A special exhibit to mark the tour’s 60th anniversary opens May 7 at the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. Curated by Elaine Rice Bachmann, the state archivist of Maryland, “Jacqueline Kennedy and H. F. du Pont: From Winterthur to the White House” will be on view at the 175-room museum of American antiques and interiors outside Wilmington, Del., through Jan. 8. “Winterthur was the model, and [the first lady] looked there for inspiration in creating a backdrop for the presidency,” Bachmann said.
Winterthur was the passion of collector Henry Francis du Pont, an heir to the du Pont chemical fortune. The museum he developed during the mid-20th century houses what is widely considered one of the world’s foremost collections of American decorative arts. The beauty of the estate’s setting is alluring in its own right, especially during spring, with Winterthur’s celebrated azalea woods and peony garden in bloom.
The exhibit aims to evoke the time when the White House, during those brief Kennedy years, was made a museum and was transformed by the first lady into a house whose contents reflected the presidencies from 1789 forward. Jackie Kennedy led the Fine Arts Committee for the White House’s effort to seek out pieces that had once been in the White House or were contemporaneous with furnishings that had been there. Many pieces had been sold off, particularly during the 19th century. One of the first lady’s early achievements was persuading Congress to pass a law forbidding future presidents from selling or removing pieces from the White House. (Items from the White House collection that aren’t in use are now kept in storage by the Smithsonian Institution.)
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Du Pont, who first visited the White House shortly after the Kennedys moved in, played a key role in its restoration. A Republican, he agreed to head the committee, inspired by the first lady’s goal of showcasing American artisans. “This house should be the place we see them best.”
For visitors, the link between Winterthur and the White House unfolds in two parts: the exhibit, as well as a “Walking in Jackie’s Footsteps” tour of about 10 rooms that she viewed with du Pont on May 8, 1961. In the tour of those glowing Winterthur rooms, with their rare pieces, beautiful carpets and fresh flowers, you see standout examples of du Pont’s eye for mixing beauty of decoration with expert collecting. Among the highlights are his outstanding Chippendale collection, George Washington’s dinner service, brought from China on the first merchant ship making that journey, and several large sterling-silver tankards made by Paul Revere. (The small-group “Footsteps” tour requires a reservation.)
The exhibit begins with a red-carpet walk through a white-columned facade intended to resemble the North Portico of the White House. Inside, on a center platform, are huge vintage TV cameras lent by the Museum of Broadcast Technology in Rhode Island, as well as a mannequin wearing a reproduction of the two-piece red dress the first lady wore on the tour, which is now in the collection of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. On the walls are items such as Jackie Kennedy’s handwritten notes for the tour and video screens playing excerpts from the program.
Next are vignettes depicting public rooms of the White House — the Red, Blue and Green rooms and the Diplomatic Reception Room — and a final one showcasing the restoration’s designs for the building’s private rooms.
The Green Room is particularly interesting, because it was there that du Pont focused his effort to encourage Jackie Kennedy, who had studied in Paris, to highlight American rather than French furnishings. (The Blue Room, for example, held more than 50 French objets d’art and furnishings purchased by President James Monroe, a former minister to France.) It was here that she showcased several historical pieces. For example, her restoration of the room featured a mirror that belonged to George Washington, dating from the period when Philadelphia was the U.S. capital.
Some of the house’s historical pieces were hidden in plain view. The sleuthing by Jackie Kennedy’s committee and the White House curator — a staff job she was instrumental in creating — turned up a French table that was being used as a sawhorse in the White House carpenter’s shop and a bust of George Washington in a White House men’s room. Based on an engraving that depicted where Monroe had placed them, both were restored to the Blue Room.
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The exhibit includes several examples of the restoration team’s ingenuity. The vignette representing the oval Diplomatic Reception Room, for example, includes a huge photo of the circa-1834 wallpaper the restoration team salvaged from a house in Thurmont, Md., that was being demolished. Featuring views of North American landmarks, the wallpaper remains in the White House to this day.
