Sixty years ago, Jacqueline Kennedy, then the first lady of the United States, gave a tour of the restored White House to more than 80 million television viewers. This spring, Winterthur Museum (Wilmington) pays homage to the 60th anniversary of that restoration and the role that Winterthur’s founder, Henry Francis du Pont, played in it.
In February 1961, the month after her husband John was inaugurated, Kennedy asked du Pont—who was seen as the world’s premier collector of American period furnishings and décor—to chair the newly created White House Fine Arts Committee, which would be charged with selecting historically accurate décor. Du Pont’s appointment to chair the committee gave it legitimacy, which was important to Kennedy.
“Jackie intentionally gathered the best of the best for this committee,” says Alexandra Deutsch, Winterthur’s director of collections. “H.F. was the authority. Conversely, for him, her appointing him was validation of his accomplishment as an authority.
“What very few people realize is that Jackie should be celebrated as one of the great women preservationists who shaped many, many parts of our historical landscape,” Deutsch says. “She had a sensibility about preserving history, but people don’t think about that—they think about the glamour. She was highly intellectual. This was not a redecorating project; it was a restoration.”
The White House restoration was mutually beneficial for both du Pont and Winterthur, launching the museum onto the national stage as one of the most important collections of Americana history.
The 4,500-square-foot exhibition, titled Jacqueline Kennedy and Henry Francis du Pont: From Winterthur to the White House, runs May 7, 2022, through January 8, 2023, and has been in the works for years. “We knew how much general interest there would be in Jackie Kennedy and the potential to expand her story with Winterthur’s role,” Jeff Groff, Winterthur’s now-retired estate historian, says. “What really pulled it together was the 60th anniversary of the televised tour.”
Throughout the exhibit’s run, self-paced and guided tour offerings will be available through H.F. du Pont’s home. Visitors will have the chance to follow in Kennedy’s footsteps to see the spaces, objects and art that influenced her reimagined White House.
Visitors will also be able to walk through the exhibit as if they are participating in Kennedy’s televised tour from 1962. There will be tour footage playing, and visitors will “see” the White House’s Blue, Red and Green rooms. There will be textiles and objects, artifacts and ephemera that represent these rooms and spaces, on loan from other institutions (including the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum) and private collections. There will also be glimpses of what was done in the private spaces of the White House. Winterthur is expecting that the exhibit will draw as big a crowd as past exhibits like Costuming “The Crown” and Costumes of Downton Abbey.
At the time the White House Fine Arts Committee was formed, Kennedy was just 31 years old and du Pont, 80. The exhibition also highlights their special, somewhat unconventional relationship, showing letters and telegrams shared between the two. Kennedy wrote one particular letter following her May 1961 visit to Winterthur.
“I am sure that people much more eloquent than I could ever hope to be have tried to tell you what it means to see that incredible museum and gardens—but how could anyone ever express the impression it leaves. All I can say is I will never recover from it—or forget one tiny detail—I just can’t believe that it was possible for anyone to ever do such a thing. …I now have an ambition for our old age—for us to be gatekeepers at Winterthur! …It is marvelous that this country can produce someone like the astronaut but I think it is much more awesome to have someone like you.”
The exhibit is curated by Elaine Rice Bachmann, current Maryland state archivist and a graduate of Winterthur’s master’s program in American Material Culture. While a student at Winterthur, Bachmann wrote her thesis on the topic and later co-authored (with James Archer Abbott) the book Designing Camelot about the Kennedy White House restoration, and remains passionate about Kennedy and du Pont’s roles in setting the tone for the White House of the future.
“Mrs. Kennedy appointed the first curator of the White House, a Winterthur graduate—a role that still exists today—so furnishings and decorative objects are part of a permanent collection to be managed like a museum. She also founded the White House Historical Association. The styles that were determined for rooms and objects acquired during the restoration remain,” Bachmann explains. “Although young people today don’t have a memory of her, they recognize her as a style icon. Part of this is how she looked and dressed, but part of it is also her incredible role in the White House’s restoration.”