Wilmington, Del. — With its lush English garden surrounding a pseudo-French chateau capped by a Spanish tile roof, Henry Francis du Pont's 980-acre ``country farm,'' Winterthur, seems an unlikely home for the foremost collection of American furniture and decorative arts anywhere. But the nearly 200 furnished rooms in this huge stuccoed estate sweep across two centuries of home furnishings - from about 1640 to 1840, a period of outstanding American craftsmanship and creativity. Everything from the clean, ascetic style of the Shakers to the warm, sumptuous Queen Anne period is represented.
To previous generations of the family, Winterthur (whose Swiss-German name is pronounced Winter-tour) was simply a comfortable house in the country. But du Pont's impeccable taste, considerable curiosity, and meticulous attention to detail have made Winterthur the American historic home of taste and style.
Long before Americans were encouraged to ``look for the Union label,'' Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969) was gathering those things exclusively ``Made in America.'' The exceptions - Oriental rugs, brasses, porcelain, some silver, and chandeliers - were the appointments traditionally imported or simply not yet available in the New World.
As a youngster, du Pont spent an idyllic childhood romping through the vast acres of Winterthur, collecting birds' eggs and nests, as well as various mineral specimens, and developing the family's deep passion for gardening.
After marrying and living away for a time, he and his wife, Ruth, and two daughters returned here after du Pont inherited the ``farm.'' Though as a young man he loved the virgin forests and carefully planned gardens that surround the Great House, he didn't share the family's taste in furniture. He ``heartily disliked'' the dark Empire-style veneered mahogany he grew up with.
Later he declared, ``I decided we would not have a piece of it....'' Instead, he searched beyond the walls of Winterthur for fine period pieces.
Unlike many of his wealthy contemporaries, he had little interest in sports, and chose instead to devote much time to collecting furniture and art. Rather than spend hours on the family tennis courts trying to improve his serve, he traveled to the great homes, gardens, and museums of Europe, refining his eye and broadening his tastes.
As the collection expanded, the space on the estate that once had been devoted to recreation fell to du Pont's consuming interest. The billiard and ping pong rooms, bowling alley, and squash and badminton courts soon housed New York Chippendale chairs, Pennsylvania German cabinets, and the expertly crafted works by Duncan Phyfe, John Townsend, and John Goddard.
Crediting himself with what a noted museum curator referred to as ``being born with a `seeing eye' fit ... to pick and choose,'' du Pont noted rather immodestly, ``...it is fortunate that I seem to notice everything that is attractive and beautiful.'' Winterthur stands today as evidence.
Inside the house, hand-carved eagles soon replaced the moth-eaten stuffed birds of his childhood. Robins' nests gave way to nests of Chinese export bowls, and du Pont's love of minerals expanded to a collection of marble fireplaces.
Although du Pont had his own aesthetic leanings, he became increasingly concerned with regional and historical accuracy, and more selective in his acquisitions, as well as with whom he discussed them.
As the hobby grew, so too did Winterthur. A huge wing, added in the late 1920s, tripled the size of the already enormous home. Soon friends, relatives, and strangers began contributing their treasured heirlooms. One ecstatic donor went so far as to suggest that giving an object to Winterthur ``was like having it go to Heaven.''
Regardless of what was offered, du Pont decided carefully what pieces to accept, and which brass candle snuffer would rest on which William and Mary table.
A wide-eyed reporter once asked him who his agent was. ``You're looking at him,'' answered du Pont.
In the evolution from home to museum, two pieces of American furniture are considered pivotal to du Pont's collection. One rather modest example - a plain walnut chest from Pennsylvania, inlaid with the date 1737 - is said to be the first piece he actually bought.
The other piece caught his fancy early on. During a trip to New England, he became ``fascinated by the colors of a pine dresser filled with pink Staffordshire plates.'' This cupboard, in the home of Mrs. J. Watson Webb of Shelburne, Vt., along with its pink plates, was not to be his until years later, after Mrs. Webb's death. Fortunately, patience was one of du Pont's virtues. These two pieces are now among the items on view.
And du Pont didn't just gather furniture and push it against any available wall at random. Whole rooms of handpainted wall coverings, carved wooden paneling and moldings, floors, even plaster ceilings - from places ranging from early New England homes to Georgia plantations - were carefully removed and reconstructed here to give a sympathetic look to objects within a room. ``Sometimes you have to buy the whole house to get what you want,'' du Pont once ranted.
Settings of Chinese export porcelain are elegantly placed on dining tables as if ready for use, or perched in lofty open cabinets. Some pieces are exquisitely decorated with flowers and bucolic scenes; others are amusingly mismarked. One set of export dinnerware shows the American Founding Fathers with distinctly Oriental features. Another, emblazoned with the American eagle, was supposed to display the motto ``E pluribus unum.'' It came back, ``e rlupib umum.''
Nothing, though, was quite as embarrassing as the set a British family ordered with their family motto, ``Think and Thank''; we may be amused, but certainly they were not, when it came from China marked ``Stink and Stank.''
For all the staggering number of formal parlors, dining and bedrooms, sitting rooms and kitchens, Winterthur is quite easy to absorb. Most rooms are relatively small and cheerfully bright. All are inviting. This is partly due to the way rooms and appointments are presented. You're not likely to suffer from ``museum syndrome,'' as nothing is viewed ``under glass.'' Each room opens like a three-dimensional, Technicolor, stereoscopic picture of the past. There's a feeling, as you enter a room, that family and guests of the period have heard your footsteps and quietly adjourned to the next room.
This is no mere coincidence. Each room was put together, with du Pont's keen interest, in a harmonious flow. His close attention to detail is evident. When he decided where something should go, the spot was marked with a tack, and the piece stayed there. His terms were explicit: ``It has taken many years of careful planning to place the furniture, rugs, pictures, mirrors, and all small objects in exactly the places they are now. ... I wish them to remain precisely as I have placed them, and on no condition do I want the arrangement to be changed by even an inch.''
Thirty rooms here are now ``frozen'' to du Pont's expressed wishes.
Yet, each perfectly appointed room embraces you as you enter. No one piece of furniture, no matter how monumental in size, needlessly attracts or dominates. Every object fits like the piece of a puzzle in one large historical panorama, leaving the impression that, although nothing stands out, a gaping hole would be left if any one thing were removed. Here again is du Pont's attention to detail. He explained, ``It's one of my first principles that if you go into a room ... and right away see something, then you must realize that it shouldn't be in the room.''
Du Pont was particular, too, about the way Winterthur was presented to visitors. He could strike more than a little fear in a guide by slipping in with a tour unannounced. He admonished guides not to ``talk too much, except in reply to questions that may be asked.'' He preferred that there be no set talks about any one room.
Today a visitor shouldn't come here thinking to escape a sense of national pride. Every piece of Americana - from the large spreading wooden eagle in the conservatory with its outstretched wings spanning 15 feet, to the small, delicately inlaid ones topping the legs of a Federal dining table, and the gleaming silver Paul Revere tankards, or the Copley paintings, and the heroic etchings of Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson - all convey a sense of patriotism which leave few persons unmoved. If you go
Tours are given Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays, 12 noon to 4 p.m. Closed Mondays and holidays.
General admission is $8 for adults, $6.50 for senior citizens, students, and groups numbering over 25.
Winterthur Museum and Gardens is located 6 miles northwest of Wilmington, Del., on Route 52.
For details contact the Winterthur ticket and information office, (302) 654-1548 or write Winterthur Museum and Gardens, Winterthur, Del. 19735.