America’s ultra-special Winterthur Estate with a museum, garden, and library is in a state nicknamed the First State, Small Wonder, and the Diamond State. It’s Delaware! The first of our 13 colonies to ratify the Constitution and our second smallest state but so photo-worthy. Virginian Thomas Jefferson called it the jewel of the Eastern Seaboard.
I planned to leave anything that hinted at politics out of this photo-blog, but ooh-la-la. Who can resist the history of Winterthur’s founding family, the du Pont’s of Paris and the French Revolution, in times like these? Oh, no, not moi!
If the name Winterthur sounds a bit European, you’re right. It’s a Swiss version of Vitudurum, dating back to the Romans in the first century B.C., with ruins to prove it. Switzerland’s Winterthur is 20 minutes from Zurich, and there is a direct connection to our Winterthur in Delaware. And I’ll tell you how, but not just yet.
The Winterthur estate and museum, including two libraries, is located near Wilmington, Delaware, about an hour’s drive south from Philadelphia. In early November, plenty of trees still showed off a peaceful explosion of color. Despite COVID restrictions, Winterthur had one floor of rooms in its 175-room mansion open with docents eager to answer questions. And the landscaped grounds deserve an American ‘wow.’
If the du Pont name sounds familiar, it is. E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company is the well-known, publicly traded chemical company. Since its beginnings over 200 years ago, the headquarters is still in Delaware. In 2020, DuPont was named one of the best places to work for LBGTQ equality.
Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours emigrated to the USA from Paris, France. His name has four accents, and I’m sure it sounds beautiful, but we’ll call him E.I. The ship, with his parents and brother onboard, docked in Newport, Rhode Island, our smallest state, in 1800. They felt forced to leave France and were, in a real sense, political refugees. We sure wouldn’t have Winterthur today without them! His descendants and extended family are still wealthy, influential Americans today.
So, how did DuPont, the company, start, and why did the family leave France? Years before the French Revolution, E.I. interned for a famous chemist and gunpowder manufacturer. Later, he worked for his father’s publishing house, which also supported government reforms. But they got on the wrong side of the revolutionaries in 1782 when they helped King Louis the 16th and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, escape from the mob at the Tuileries Palace in Paris.
Today the Tuileries Palace, a 16th-century royal residence formerly next to the Louvre, is sadly gone. A fire, set by political arsonists, gutted the Renaissance palace in 1871, including parts of the Louvre and what must have been a fantastic library. The French troops also destroyed other historic buildings in a demented quest to eliminate all symbols of power.
Sturdy stone walls of the palace remained, and reconstruction would have been possible, but it was demolished in 1883. Ornate stone remains were scattered as far as Greece. Today all that’s left are some fragments and the gardens. In 2006, French officials, including the President of France, had a change of heart. They proposed rebuilding their lost “jewel of the centre of Paris,” but the price tag was hefty: $400 million. Be careful what you tear down!
So back to our du Pont saga. Since E.I. and his father, Pierre, held moderate political views and opposed the King and Queen’s guillotine execution, they got further entrenched on the wrong side of the majority. Papa Pierre was slated for the fall of the blade and execution too. But he was one of the lucky ones. The Reign of Terror suddenly ended but not before killing 17,000 of his countrymen. Not long after, Pierre and E.I. were tossed in prison while their home and printing presses were trashed. So, they sold everything and left France in 1800 for a better future in America. Pierre, E.I, and another son sailed across the Atlantic to test the American waters, and later their wives and families joined them.
In America, E.I. passed on the volatile publishing business and started manufacturing gunpowder on Delaware’s Brandywine River in 1802. Rumor has it while hunting with a friend he complained how American gunpowder was très terrible compared to back home. Eight years later, his French recipe for gunpowder must have been exploding with profits since he could afford to purchase the land, later named Winterthur.
Pierre, aka Daddy Cool Under French Revolution Fire, was no slacker either. Before leaving France, he had written economic reports that gained intellectuals’ attention, leading to a position as the Inspector General of Commerce. Pierre also helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris in Paris in 1783, which was no mean feat. This signed document forced England to formally recognize their rebellious and independent colony, the USA. King Louis XVI rewarded him with the honorary title ‘de Nemours’ in 1784.
