A special exhibition to mark the 60th anniversary of the visit opens May 7 at the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. Curated by Maryland State Archivist Elaine Rice Bachmann, “Jacqueline Kennedy and HF du Pont: From Winterthur to the White House” will be on display at the 175-room museum of American antiques and interiors outside of Wilmington, Del., to January 8. “Winterthur was the model, and [the first lady] looked there for inspiration to create a backdrop for the presidency,” Bachmann said.
Winterthur was the passion of collector Henry Francis du Pont, heir to the Du Pont chemical fortune. The museum he developed in the mid-20th century houses what is widely considered to be one of the most important collections of American decorative arts in the world. The beauty of the estate’s setting is alluring in itself, especially in spring, with Winterthur’s famous azalea woods and peony garden in bloom.
The exhibit aims to evoke the time when the White House, during those brief Kennedy years, was turned into a museum and was transformed by the first lady into a home whose contents reflected presidencies beginning in 1789. Jackie Kennedy has directed the White House Fine Arts Committee to seek out pieces that were once in the White House or were contemporary with furniture that was there. Many pieces had been sold off, especially in the 19th century. One of the first lady’s first accomplishments was persuading Congress to pass a law prohibiting future presidents from selling or removing White House coins. (Items from the White House collection that are not in use are now held by the Smithsonian Institution.)
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Du Pont, who first visited the White House shortly after the Kennedys arrived, played a key role in its restoration. A Republican, he agreed to lead the committee, inspired by the first lady’s goal of showcasing American artisans. “This house should be where we see them best.”
For visitors, the link between Winterthur and the White House takes place in two parts: the exhibition, as well as a “Walking in Jackie’s footsteps” tour of around ten rooms that she visited with du Pont le May 8, 1961. In the tour of these bright rooms in Winterthur, with their rare pieces, beautiful carpets and fresh flowers, you see outstanding examples of du Pont’s eye for blending the beauty of decoration with the expert collection . Highlights include its remarkable Chippendale collection, George Washington’s dinner service, brought from China on the first merchant ship making this voyage, 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 central platform, are huge vintage television cameras on loan from Rhode Island’s Museum of Broadcast Technology, along with a mannequin wearing a reproduction of the two-piece red dress that 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 clips from the program.
This is followed by vignettes representing the public rooms of the White House – the Red, Blue and Green Rooms and the Diplomatic Reception Room – and a final showing the designs of the restoration for the private rooms of the building.
The Green Room is particularly interesting, as it was where du Pont focused his efforts to inspire Jackie Kennedy, who had studied in Paris, to emphasize American rather than French furniture. (The Blue Room, for example, contained more than 50 French art objects and furniture purchased by President James Monroe, a former French minister.) It was here that she displayed several historical pieces. For example, his restoration of the room featured a mirror that once belonged to George Washington, dating back to when Philadelphia was the capital of the United States.
Some of the historic rooms in the house were hidden in plain sight. The investigation by Jackie Kennedy’s committee and the White House curator – a team effort she helped create – uncovered a French table that served as an easel in the White House carpenter’s workshop and a bust of George Washington in a White House men’s store. room. Based on an engraving depicting where Monroe had placed them, both have been restored to the Blue Room.
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The exhibit includes several examples of the ingenuity of the restoration team. The vignette depicting the Oval Diplomatic Reception Room, for example, includes a huge photo of circa 1834 wallpaper that the restoration team salvaged from a house in Thurmont, Maryland that was being demolished. Featuring views of North American landmarks, the wallpaper remains at the White House to this day.
The restoration team encountered several obstacles. President Harry S. Truman, back home in Missouri, has denied multiple requests for the return of the state dining room mantle that big-game hunter President Theodore Roosevelt installed in 1902, complete with heads of bison carved on each end. (Jackie Kennedy had a copy made.) Similarly, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to return a chair from the Monroe Blue Room suite. Fortunately, du Pont’s contacts with the main antique dealers in the country bore fruit and the committee convinced donors to buy objects for the restoration.
The Oval Office was undergoing restoration when the President was assassinated. Lady Bird Johnson wanted to pursue Kennedy’s restoration project, and du Pont worked with her to do so. “The Mosquito Net” by John Singer Sargent was donated to the White House by the Johnsons in honor of the Kennedys and remains in the Green Room, where it was originally placed.
Watching today’s TV tour, one is struck by the optimism of the times. At the end of the program, the President appears and pays homage to the restoration, noting the resonance of the building’s history. “In the Archives building on Pennsylvania Avenue there is a stone, a plaque that says, ‘What is past is prologue,'” he said. “While it doesn’t give us the key to the future, I think it gives us a sense of confidence in the future. This country has gone through very difficult days, but it has lived through them.
Nathan is a writer based in Bethesda, Maryland.
The inn of the village of Montchanin
528 Montchanin Road, Montchanin, Del.
This highly rated inn, listed on the National Historic Register, is about three kilometers from Winterthur. Rooms from $188 per night.
323 Kennett Pike, Mendenhall, Pennsylvania.
Established in 1777, the Inn at Mendenhall is just across the Pennsylvania state line and about four miles from Winterthur. Rooms start around $130 a night.
DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Wilmington
4727 Concord Pike, Wilmington, Del.
This conveniently located hotel is approximately eight kilometers from Winterthur. Rooms from around $142 per night.
528 Montchanin Road, Montchanin, Del.
Located at the Auberge de Montchanin, this highly rated restaurant offers steaks, seafood and burgers. Open every day from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. for dinner and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for brunch. Appetizers starting at $26, burgers starting at $18.
Inn at Mendenhall Restaurant
323 Kennett Pike, Mendenhall, Pennsylvania.
A popular restaurant inside the hostel. Open Wednesday and Thursday at 4 p.m., last service at 8 p.m.; Friday 4 p.m., last service 8:30 p.m.; Saturday 3 p.m., last service 8:30 p.m.; and Sunday 3 p.m., last service 7:30 p.m. Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Steaks starting at $34, crab cake starting at $25, sandwiches starting at $16.
3801 Kennett Pike, Wilmington, Del.
The theme of this restaurant’s eclectic interior is the famous Elizabeths, and its decor includes odes to Elizabeth Taylor and Queen Elizabeth II. It is located in a commercial area and offers a menu with pizzas named after famous Elizabeths, such as: the Shue, the Boop, the Queen and the Taylor. Open Sunday to Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. Entree size pizzas starting at $13.
Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library
5105 Kennett Pike, Winterthur, Del.
An acclaimed collection of American antiques and interiors, with nearly 90,000 items in the former home of Henry Francis du Pont. “Jacqueline Kennedy and HF du Pont: from Winterthur to the White House” on view from May 7 to January 8. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., February 26 to mid-November; the museum and galleries are open until January 8 and closed until early March, but outdoor areas are open. Admission is valid for two consecutive days and includes the special exhibit and a tour that traces Jackie Kennedy’s journey through the house. “Step by Step” visit offered every half hour from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. for up to 8 people. Self-guided tours available, plus one-hour expert-led ‘Closer Look’ tours for small groups. Reservation required for guided tours. Admission $22 per adult, $20 senior 62+ and student; $8 children 2-11 years old. Supplement of $10 per person for “Closer Look” tours.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.