Wilmington, Del. — Though over the years I've made many trips between Washington and New York or Philadelphia, I had always by-passed the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum , located in the Brandywine Valley, just north of Wilmington. What I missed: two centuries of American Chippendale, Queen Anne, Federal, Empire, and Pennsylvania German furnishings - you name it - displayed in almost 200 room settings in what was once a du Pont family country estate.
A selection from over 50,000 objects made or used in America between 1640 and 1840 - almost all personally collected by Henry Francis du Pont - await the visitor, who can indulge in total submersion in Pennsylvania red ware, court cupboards, japanned high chests, Chippendale ''hairy paw'' chairs, Chinese export porcelain, and other exotic delights.
Winterthur's beginnings go back to the early 19th century. Its original builder was James Antoine Bidermann, who, armed with letters of introduction from the Marquis de Lafayette, emigrated from France to the United States in 1814. His father, a distinguished Paris banker, had already established links to the Brandywine Valley, having invested in the black powder mills founded in 1802 by another emigre, Eleuthere Irenee du Pont de Nemours.
In 1816 Bidermann married du Pont's daughter, Evelina Gabrielle. Though the Bidermanns remained in the Brandywine Valley and for more than 20 years lived close to the du Pont powder mills, it wasn't until 1837 that Bidermann purchased land from the du Ponts and established his own estate. In a moment of nostalgia for his European roots, Bidermann named his estate Winterthur, after the Swiss town near Zurich where his Bidermann ancestors had once lived.
Today, both the Winterthur Museum and the du Pont black powder works - in operation until 1921 and now known as the Hagley Museum - are open to the public - one to exhibit the personal furnishings and tastes of two centuries of Americans, the other to demonstrate techniques and styles of 19th-century American industry.
After Bidermann's death, his son - an emigre in reverse, living in France - inherited Winterthur but quickly sold the estate to his mother's brother, Henry du Pont, grandfather of Henry Francis du Pont, Americana collector extraordinaire. In 1951 the du Pont family made a graceful exit from Winterthur as residence, and, in the same year, the house and collections were opened to the public as the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum.
I began my exploring with the museum's American Sampler Tour, a guided tour that - unlike some Winterthur tours - does not require advance reservations. In the Washington Wing, a modern addition to the house built specially for the Sampler Tour and for offices and a photo lab, there are 22 ''rooms, halls, passages, and parlors'' arranged to give visitors a sense of historical continuity as they travel through a New England kitchen, the Queen Anne Bedroom, and the Windsor ''tavern'' and alcove with 17th- to 19th-century eating utensils , the Empire Hall.
My vivacious and attractive guide was Anne Wolfe, who - Winterthur-style - did far more than deliver a formal monologue of names, dates, and styles. Ask Anne Wolfe about the high chest in the William and Mary Parlor with its painted oriental motifs and you'll get a mini-lecture in the technique of japanning, whereby Americans and Europeans imitated the exquisite lacquerwork of the Orient. As the Rhus verniciflua tree, whose sap is the source for raw lacquer, could not be found in the West, craftsmen painted red over black to simulate the look of tortoise shell, used gesso to build up in relief an array of exotic pagodas, lions, and cranes, and then applied gold leaf, lamp black, and varnish.
Winterthur, as Anne Wolfe says, is a ''collection of collections,'' gathered from all over the country and the world. Like many a collector of his time, Henry Francis du Pont began his collecting with European antiques until, in the early 1920s, he suddenly became interested in American hooked rugs, the English spatterware so popular with Pennsylvania Germans, and Windsor chairs. It was a time when collecting Americana and being scholarly about it was hardly the rage, though among du Pont's collector friends were the likes of Electra Webb, for instance, whose collection eventually formed the basis for the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt.
