Tuesday, March 25, 2014

BIG OLD HOUSES: It's pronounced "winter-Tour"

BIG OLD HOUSES: It's pronounced "winter-Tour"
by John Foreman


The name of this place falls into an oddly foxy category. Like "Alma-Tadema" or "imprimatur" I have mangled it for years. Its stewards today are quite forgiving, even to their own employees, many of whom haven't really got it right. Winterthur, the Wilmington, Delaware mega-mansion built (well, really rebuilt) for Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969), is pronounced like "Summer vacation" if you follow my analogy.

Although it's been enlarged over its 63-year career as a museum, 80% of what you see in these images was completed in 1931 as a private residence for Mr. du Pont, his wife Ruth Wales, their daughters Pauline and Ruth Ellen and 29 servants. Winterthur, at least to yours truly, is just as interesting as the famous collection of Americana that is displayed within it.
Incorporated within the western facade in the image above, lurking behind the two-story columned conservatory, is the ghost of a 12-room Greek Revival country house built by Antoine Bidermann and his wife Evalina du Pont. "Ghost" is a literal description. The shape of the old house may persist but every vestige of its original architecture has been replaced. Mr. Bidermann bought the land in 1834 from the estate of his wife's late father, gun powder king Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, then started on the house 5 years later. If I were to name a house after my ancestral village, I'd just have to call it New York. Antoine Bidermann named his house Winterthur, commemorating an undoubtedly more authentic ancestral village in Switzerland. (P.S. 'Preserved in Amber,' recorded here on 10.22.13, records my visit to father-in-law du Pont's house, now called Hagley).
After Evalina Bidermann's death in 1866, her son sold Winterthur to his uncle, Henry du Pont, who didn't live there, but continued to operate the farm and rented out the house. In 1876 he made a present of it to his newly married son, Civil War Colonel and future Delaware Senator Henry Algernon du Pont (1838-1926). In 1884 it got a high hipped roof with faintly frenchified dormers.
By 1904 Winterthur had been mansionized — fetchingy, I think — to the designs of the Philadephia firm of Elliston Perot Bissell (whose first wife was a du Pont) and his cousin, Robeson B. Perot. In 1902, with the alteration well underway, the senator's wife Pauline du Pont suddenly, prematurely (she was only 53) and rather mysteriously died. The senator and his 22-year-old son, Henry Francis (a.k.a. Harry), saw the house project through to the end, not that there was much else they could do. Fourteen years later, upon his 1916 marriage to Ruth Wales, Harry du Pont brought her home to Wilmington, where they shared the house with his widowed (and famously difficult) father. By the early 1920s the young Harry du Ponts had houses in Southampton, Boca Grande and Park Avenue, but Harry's center of gravity was, and always would be, Winterthur.
Now enter Albert Ely Ives (1898-1966), a devilishly good looking architect who, among other commissions, built a house in Boca Grande for Harry's cousin, Isabella du Pont and her husband H. Rodney Sharp. Everybody had a crush on Ives, with the notable exception of available du Pont daughters.

Albert Ely Ives.
Fleeing bursting Florida land bubbles, Ives landed on his feet in Wilmington, where he made stylish alterations to the Sharps' local manse, called Gibraltar. He also got a contract from Pierre du Pont to build a house for Bessie Gardner du Pont, whose vindictive former husband Alfred had demolished his ex-wife's house on a week's notice.

That, however, is a story for another time. In 1926, Senator du Pont died and left Winterthur to Harry, which, together with the spate of du Pont family commissions, was "Kismet" for Ely Ives.

Ives had a distinguished CV, working at various times in the '20s for Theodate Riddle, Carrere and Hastings, Trainor and Fatio, even Addison Mizner. His enlargement of Winterthur, designed in 1927 and built between 1929 and 1931, included virtual demolition of the existing house. Winterthur's new steel innards look to be surrounded by some of the original fabric, but not much.
Besides rebuilding what was already there, Ives added an enormous wing. The engaged columns seen on the extreme left of the second floor on the elevation below were originally part of an open porch on the back of the older house. "He was always sniffing around my sisters looking for a wife to put him on easy street," Irénée du Pont observed to Winterthur historian Maggie Lidz. "Well-dressed, smooth, pushy, 'Don't Burt Ives me' became part of the family lexicon. He would highly approve of you giving a lecture about him."
The rooms in my house have names as well (at least, some do), but nothing like this. There were 74 telephone extensions at Winterthur.

