Most people visit Winterthur in the Spring when the blossoms are just peeping out, but you really should go in the Fall, as the gardens are blanketed with leaves and there is a sparkle in the air. Winterthur is a iconic American mansion in the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania, and is easily reached in a morning’s drive from the Washington, DC area.
Originally an unassuming vacation home of the wealthy industrialist Henry du Pont, the home gradually became the showcase of his expansive collection of early American furniture and art.
As he added more rooms and acquired more land, du Pont built a railroad link to bring the family there from Philadelphia. This allowed the family to move there full-time just before World War I. In 1930 du Pont decided to leave the home to the public as a museum, along with his vast collections.
Winterthur became the life-long love of du Pont’s only son, Henry Francis after World War II. Although he was Harvard-educated, his interests lie in practical agriculture and gardening. So he used the 2,500 acres of the home to create a Utopian world full of rolling meadows and woodlands, known as “naturalistic gardens.” There a hundreds of rare trees planted on the grounds, some of which have been growing there for over a hundred years.
Open year round, the gardens share delights even in the winter months. Visitors can ride a tram around the farm and gardens, getting off to walk or explore areas more fully.
If you have young children with you, be sure to visit the Enchanted Wood, where the “fairies” come out to play with the children.
There are small hobbit houses to explore, and if the children step on one of several hidden areas then “fairie mist” will rise out mysteriously. You are encouraged to bring a picnic lunch to share among the fairies.
Some gardens are formal and provide areas for sitting and enjoying warm days. There is a small cafe where you can get a scone and cup of tea to take outside into the sunshine.
There are several tours available through the Mansion which highlight the vast collection of American furniture, art and handcrafts which were collected by the family. There are over 175 rooms in the Mansion, so most tours only cover a portion of the treasures.
The centerpiece of the Mansion is the Montmorenci Stair, which seems to be suspended without supports. One tour takes you into an area of the house known as “Shop Lane,” a brick street flanked by storefronts of the 18th and 19th centuries where you can go “window shopping” among the displays of English ceramics, gleaming silver, and lustrous copper cookwares. You can also visit the China Shop, filled with rare Chinese porcelains, and the End Shop, where shelves laden with bolts of cloth and utilitarian wares recall a general dry goods store from the 1800s. Plan on allowing for at least two hours per tour, and give yourself additional time for any special exhibits that are on display.
The current special exhibit is entitled “Treasures on Trial: The Art and Science of Detecting Fakes, which runs through January 7, 2018. It should be of special interest to anyone who enjoys auctions or collecting antiques.