Private Possessions Become Public Art

Through their personal collections, three du Ponts created three unique museums: Winterthur, the UD Mineralogical Museum and the Delaware Museum of Natural History.

Maggie Lidz surveys the vistas of fields and flower beds that seem to blend seamlessly into the surrounding hills. “What an amazing way to use your money,” she says. Lidz is the estate historian for Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, the former home of Henry Francis du Pont, great-grandson of the DuPont Company founder.

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Du Pont—the man—had time, money and a passion for collecting, whether it was plants, furnishings, or the woodwork from old houses. And who can argue with that when the result is an institution that attracts 100,000 visitors a year? But he is not the only du Pont to have a family penchant for collecting, nor is he the only du Pont to have a museum created around his collection.

Irénée du Pont, another great grandson of the company founder, collected crystals and ores that gave the University of Delaware Mineralogical Museum its start. John du Pont, the founder’s great-great grandson, was a natural history buff whose legacy is the Delaware Museum of Natural History, across the road from Winterthur. These are the stories of the men behind the museums.

Henry Francis du Pont

When Henry Francis du Pont—Harry to his family—died in 1969, he left behind one of the world’s great gardens and a home filled with an eminent collection of American decorative arts. His horticultural accolades were many, but as a furniture collector, his celebrity was assured in 1961, when First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy chose him to head the committee advising her on redecorating the White House.

In her book “Henry F. du Pont and Winterthur, A Daughter’s Portrait,” the late Ruth Lord describes her father as having a most unpromising beginning. As a youth, he was shy, awkward, “inhibited” and, possibly, “borderline dyslexic.” Much to the disappointment of his West Point-educated father, Harry preferred piano lessons to horseback riding.

Photographs Courtesy of Winterthur

Henry Francis du Pont with daughter Pauline Louise and his wife Ruth with Ruth Ellen.

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Henry and Ruth in 1916 in the garden at Florham. 

Henry and his sister, Louise du Pont Crowninshield.

Harry’s school marks were poor, even in French, the language spoken at home. He once admitted to his father that he thought himself “stupid.” At Harvard he took the few horticultural courses offered and, following the death of his beloved mother, the young college graduate assumed management of Winterthur.

In her research, Lord counted no fewer than 150 letters to Brooks Brothers in New York, inquiring about minutiae related to the staff wardrobe. Harry du Pont applied the same attention to detail when choosing fringe for curtains or planning a dinner party. Yet in his lifetime, Lord writes, he never packed a suitcase or visited a post office. He was almost refused entry to the White House because he lacked identification. He was saved only by the monogram on his billfold.

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At its peak in the mid-1920s, the self-sufficient fiefdom of Winterthur encompassed 20 working farms, residences for a staff of more than 200 (including 12 gardeners), a golf course, tennis court, swimming pool, a railroad station and a post office on 2,500 acres. It required a network of 97 telephones for communication between buildings and rooms.

Ruth and Henry fool with friends at Longwood, owned by Henry’s cousin, Pierre du Pont.

Together, Harry and his father had expanded the house and gardens. On his own, Harry experimented with new and exotic varieties of plants, employing a wild-garden style of landscaping. He pursued scientific breeding of Holstein cattle to achieve prize stock. He boasted that the butterfat in Winterthur milk was the highest “of any breed or any age in any country through time,” and he had the records to prove it. In the county directory, his occupation was listed simply as “farmer.”

His accomplishments were a testament to his determination and desire to learn. “He was not egotistical about using experts,” Lidz says. “He sought them out, he paid for their advice, and then he took it. He was interested in learning—and learning from the best.”

Photograph by Gavin Ashworth

The Chinese Parlor in Winterthur Museum. 

On a trip to Shelburne, Vt., in 1923 to inspect a herd of Holsteins, Harry experienced what museum administrator Tom Savage calls “a Saul-to-Paul conversion.” He was struck by the sight of a Colonial pine cupboard containing pink-and-white Staffordshire china. From that moment on, he was an unstoppable collector of Americana. Using an alias, as he often did, he once outbid newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, paying $44,000 for a Philadelphia-made highboy. His purchases included not only furniture, but interiors and exterior woodwork, textiles, china, and silver—anything made or used in America between about 1650 and 1860.

Life changed after World War II. Large estates like Winterthur began to disappear en masse, Lidz says, so Harry began to consider preserving his vast collection by creating a house museum. Even before it opened in 1951, plans were in the works for a University of Delaware collaborative graduate program in American arts and cultural history. Touring the museum today is like visiting the du Ponts. Gone is the label “period rooms.” There are electric lamps, ashtrays and family photographs on the tables. It’s how Harry would have wanted it, writes Lord.

The Montmorenci Stair.

Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
5105 Kennett Pike (Del. 52, 5 miles northwest of Wilmington)

(800) 448-3883,

Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day
Admission charged, Library open Monday-Friday, closed holidays

Irénée du Pont

The beginning of Irénée du Pont’s mineral collection, now at the University of Delaware, was slightly less dramatic. The MIT-educated engineer started collecting rocks at the age of five, but his efforts moved into high gear when, at 43, he went shopping at Tiffany & Company.

Sharon Fitzgerald, curator of the University of Delaware Mineralogical Museum, points out a transparent greenish stone with rounded edges: an 8-inch long Brazilian topaz that weighs 19 1/2 pounds that was part of Irénée’s first major purchase for his collection in 1919. It probably caught his eye while choosing baubles for his wife or one of his eight daughters at the famous New York jewelry store.

Photographs Courtesy of Mineralogical Museum

A portrait of Irénée.

The “stream-worn boulder,” part of a collection assembled for Tiffany’s, was valued at $2,000. Such collections, Fitzgerald notes, were popular and sometimes put together on demand for a client. Tiffany’s refused to sell the individual specimen, so with a few substitutions that Irénée requested, he bought the entire collection for $27,000.

Thirty-four containers were shipped to Wilmington the next year, with perhaps 200 specimens, Fitzgerald estimates. One of the largest was a 550-pound nephrite jade boulder. Another was an “amethyst group” weighing 227 pounds.

Several years later, when Irénée built Granogue, his country estate near Winterthur, he included plans for a museum room and installed custom-built cases for his collection. Family members later recalled playing pingpong on one of the glass tops.

Included in his museum were quartz geodes he had found in Keokuk, Iowa, in 1904. Years later, inspired by an article in a scientific journal, he proposed his own theory about their formation. They were “scientifically reasonable,” says Fitzgerald—“He was a smart guy”— but incorrect.

The Mineralogical Museum at UD’s Penny Hall.

Irénée was president of the DuPont Company from 1919 to 1925. His unshakable faith in the future of organic chemistry made the family firm a leader in the emerging synthetics industry. When asked what he thought his major contribution to the company was, he said, “optimism when it was necessary.” Having lost his father in a dynamite explosion at the Repauno Chemical Company when Irénée was eight, he said his greatest personal satisfaction was improving DuPont’s safety record.

Surprisingly, this champion of progress didn’t own a television until his children bought him a set. He called his roll-top desk “an unsurpassed device for end-of-the-day cleanup.” He preferred manual gear shifters in his cars, and his idea for the next most useful scientific development was a pill to reduce the need for sleep.

Every Fourth of July was celebrated with fireworks at Granogue. The estate provided a fabulous show for anyone who could manage to find a spot within sight of the spectacle—free of charge—yet Irénée quibbled for months over the $200 price of a specimen, finally settling on $150. “And he still griped about that,” Fitzgerald says. But he was also a regular dad, who piled kids into his car for a trip to town for ice cream.

For two years, Fitzgerald, a former gemologist who has a doctorate in mineralogy, researched the university’s collection, digging into the family archives at Hagley, where the DuPont Company started, and comparing lists of specimens that accompanied the collection in 1965, two years after Irénée’s death. Her work culminated in “The Collector and His Legacy: Irénée du Pont and the Mineralogical Collection of the University of Delaware,” an 84-page supplement to the May-June 2015 issue of The Mineralogical Record, an international magazine for collectors. It documents with text and photographs the du Pont bequest and later acquisitions by the university.

By 1930, Fitzgerald says, Irénée had lost interest in his collection. He was busy building Xanadu, his waterfront estate in Cuba, where he kept his yacht and pet iguanas. In 1941, he informed the university of his intention to leave his collection to the institution.

Among the museum’s rarities are boxed sets of richly multihued tourmaline crystals from Irénée’s collection. Tourmaline was once mined in California for export to China, where it was carved into snuff boxes and toggles for jackets. Another is a cross-section of a stalactite with peppermint candy coloring, “a one-time find from Argentina…from the 1970s,” Fitzgerald says. Even the less rare can be a visual feast, which makes the museum popular with youngsters and collectors alike. “Children can get as much out of it as anyone else,” Fitzgerald says.

The Mineralogical Museum
University of Delaware, Penny Hall
255 Academy St., Newark

Admission free, Closed summers and university holidays

John du Pont

Like Irénée, John du Pont started his collection at a young age and lost interest as an adult, but not before he had built an institution that would outlive and outshine him. And while his cousin Harry opened his museum late in life, John realized his dream at the age of 34.

John grew up on an 800-acre estate in Newtown Square, Pa. He was two years old when his parents divorced. A lonely child indulged by an overprotective mother who showed him little physical affection, he struggled with insecurity and a need for acceptance—even adulation—all his life.