The restoration team ran into several obstacles. President Harry S. Truman, back home in Missouri, rejected several entreaties to return the State Dining Room mantel that big-game hunter President Theodore Roosevelt had installed in 1902, with carved bison heads on each end. (Jackie Kennedy had a copy made.) Similarly, the Daughters of the American Revolution declined to return a chair from the Monroe Blue Room suite. Fortunately, du Pont’s contacts with the country’s major antiques dealers bore fruit, and the committee persuaded donors to purchase objects for the restoration.
The Oval Office was in the midst of its restoration when the president was assassinated. Lady Bird Johnson wanted to continue the Kennedy restoration project, and du Pont worked with her to do so. John Singer Sargent’s “The Mosquito Net” was given to the White House by the Johnsons in the Kennedys’ honor and remains in the Green Room, where it was originally placed.
Watching the televised tour today, one is struck by the optimism of the times. At the end of the program, the president appears and pays tribute to the restoration, noting the resonance of the building’s history. “In the Archives building down Pennsylvania Avenue, there is a stone, a plaque which says, ‘What is past is prologue,’ ” he said. “While it doesn’t give us a key to the future, I think it does give us a sense of confidence in the future. This country has passed through very difficult days, but it has passed through them.”
Nathan is a writer based in Bethesda, Md.
The Inn at Montchanin Village
528 Montchanin Rd., Montchanin, Del.
This highly rated inn, which is listed on the National Historic Register, is about two miles from Winterthur. Rooms from $188 per night.
323 Kennett Pike, Mendenhall, Pa.
Established in 1777, the Inn at Mendenhall is just across the Pennsylvania state line and is about four miles from Winterthur. Rooms from about $130 per night.
DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Wilmington
4727 Concord Pike, Wilmington, Del.
This conveniently located hotel is about five miles from Winterthur. Rooms from about $142 per night.
528 Montchanin Rd., Montchanin, Del.
Located at the Inn at Montchanin, this highly rated restaurant offers steaks, seafood and burgers. Open daily 5 to 8 p.m. for dinner and Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for brunch. Entrees from $26, burgers from $18.
Inn at Mendenhall restaurant
323 Kennett Pike, Mendenhall, Pa.
A popular restaurant inside the inn. Open Wednesday and Thursday at 4 p.m., last seating 8 p.m.; Friday 4 p.m., last seating 8:30 p.m.; Saturday 3 p.m., last seating 8:30 p.m.; and Sunday 3 p.m., last seating 7:30 p.m. Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Steaks from $34, crab cake from $25, sandwiches from $16.
3801 Kennett Pike, Wilmington, Del.
The theme of this restaurant’s eclectic interior is famous Elizabeths, and its decor includes odes to Elizabeth Taylor and Queen Elizabeth II. It’s located in a shopping area and boasts a menu with pizzas named after famous Elizabeths, such as: the Shue, Boop, Queen and Taylor. Open Sunday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. Entree-size pizzas from $13.
Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
5105 Kennett Pike, Winterthur, Del.
An acclaimed collection of American antiques and interiors, with nearly 90,000 objects in Henry Francis du Pont’s former home. “Jacqueline Kennedy and H. F. du Pont: From Winterthur to the White House” on view May 7 to Jan. 8. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Feb. 26 through mid-November; museum and galleries open through Jan. 8 and closed through early March, but outdoor areas open. Admission good for two consecutive days and includes the special exhibit and a tour that traces Jackie Kennedy’s route through the house. “Footsteps” tour available every half-hour from 2 to 3:30 p.m. for up to eight people. Self-guided tours available, as well as one-hour expert-led “Closer Look” tours for small groups. Reservations required for guided tours. Admission $22 per adult, $20 seniors 62 and over and students; $8 children 2 to 11. Additional $10 per person for “Closer Look” tours.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.