Here's the house today as seen from the south. The shape of the older portion is readily discernible on the left. If you look closely, you'll see the aforementioned back porch, now subsumed by the Ives addition of 1931. On the far right is a museum office wing built in 1957.
Here it is from the north, seen from across a divine swimming pool, which would be more divine if the museum hadn't painted it black and pretended it was a pond. du Pont was as engaged in the development of his gardens and grounds as he was with his house, and involved himself intensely — his MO in everything he did — with both Marian Coffin and Ely Ives.
The service courtyard (the kitchen was 4 floors up, accessible by elevator) was located at the eastern end of the building. It's been replaced by new museum construction. In the image below, exhibition space occupies a 1992 addition on the left; the museum entrance is inside the glazed pavilion in the middle; on the other side of the pavilion is the 1957 office wing, distinguishable by its roofline from the earlier Ives addition; the low Crowninshield Library and Conservation Building on the right, built in 1969, plays a valuable preservation role but no aesthetic role whatsoever.
Visitors to the museum enter the building on the south side of the entrance pavilion, seen below. The bus shuttles back and forth from parking fields. It's hard to imagine a house as big as Winterthur being obscured by anything, but from this vantage point, you can't see it at all.
I like to think of myself as a front door kind of a guy, so let's forget the museum entrance and imagine ourselves entering as guests. Ives' 1931 addition, as Winterthur Historian Maggie Lidz describes it, is an "idealized cast stone version of an 18th century house." The specific model was Port Royal, built outside Philadelphia in 1763 and demolished in 1928 — not before Harry du Pont salvaged some of its woodwork. Maggie calls Ives' front door a "jazz-age riff" on Port Royal's original, which is true, although putting it that way might confer more aesthetic virtue than is warranted. The disconcerting stare of Winterthur's facades is partly a function of sun-blocking plastic membranes that obscure the 12 over 12 windows. Removal of these is planned for the near future.
Here is the master of the house, Henry Francis (Harry) du Pont, painted in 1914 by Ellen Emmet Rand. When the senator died in 1926, Harry inherited not just the house but a huge block of DuPont company stock. The shares were worth $177 apiece in 1926, $322 in 1927, and $500 each by 1928. During the '20s, E.I. du Pont de Nemours had metamorphosed from a manufacturer of gunpowder into an immensely profitable chemical company. It made the already prosperous du Ponts hugely rich, and allowed Harry in particular to pursue his passionate collecting of Americana with no financial restraints. Winterthur was a museum from the beginning, albeit a private one, its salons and hallways, guestrooms and dining room, drawing room and library all "historicized" with priceless antique art and furniture.
Mrs. du Pont, nee Ruth Wales (1889-1967), seen below at the time of her wedding in 1916, moved with her family into the new Winterthur in April of 1931. Over the next 3 months she and Harry entertained 113 overnight guests, while the world outside slid inexorably into Depression. Harry was a micro-manager, focusing on everything from guest lists to seating charts to flower arrangements to table settings. His wife was a contented passenger.
What could better complete this apotheosis of American aristocracy than two beautiful debutante daughters, Pauline (the future Mrs. Alfred C. Harrison) and Ruth Ellen (who married George deForest Lord Jr.). 835 guests attended Pauline's wedding breakfast at Winterthur in 1938.
If we'd walked through the door to Winterthur in the 1930s, the Port Royal Hall, as it's called, would have looked like this.
Today it looks like this.
Winterthur is a labyrinth and even I, who never gets lost in big houses, am not entirely sure how many levels it actually has. So many antiques, so much glitter, so many hallways and so many levels. Maggie and I started our tour turning right out of the Port Royal Hall into the Port Royal Parlor. Funny, isn't it; you can leave all the family's furniture behind, but if the family's gone the room just does't look lived in. There are 50 fireplaces (non-working these days), 175 display rooms (with names like Nemours, Patuxent, Empire, Hart, Essex, etc.), two elevators and a trunk lift. There used to be a badminton and a squash court, plus a bowling alley, billiard room and a movie theatre too, all of which have been converted into display rooms. One thing there isn't, is a single surviving vintage bathroom — out of an original 39. Not surprisingly, the kitchen and pantries are all gone too.
East of the Parlor is the Hall of Statues, seen below in the '30s and today. From there we circled through the Blackwell Parlor (with the nifty fireplace detail), crossed the Port Royal Hall to the Readbourne Parlor, and took a surprisingly intimate stair up two landings to the second floor.
The view below looks west down the long axis of the house, from the top of the stairs towards what used to be Bissell and Perot's front door and porte cochere. I couldn't possibly photograph every room in this place; you'd expire from antique overload. Besides, I didn't bring breadcrumbs and am not even certain, despite Maggie's indefatigable helpfulness, that I saw everything. The highlight en route to the old front door is the Chinese Parlor.
The vintage view below shows Bissell and Perot's Edwardian entrance hall of 1904, complete with grand marble stair and classical columns. The door leads out to the porte cochere.