His father, William du Pont Jr., was an amateur tennis player, racehorse breeder and the premier racecourse designer of his day. (Delaware Park was one of his projects and Bellevue State Park one of his estates.) John’s mother was an outstanding horsewoman and breeder of dogs and ponies. Her more than 32,000 ribbons and trophies filled a room in the du Pont house.

Photographs Courtesy of the Delaware Museum of Natural History

A portrait of John with a giant clam shell. 

Their son was neither athletic nor interested in horses. He spent a fortune training for several Olympic sports, but even with the best of coaches, he couldn’t make up for a lack of ability. However, he seemed dedicated and focused early in life on natural science.

His best childhood friend was an employee’s son, hired by his mother to keep him company. John looked up to the boy, four years his senior, and was impressed by his knowledge of birds. When John discovered that his friend’s grandfather, an ornithology professor, had three species of thrushes named after him, he declared that was something he wanted to aspire to.

Like many kids, John gathered shells at the beach. On trips, his mother would stop the car so he could explore for specimens. If classmates visited, he either impressed or bored them with his nature show-and-tell. One day, sitting with his “hired” friend on the roof of his playhouse, John announced he was going to start a museum. In 1957, at the age of 19, he filed the legal paperwork.

John was president of the natural science club in high school, and he declared he wanted to be president of the National Ornithological Society someday. Neither popular nor studious, he earned the final credits for graduation by attending summer school after his senior year. His application to Cornell, noted for its ornithology lab, was rejected, but with help from a high school teacher, he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania.

A sea life exhibit.

His freshman year was cut short to allow him to train for the Olympic swim team. Instead he embarked on a two-month collecting expedition to the Philippines, which his father organized and bankrolled. It was the first of many such trips to the Pacific. Specimens from those expeditions, together with collections purchased by John’s mother, soon outgrew the storage space at the Newtown Square estate.

In 1965, the year he graduated in marine biology from the University of Miami, construction started on John’s museum. The building was completed in 1969, but it took three more years for a professional team to catalog specimens and design, and build and install the exhibits. In the meantime, John co-authored a book about collecting shells (1970), followed by a book on Philippine birds (1971), then another on South Pacific birds (1975). His many trips had led to the discovery of at least a dozen birds. Two varieties, a Mexican sparrow and a Philippine parrot, are named after him.

“He called himself an ornithologist, but he wasn’t credentialed,” says Liz Shea, the museum’s curator of mollusks. “But that’s the beauty of ornithology and malacology, two great entry points for people developing an interest in natural history.” The museum, which concentrates on those two areas, “connects the science to the everyday person,” Shea says. “People go shell collecting, and they love to listen to birds and have them at their backyard feeders.”

One of the exotic birds on display.

John appointed himself museum director, paying the bills and commuting daily in his helicopter. His pride in the institution is reflected in an article he wrote for the magazine Curator in 1973, “The Delaware Museum of Natural History—Prototype for Future Museums?” He noted that his was the first natural history museum to open in the United States since 1910. He cited the role the collection played in the study of the effect of the pesticide DDT on birds’ eggs, and added, “[T]he museum’s interests and operations are worldwide in concept and development.”

The tragedy of John’s later life has been well-documented. And his ties with the museum had been severed long before his death in 2010, but his mother continued to support it. “We are here because of the collecting John did in his early life,” says museum communications director Daniel McCunney. “We wouldn’t be here without his efforts.”

Anyone familiar with the museum will recall the detailed wildlife dioramas, the Plexiglas floor with a reconstructed coral reef underfoot and the 27-pound egg of the extinct elephant bird. The exhibits, housed there for more than 40 years, remain popular. Visitors are almost nostalgic about them, McCunney says. But natural light from new windows now floods the formerly cavernous hall, and more exhibits are interactive and in tune with environmental trends. Outside are a butterfly garden, nature trails and a geological display.

The Delaware Museum of Natural History building was completed in 1969. 

What visitors won’t see—what McCunney calls the “backbone of the exhibits”—are the thousands of eggs and birds, along with millions of shells in the research area. Stored in row upon row of drawers above the exhibit hall, they make up one of the largest collections of Indo-West Pacific marine shells and bird specimens, many of which are from the 1960s.

John’s legacy has proven its worth as an invaluable resource for recording changes over time. Collections from Florida and the Caribbean are also significant. A group of university students working on a design problem recently did on-site computer graphing of the bills of diving ducks from the Philippines.

“Where else would you go to get these specimens?” asks Shea. “This is the perfect place to go.”   

A dinosaur skull on display. 

Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike (Del. 52, 5 miles northwest of Wilmington)
Wilmington, 658-9111,

Admission charged, Open daily except New Year’s Day, Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day


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