I have a renewed respect for wealthy collectors, having spent last week at Henry F. Dupont’s Winterthur Museum and Gardens which was the venue for our Traditional Building Conference April 10-11. I wish that I could have talked with Mr. Du Pont. Then it dawned on me; through his period house, his gardens and his collection of furniture, textiles, art and artifacts, he spoke to all of us at the conference. Here is what we heard.
Henry Francis du Pont ran the Dupont family farm. Having studied horticulture at Harvard in the early 1900s, he was as much a landscape designer as he was an interior decorator. When he expanded the family mansion with 175 rooms, he did so with respect for the surrounding landscape and centuries-old trees. When it came time to build a visitor center for his house/museum, he chose a design that worked well within the environment and gave beautiful views of the property from within its walls. He set up a theater for education. Walking along the paths or riding the trams that arrive every 5 minutes or so, I felt welcomed by the staff and could relax and enjoy the views.
After touring the house and seeing the reconstructed rooms for myself, I was struck by how intimate the spaces were and what a treat it was to have time to really look at great architectural detail. In one of the reception rooms, there were two magnificent secretaries- choice examples of the best of American furniture design. We were told about seasonal changes of slip covers to coincide with blooms in the garden. Du Pont wanted us to savor this site just as he had. And savor I did; despite running the educational program for the conference which means I was multi-tasking minute-by-minute, the setting gave me great energy and our topics of study did as well. I told our guests/attendees, “I have the best job in America.” They agreed.
Materials and Methods seminars about the geometry of architectural millwork at Winterthur, historic paint analysis, the chemistry and physics of ornamental metals and technological advancements in glass augmented our experiential education. We used the Winterthur house museum as a living laboratory. We sketched the fine interiors not normally open to the public and we sketched a Neoclassical folly in a farm field. Non-sketchers explored the early spring gardens with cherry blossoms, magnolia, daffodils and forsythia. Thank you, Mr. Du Pont, Special thanks to the gracious staff at Winterthur!
I wonder if the new generation of international billionaires are as generous as Henry Francis DuPont? My answer came less than a week after our Traditional Building Conference at Winterthur as I watched in horror the breaking news about Notre-Dame in flames. My heart sunk like so many others. But a day later I learned that two French families pledged over $300 Million dollars to rebuild Notre-Dame. The next day nearly $1 Billion had been raised to restore the church.
Yes, beauty does inspire generosity. Thank you, Mr. Du Pont, and thank you to all the other wealthy families who are protecting the world’s cultural patrimony, for all of us.