The views below show the same floor space, now called the Montmorenci Stair Hall, as reinterpreted by Ive's 18th century "jazz-age riff." The door to the porte cochere now leads to a double height glazed conservatory, presided over by marble busts of family founder Pierre Samuel du Pont (1739-1817) and his wife Nicole Charlotte Marie Louise. Born the son of a commoner, the clever du Pont became an intimate at court, and was ultimately ennobled by Louis XVI in 1784, rather late given events at the time. He and his family emigrated — or perhaps escaped — to America in 1800, and went into the gunpowder business.
On the south wall of the Montmorenci Hall is the door to Bissell and Perot's old drawing room, elegantly colonialized and reborn as the Marlboro Room.
Let's wander east to the dining room and be dazzled by treasures in every direction.
Alas, no more pantries and kitchen; just more treasures.
Outside the dining room is a grand double height porch overlooking lawn terraces, stone stairs and Mrs. Coffin's elegant swimming pool complex.
And then rooms, and more rooms, and more gorgeous American antiques. Conversion from private house to museum resulted in some family areas being converted to exhibition space. However, the "museum gestalt" was here from the start.
We're taking the stairs from 2 to 4, skipping guestrooms on 3 for the moment, going instead direct to the family bedrooms on 4.
The view below looks east down the axis of the 4th floor. The stair is beyond the arch on the left; Mr. du Pont's suite — bedroom, study and bath (the latter now an exhibition room) is behind the wall on the left; his private elevator is ahead on the right beyond the first arch.
It's probably time, since we're now in Mr. du Pont's private study, to talk about the dark cloud that descended upon the enchanted world of Winterthur as the Depression deepened. Harry didn't pay for his house in cash. Instead he borrowed almost $9 million from Bankers Trust in New York and an outfit called Laird, Bissell & Meeds in Delaware, then collateralized the loans with DuPont stock. This meant one thing in 1928, when each share was worth $500, but something quite different at the end of 1929, when the share value had dropped to $116.50. By the end of 1931, DuPont shares were trading for under $54; by April of 1932, a year after moving into Winterthur, they were down to $37.50. Harry's lenders threatened foreclosure unless he came up with additional capital. Lammot du Pont, president of the family firm and Harry's cousin, saved his bacon, temporarily anyway, with a $2 million loan. In 1936, Harry and family closed their 4 houses, let most of their staff go, and took a 6-month world cruise which, for them anyway, was a major money saver. Clearly things improved, since by 1938 they were back in town giving a wedding breakfast for 835 people which, you can be sure, was but a fraction of the total cost of daughter Pauline's marriage.
Mr. du Pont's study opens onto a terrace located above the Dining Room Porch.
On the other side of the hall were the du Pont daughters' rooms ...
... and down at the western end of the building, in the original (or what's left of it) house, is their mother's suite, located two stories above the Marlboro Room.
The Montmorenci Stair, which replaced Bissell and Perot's marble number, is off the beaten path in Ives' version of Winterthur. Actually there might not be any beaten paths in this tractless and convoluted mansion. The green upholstered bench is on the 2nd floor; Maggie and I are still on 3, ready to inspect more period rooms. Harry might photograph a room in its original condition, restore and install it at Winterthur and, if he were able, track down the original furniture.
29 servants' rooms were distributed along tiled corridors on 5.
Now we're back on 2, looking at guestrooms and more guestrooms, not all of which are furnished any longer as bedrooms.
Winterthur's library, located on the 2nd floor beyond the Montmorenci stairs, contains 87,000 volumes and half a million manuscripts and images, not all of which are in this room.
Can we leave with visiting the basement flower room? That would be a no.
How about the badminton court, decorated originally with antique American eagles, then redecorated in 1948, on the occasion of a visit by the Walpole Society, with 4 entire 18th century New England house facades.
Did the museum construct this Hello Dolly (well, maybe earlier than Dolly) American streetscape, and stock the shops with authentic antique merchandise? No, Harry did.
The gatehouse on Kennett Pike was the ceremonial entrance to the 2500-acre du Pont estate.
It's still there, although the estate now covers 982 acres and museum visitors use a more highway engineered entrance at a purpose located traffic light a quarter mile north.
In 1951, Mr. & Mrs. du Pont moved from Winterthur into a cottage — if one can properly describe a 21,000 square foot Regency Revival mansion as such — located about 300 feet from the new museum entrance. Harry du Pont may have sat on boards of the DuPont company, General Motors, the New York Botanical Garden, the Whitney Museum, Cooper Union and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but Winterthur was his true life's passion. According to his daughter, Mrs. Lord, conversion of the house to a museum was his intention all along.
Almost 130,000 people visit Winterthur every year, to tour the house, do research, wander the gardens, ride (or observe) the point to point, and enjoy special exhibitions like the nifty Costumes of Downton Abbey on display as of this writing. The link is www.winterthur.org.
Vintage photos courtesy Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, and Maggie Lidz.
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