Beyond the House at Winterthur

One of the first things we noticed at the special exhibit of Downton Abbey costumes at the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, was that there were a large number of visitors in costume.  At first I wondered if they were a reenactment group that the museum had hired to provide ambiance.  No, they were all busy taking photographs and behaving like tourists, like the rest of us.  A local chapter of the Edwardian Society having a day out, then?  No.  A brief conversation with one of them revealed that they were just a group of friends who had decided that it would be fun to dress in costume to see the exhibit.

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Winterthur is a du Pont family estate turned American decorative arts museum.  A lobby with a visitor information desk connects the house (described in the previous post) with a contemporary museum gallery wing.

The Downton exhibit was on the second floor of the gallery and yes, all the costumes any Downton fan would recognize were there: Edith’s wedding dress, Sybil’s harem pants, Mary and Matthew’s evening clothes from their engagement scene.  And the best part of the exhibit was that the costumes were not behind glass.  We could get close and see each intricate detail.

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On the first floor of the gallery wing is a small collection of objects that couldn’t be accommodated, I’m guessing, in the house – – a massive iron gate originally at the entrance to the Winterthur gate house, clothing, quilts, Staffordshire china figurines. The museum owns over 90,000 objects and continues to acquire more from various sources.

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After we finished with the museum, we took our time wandering the grounds.  Henry du Pont, founder of the museum, wasn’t just an uber-rich guy dabbling in art and flowers.  He had a horticulture degree from Harvard and had served as his father’s farm manager before he inherited the property.  In its heyday, Winterthur was a 2500 acre dairy farm, famous for its prize-winning Holstein-Friesian cattle.  It’s now down to 979 acres, much of it open to the public.  The cultivated part of the property isn’t that very large, however, so I’d recommend skipping the trolley transport and, if you’re able, walking the grounds instead.  There are formal gardens close to the house, a nursery-rhyme themed children’s garden with thatched cottages, and lots and lots of azaleas, peonies, and magnolia.

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We’d gotten to Winterthur as they opened at 10.  By the time we were through with the house tour and the Downton Abbey exhibit, it was after noon and we were ravenous. There’s a large cafeteria at the main visitor center, next to the public parking lot, but a volunteer in the museum suggested that we try the small cafe at the back of the museum shop.  It’s in a picturesque stone building directly in front of the museum’s main entrance and had once housed the du Ponts, after they gave the mansion completely over to the museum.  There was a long line at the cafe (which serves premade sandwiches, salads and baked goods cafeteria style) but it went fairly quickly.

Winterthur allows picnics on its grounds so the next time, I’m bringing (or buying from one of the markets that line Kennett Pike, the road leading to Winterthur) food.  Then I’m spreading out a picnic amidst the oaks and making like a du Pont for an hour.


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8 Responses to Beyond the House at Winterthur

  1. I had never heard of this Museum; sounds like a really neat place to visit!

    • The house itself is amazing, and contains a really spectacular collection of American decorative art. And then the grounds in spring is worth a visit for itself. I live less than two hours away and I admit that I hadn’t been there in 20 years. Will make more of an effort to be a regular from now on, though.

  2. I like the dressing up to visit idea! I am going to Fountains abbey in Yorkshire this weekend, perhaps I should go as a monk?

  3. Map of Time says:

    Oh my gosh, I think I recognize someone in that group. Must dash off to ask her if it is her!

  4. Love that lost photo of the shrubs (azaleas?) and their reflection in the water.

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