, the candy Christmas tree, and the very unique peony Christmas tree. Because this was a Yuletide tour, our guide spent most of her time talking about the Christmas decorations and what the Dupont family did at Christmas time. I would have loved to hear more about the incredible collection of furniture on display in all of those rooms (there are separate tours available which focus on the decorative arts in the mansion).
One comment our guide made about furniture related to the first major piece we saw as we began our tour, a Vermont cupboard displaying Staffordshire ceramics. Apparently it is when Henry Francis du Pont saw this pine cupboard in 1923 at the house of Electra Havemeyer Webb in Shelburne, Vermont (now the Shelburne Museum) that he was inspired to start collecting American decorative arts.
Another comment that our guide made related to the various ashtrays in the main living room. She mentioned that she had asked visiting schoolchildren what those objects were, and none of them knew that they were ashtrays, none of them even knew what an ashtray was! Times certainly have changed since I was a child.
It should be mentioned that, attached to the main mansion, is a relatively small T-shaped two-story gallery building displaying some of the objects of the collection as well as hosting current exhibitions. Access to this building is included in the basic price of the entrance ticket. The rotating exhibits in the galleries are presented attractively and in depth, and serve as an excellent prelude to touring the main building.
Clearly, there is a lot more to see at Winterthur than what we were exposed to during our one-hour tour of the mansion and our twenty minute guided ride around the gardens. Next time, we will return for a tour dedicated to the decorative arts of the main building and to see the gardens in bloom!
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