By the 1930s, du Pont's collection of Pennsylvania German objects was renowned among other collectors. Once, in Versailles, he stumbled upon an 18 th-century Chinese wallpaper - a splendid pictorial depicting without a single repetition life within a Chinese village - and brought it back to Winterthur. At this point he realized that Pennsylvania German painted furniture and Chinese wallpaper did not match. Launching into the acquisition of American Chippendale, du Pont developed what became one of the mainstays of the Winterthur Museum. Today you may visit the Chinese Parlor in the main museum (on reserved tours) and see both the splendid wallcovering in its specially designed room and Chinese-influenced Chippendale furniture from the five cultural centers of the Chippendale period (1760-1790): Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston.
Henry Francis du Pont was a collector on a grand scale. In numerous instances he extracted entire walls, paneling, ceilings, staircases, and doors to preserve what might otherwise have been torn down or worn down by the elements or misuse.
Reserved tours in the main museum are given daily except during the special ''Winterthur in Spring'' or ''Yuletide at Winterthur'' programs. Youngsters - more than welcome in the Washington Wing - must wait to age 12 to meander among the priceless treasures of the main museum. If you want an intense course in Queen Anne-style furniture, on floor coverings - hooked rugs, English loomed carpets or the painted floorcloths again in style - or on American textiles such as coverlets, samplers, bed rugs, or quilts - just ask for a ''special subject'' tour. All senior guides know the museum inside and out, and many are ''guide specialists'' who may have made your obsession their own as well.
If you can manage two tours in the main museum, you can see just about all there is to see. I recommend making it a two-day project. A morning at Winterthur can be followed by an afternoon ''down South'' at Winterthur's other half - Winterthur at Odessa.
Odessa is a sleepy village south of Wilmington on US 13. As a busy 19 th-century port town - with access to the Delaware River - it was known as Cantwell's Bridge until ambitious residents changed its name to Odessa, after the Russian port city. Today, Odessa's broad Main Street seems an anomaly.
Winterthur at Odessa consists of two 18th-century houses and the 19th-century Brick Hotel - the latter closed for the moment but housing the Sewell C. Biggs collection of American paintings, furniture, and silver. Winterthur's buildings - the Corbit-Sharp House, the Wilson-Warner House, and the Brick Hotel - are only three of the many historic structures in Odessa, but the others are rarely opened to the public.
At the Wilson-Warner House, beyond the side-yard sycamores planted in the 1770s, things are a little out of the ordinary this year, the usual furnishings having been stored to make way for ''Cabinets and Coffins'' - an exhibit highlighting the work of the Janvier family, 18th- and 19th-century Odessa cabinetmakers whose own family home is a few doors down Main Street.
Odessa is a radical step aside from the bustling activity at the main Winterthur museum. And it is well worth the trip for the change of pace.
Sometime soon, instead of gazing wonderingly at that dot on the map called Wilmington, get yourself off I-95, reserve a room at the Hotel du Pont, and indulge in a day of luxury and history. Practical details
Winterthur is open from 10 to 4, Tuesday through Saturday; and from 12 to 4 on Sunday; it is closed on Mondays. The museum's ''Winterthur in Spring'' program will be offered through June 5, so there will be non-reserved tours only until then. The spring tour includes the garden, 16 rooms on the reserved tours in the main museum, and the American Sampler tour. The whole tour costs $7 and takes one day. Lunch in the gallery snack bar is recommended.
Reserved tours start June 7. While the non-reserved tours are do-it-yourself walk-through tours, on a reserved tour you have a personal guide. Reserved tours are also more expensive ($8.50 per person per tour) and encompass a much larger area. There are two reserved tours, which between them take in the whole museum; you could do one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
The hours at Winterthur in Odessa are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., the days are the same. The price is $3 per adult per house, $2.25 for senior citizens and students over 12.
Hotel du Pont offers double rooms for $95.50 to $105, and a special weekend rate for $64.50.
Modern collectors may be interested in Winterthur's new Reproductions Program. More than 200 selections from Winterthur's furniture, textiles, silver, porcelain, wall coverings, etc., will be duplicated and marketed - not only in the Reproduction Gallery at Winterthur but in stores throughout the country.