“Downsizing” to a 50-Room Cottage and Decorating the White House for Jackie


Place: Winterthur Museum Gift Shop

Location: Wilmington, DE

Notes: Henry Francis du Pont inherited his money from his father (who was a respected Senator and a U.S. Civil War hero). Henry never worked for the company, he lived on family money and stumbled into his passion for collecting antiques; which he did in his 175-room home. Yes you read that right. 175. Some of the rooms are just pieces of preserved history, for viewing only and never to be “lived” in.

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Now I’m doing this a bit backwards as I should be showing you Henry’s original house first (Winterthur articles are on this site but are missing a few photos and a decent write up – they are upcoming). Once Henry moved out of his 175 room home in October of 1951 to turn it into a museum, he moved into his “downsized cottage” on the property. When you’re that rich this means 50 rooms on several levels in a Regency Revival mansion 300 feet away from your new museum. The Cottage is much more homey and warm than the grand mansion but still extremely elegant.

These days the museum uses The Cottage as its gift shop and cafe. And nearly everyone seems to wander through it without realizing its history or giving it a second thought. For me it’s like a piece of the museum that they let you touch! The museum drops clever little hints for the many people who miss the entrance plaque about The Cottage’s history (all of the picture frames for sale have the stock background photos replaced with photos of the du Pont family).

So I brought my camera in for some sneaky shots 😉 It was a bit hard to maneuver around all the wares for sale, the rooms are understandably not set up as they once were, but you can imagine!

winterthur-cottage-gift-shop-henry-francis-dupont-010 winterthur-cottage-gift-shop-henry-francis-dupont-011They keep photos of Henry at The Cottage in the frames for sale, my favorite detail!winterthur-cottage-gift-shop-henry-francis-dupont-009

History: The Cottage is named more for the original site of the Winterthur farmhouse, than Henry thinking his 50-room home was an actual cottage. Though you’d forgive him for thinking that if he did considering the scale of his first house. Downsizing by more than 100 rooms was the start of a museum and in a way a little bit of a retirement but that did not stop the elaborate and luxurious parties the du Pont’s loved to host. In the end it was all anything but retirement and their Cottage guest list included Jackie Kennedy, Prince Rainier of Monaco, Andrew Wyeth and Brooke Astor.

My favorite room in the house isn’t really a room at all but more of a small closet originally used to display china. Having never been rich I thought this was just the 1%’s way to display their pretty plates. A tour guide for the museum told me the du Ponts had enough china to serve a 10-course meal to 70 people (the du Pont’s not only lived to entertain but are from an extensive family line). But this display was not just for aesthetics.

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The display china cabinet held samples of the 20 sets of everyday china the du Ponts used at The Cottage. As a man who had meticulously planned acres and acres of flowers and woodland, Henry had freshly cut stems brought in daily from the gardens or greenhouses to the table. He then matched a set of china to the floral centerpiece and chose the linens (he had over 100 sets of placemats and matching napkins to consider). And remember, this was done even when there were no guests. Just for Henry and his wife! After all that his secretary kept a running list of “successful” combinations cross-indexed by flower type and by china pattern…I suppose everyone has to have a hobby! I think Henry would simply have passed out if I invited him over to dinner and served him some comforting Tex-Mex food on my mismatched plates. Or maybe he would have written the combination down, who knows 😉

Setting the table wasn’t the only meticulous part of Henry’s running The Cottage. Each evening before dinner, two footmen served cocktails in the drawing room. All of this, including a staff of 18, for the life of 2 people.

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Extra panels of the hand-painted wallpaper from this house and the museum are framed upstairs.

It’s funny that the museum is known as an important place to view and preserve American history because The Cottage was filled with English and European antiques, particularly French pieces from the Louis XVI period (late 1700’s). I’ve seen it argued online that Henry’s decor in the museum and his cottage comes off now a little like “new money” (think Hearst’s San Simeon). Impressive and a feast for the eyes but maybe a bit hard to imagine living in, so much stimulation it makes your eyes tired. Hey, I don’t know. It was the ’50s after all.

Everything in The Cottage was covered in patterns, decadent saturated colors and nothing left untouched. Each tiny corner of the room or curtain tie-back was a chance for detail…or another antique! To achieve the emerald lacquered walls Henry had them painted over and over and over again until “the color was so rich you could sink your arm into it.” When a former employee was asked how Henry and his wife lived he answered: “He lived like the Sun King!”

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P46-Jackie-Kennedy-HFD-Dana-Taylor1Jackie with Henry Francis and chauffeur, Dana Taylor, photo found here with more details on their working partnership.

Henry du Pont Tries to Cure Jackie Kennedy’s Francophila for the White House

In 1961, first lady Jackie Kennedy was forming her entourage to redecorate the White House. She spent the budget of $50,000 in two weeks. Only the private living spaces had been completed. You can imagine the publicity surrounding the project and now she had put herself in a tough spot. Having spent many formative years in France the First Lady’s tastes ran distinctly French. For the White House though, she wanted every piece to reflect culturally or historically on America. The redecoration was to be a form of scholarship.

Jackie turned to Henry; Winterthur had cemented his status as a great resource on American design. Plus, she was hoping she could use some pieces from his large collection on a loan basis. The people at Winterthur suggested instead a committee to help her complete the project. Henry was named chairman of the committee; a perfect choice because he wasn’t a political figure and his Winterthur connections would help them affordably borrow antique pieces Jackie had her eye on.  The curator of Winterthur, John Sweeny, was appointed by Henry to assist with the White House redecoration as well. He remembered his boss saying:

“I don’t know Mrs. Kennedy very well. Of course I have known her mother all her life, but I have a feeling that her real interest is in French things, and she does not believe that you can have a really swell house with American furniture. I wanted her to see that you can.”

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Here’s how The Cottage used to look while the du Ponts lived there, source.

In May of 1961 she flew in just for the day. First a lunch (cold stuffed eggs, asparagus, some type of bird), then a two-and-a-half-hour tour of Winterthur, an early dinner and she was back to Washington. The lengthy tour was meant to win the First Lady over to American design. A steep task considering she even used French words and phrases in place of English in her daily life.

Despite appreciating French design himself (The Cottage was decorated in it as was his home as a child), Henry often clashed with Mrs Kennedy’s French interior designer. They were able to complete most of the state rooms and ground floor when the redecoration suddenly ended with President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Still, in 1964 Henry won an award for his work on the White House. He died a few years later in 1969.

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You can see the upstairs, basement and servant quarters by visiting this blog post here, the writer was given unprecedented access!

Sources: Winterthur Library, Winterthur Museum blog, The JFK Library