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Surprise at the Winterthur

Photos and story by William A. Davis
Recently I had the great pleasure to visit the Winterthur Museum and Country Estate located in the beautiful Brandywine Valley six miles outside of Wilmington, Delaware. Winterthur (named by the scion of the duPont family E. I. duPont after a village in Switzerland) is the former home of Henry Francis duPont and consists of 175 rooms some of which are historically decorated and open to the public.
Surrounded by 982 acres of incredible fauna and flora the estate consists of elaborate gardens designed to look wild and natural with much of it planted for year round bloom. Masses of one color are a favorite site design and we saw a “sea” of white azaleas blooming in one area and another vast hillside preparing to burst into brilliant salmon color likely a day or two after our visit.
There is also a wing addition built in 1992 which houses exhibition galleries and that is where I found my surprise. The duPont family were avid collectors of Americana in other words simply items made in America throughout our history. Chippendale furniture, paintings by Gilbert Sullivan, Paul Revere silver tankards, pewter by William Will, well you get the idea. So I should not have been startled to find another gallery on the second floor which was a complete recreation of the Dominy Family Clock Shop.
You might ask as I did who were the Dominy’s and why this exhibition. The Dominy’s were a family of craftsman located near the east end of Long Island, New York in a historic village called East Hampton, (Yes those Hampton’s !) who starting around 1760 under the tutelage of family patriarch Nathaniel Dominy IV handcrafted clocks, furniture, built houses and windmills until the 1840‘s. (Industrial revolution for better or worse.). This at a time when craftsmanship was a necessity rather than a choice. No mass production for these chaps although the shops in this period were often called “manufactories”.
The legacy the family left was not of great wealth but an incredible find in a barn in Southampton, Long Island in 1957. 1300 pieces of priceless tools, account books, and virtually every piece of the original shop equipment stored here. One of the most complete collections of colonial era tools and equipment ever found, and all in one place! Winterthur curator and Dominy family scholar Charles F. Hummel called the find “akin to a Egyptologist unearthing the tomb of an ancient pharaoh”. Much of this shop treasure has been recreated using those very tools, drawings and furniture to tell the story of the every day life of craftsman of the era.
The great wheel lathe is there as well wonderful examples of chisels, clamps, hammers and so many other tools of the trade. So what was the surprise? Well I grew up on Long Island and never heard of the Dominy’s or that this collection existed. As a person interested in history you can imagine my joy in finding this display at Winterthur. So if you have an interest in seeing an incredible historic collection and shop recreation this exhibit is for you. It was just one of the great experiences I had at Winterthur, already a place that holds many joyful surprises.
Winterthur appeals to people of all ages and many guests return again and again just to view the gardens. The galleries feature collections of paintings and prints, metal works, ceramics and glass, as well as wood, textiles and needlework. One gallery called In Style features the characteristics of the eight major design styles from 1640 until 1860. And by all means take time to visit the Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens, it’s truly incredible.
There is a 87,000 volume research library open to the public as well as guided tours both inside the buildings and through the gardens and groves. You may also freely walk the grounds if desired. For the younger set there is a delightful three acre children’s garden called the Enchanted Woods as well as a Touch It Room where they can learn about objects used by people in the past.
There are two large museum stores, one located in the Visitor Center as well as a popular upscale cafeteria with outdoor seating. The second museum store is located across from the main house and features rooms full of licensed replicas from the Winterthur collections plus plants grown on site.
For other related museums in the Brandywine Valley area check with the Wilmington Visitors and Convention Bureau. Winterthur Museum and County Estate Route 52, Kennett Pike Winterthur, Delaware 19735 302-888-4600

Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitor Bureau 100 West 10-th St. Suite 200 Wilmington , Delaware 19801