By Hannah Freece, 2011 graduate of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and current Tiffany & Co. Foundation Curatorial Intern in American Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
If you’ve taken a tour at Winterthur, you might have heard that the original house was built in 1839. Although Henry Francis du Pont shaped the building we see today in the 20th century, the estate has older origins. As part of a graduate course on American interiors in the 19th century, my classmates in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and the History Department at the University of Delaware turned back the clock this spring and imagined what the original Winterthur might have looked like.
The 1830s in the United States was a period of subtle change, as issues developed that would come to a head in the coming decades. The debate over slavery intensified, and many Americans moved westward. The era also witnessed great innovation, including the introduction of the daguerreotype, an early form of photography.
In 1837 James Antoine and Evelina du Pont Bidermann purchased land not far from Eleutherian Mills, where Evelina had grown up (now part of Hagley Museum and Library). They designed Winterthur to be a country retreat in which to spend their years after Antoine’s retirement from the DuPont Company. The name of the estate comes from the ancestral home of the Bidermann family in Winterthur, Switzerland.
The earliest photos of Winterthur depict a Greek Revival house—the height of fashion in the 1830s and 40s—with Doric columns supporting the porte-cochère, the roofed space at the front entrance where coaches would drop off guests. The rear view of the house shows the conservatory, an important space for the family. Like H. F. du Pont, Evelina Bidermann loved plants and flowers. And, like the conservatory during H. F.’s time, Evelina’s provided a place for her to enjoy the fruits of her labor.
The three-story, twelve-room house sat at what is the core of the house today with the first floor corresponding to today’s fifth floor. Neighboring du Pont family members were frequent guests, and the Bidermanns had large spaces for entertaining, such as the parlor and dining room. The second and third floors contained bedrooms. The Bidermanns had three domestic servants to support them, and the basement floor was devoted to service spaces including a kitchen, laundry, drying room, and wine cellar. These rooms no longer exist today, but were roughly where the Kershner Kitchen is on the fourth floor now.
How did the Bidermanns furnish their country estate? Unlike Henry Francis du Pont, they likely turned to Europe rather than America for inspiration. Though they loved the natural beauty of the Brandywine Valley, they felt most at home with French and Swiss culture.
Several objects survive with a Bidermann provenance. Winterthur owns a pair of klismos side chairs and several drinking glasses, called rummers, that the Bidermanns may have used here. The rummers are inscribed with the initials “JAB,” perhaps for “James Antoine Bidermann.” Hagley Museum and Library also owns Evelina’s writing desk. Both the chairs and desk, though not en suite, are in the Greek Revival or Empire style fashionable in the United States and Europe in the 1830s. You can see more elaborate and over-the-top examples of this style in the Empire Parlor on Winterthur’s fifth floor.
Even with these survivals, we don’t know precisely what items went where in the house. Evelina’s compact desk, though quite decorative, may have been reserved for her bedroom or a corner in the parlor. The side chairs, which were undoubtedly part of a larger set, could have been kept in the parlor or hall until called into service when guests visited.
My classmates and I used the surviving objects and Bidermann correspondence to extrapolate how the Bidermanns might have furnished their house, and we developed floor plans for several key rooms. Though these plans represent only educated guesses, the exercise taught us a lot about mid-19th-century interiors and provided us the opportunity to shed a little more light on Winterthur’s past!
Thanks to Brock Jobe, professor of American decorative arts, Maggie Lidz, estate historian, and Abbey Chamberlain, Alice Carboni, Erin Kuykendall, Anne McBride, Addie Peyronnin, and Kati Schmidt, course participants.