Papa Pierre didn’t let up or kick back after arriving in his new home country either. He palled around with Thomas Jefferson and served as an informal diplomat with France during the days of Napoleon. He also suggested the Louisiana Purchase to help avoid possible battles with volatile Frenchmen, even if this meant lower gunpower sales for his son’s business. Pierre died in Greenville, Delaware, a Wilmington suburb, in 1817 at the ripe old age of 77. Greenville is still home to many duPont’s and our soon-to-be 46th president, Joe Biden.
The Winterthur estate has remained in the duPont family for 200 years. Today it’s held in trust for the museum. When E.I.’s daughter Evelina and her husband acquired the estate, they built a 12-room house in 1837. Her brother, General Henry, purchased the estate in 1867, and his son, Colonel Henry Algernon, inherited it in 1889.
Henry Algernon and his son Henry Francis, who we will call Henry, expanded and redesigned Winterthur to create a European-style country house estate. Henry was born at Winterthur in 1880 and lived here all his life. Over the years, he did a lot of renovation, increasing the number of rooms by a factor of six. He loved nature and spent much of his time in the gardens. The grounds are organized to provide colorful blooms year-round.
Initially, Henry collected European art but switched to American decorative arts, including antique furniture, silver, needlework, textiles, paintings, prints, ceramics, and glass. The term ‘decorative art’ refers to art that may be beautiful. But it’s primarily practical, like a pitcher or soup tureen. There is some overlap with ‘fine art,’ which focuses more on aesthetics.
In 1919, Henry opened his childhood home and estate to the public. Today the estate’s museum is filled with 90,000 pieces of American decorative arts, and unsurprisingly, Winterthur is one of the most extensive and important collections in the world. The art dates back to 1640, long before America was a nation. Items from other countries used in American households can be included in Americana.
In 1951, Henry turned the main building into a public museum. The rooms used by the family and to entertain guests now display his vast collection of Americana. Henry and his wife didn’t leave Winterthur but downsized into a smaller building on the estate, which is now the museum store.
Henry’s collection became so well known that First Lady Jackie Kennedy visited Winterthur to meet with him and get his advice. After arriving in the White House, she enhanced and renovated the people’s house to celebrate and not ignore American history. Henry died in 1969 and was buried at the family’s private cemetery in Greenville with E.I. and many others.
The estate includes a thousand acres of picturesque hills, woodlands, trees, streams, and meadows. In November, the changing colors were dramatic, as if Mother Nature had brought decorative art to life. The gardens are divided into smaller “rooms,” and trails bring you closer to nature. The estate changes during each of the four seasons, so it would be beautiful to see Winterthur after a snowfall.
As expected, the estate’s library, created in 1952, focuses on Americana decorative arts and architecture with 87,000 volumes and 500,000 manuscripts and images. The library is open to the public, but visits are limited to researchers who submit a request in advance. Online access is available through WinterCat. The house also has a library, but that floor wasn’t open for tours during COVID.
So, what’s the connection to Switzerland? When E.I.’s daughter Evelina and hubby Jacques Antoine Bidermannacquired the property, they built a house and named the estate Winterthur. Her husband was born in Paris, but along with other Frenchmen, avoided the dangerous Revolution by spending his teenage years at his family’s home in Winterthur, Switzerland.
Karen Stensgaard is a novelist and the author of two novels (Aquavit and Blueness), with a new one coming out in a few months. She has a family connection to DuPont, the company, but, unfortunately, hasn’t met any duPont de Nemours. Her father was an engineer at DuPont for several years in the 1960s. Unfortunately, she only has vague memories of Buckshot, the friendly German Shepherd next door who towered over her. But she might have imagined the whole thing. Buckshot sure sounds like the perfect DuPont dog!
Important Note for the Copyright Police: To enhance my traveling library blog with images, some photos are from Wikipedia. Thank you in advance for supporting my no cost, no ad blog. Wikipedia rules!