So Clean You Can Eat off ’Em!: The Floors of Winterthur

Matthew A. Mickletz is Winterthur’s supervisor of preventive conservation aides and a new homeowner as well as a new dad.

As my wife and I searched for our own “place to call home,” we, like most homeowners-to-be, wanted a few features. An appealing real estate description might read: 3 BR 2 Bath, 1,500 sq ft, .25 acres, A/C, HWF… HWF? Yes, HWF or Hard Wood Floors! “Timeless beauty and character!”

View from China Hall into the Chinese Parlor, freshly waxed and buffed

For H. F. du Pont though, hard wood floors weren’t a selling point, but rather the flooring that was in his home so that the house simply had floors to walk on. According to Maggie Lidz, Winterthur’s estate historian, however, “the floors changed over time as du Pont renovated Winterthur, added rooms made up of historical interior architecture, and changed the installations.”

Here is a short timeline and notes that points to some specific changes (provided by Maggie Lidz):

Before 1902, the floors at Winterthur were narrow-width boards.

Parquet Floors

Between 1902 and 1904, Henry Algernon du Pont (H. F. du Pont’s father) added parquet de Versailles floors to his newly remodeled dining room and parlors.

During the 1929 addition, H. F. du Pont added more parquet de Versailles floors.

1948–1951 Versailles flooring was removed from Chinese Parlor, Phyfe, and Marlboro rooms and replaced with narrow boards.

Other Floors

1935: The pine flooring in Montmorenci Stair Hall is original flooring from Montmorenci although not necessarily from the stair hall, as per correspondence between H. F. du Pont and architect Thomas Waterman.

Today, we are left with a variety of flooring to maintain throughout our 175 rooms, with the vast majority still being wood boards. The width of the boards varies greatly, from two or three inches to boards in the Maple-Port Royal Hall that measure 24 ½ inches wide! Some floor boards have changed with time, warping or loosening slightly, squeaking with every footfall. Several parquet floors remain as well, such as in the Empire Parlor, part of the Introductory tour.

Bill Smith, a preventive conservation aide, buffing a freshly waxed Montmorenci Stair Hall

Visitors might assume that, at some point, the floors must have had something applied to them to take the beating from the hundreds of feet traveling across them—perhaps something low-maintenance like polyurethane. In reality though, the floors are cleaned through a process that has remained almost unchanged from the time the museum’s first visitors walked the halls and, quite possibly, even before. It is the simple process of applying a paste wax, using a buffing machine and brush, to the seeming miles of wood flooring.

At least twice a year, the floors of the main tour route, typically those of the fifth floor, receive a fresh coat of wax. The smell is pungent and very distinct, and the wax leaves the floor extremely slippery prior to drying. After being applied across the grain, it is left to dry, with the aide of fans, for several hours before being “taken up” with the buffing machine and a clean brush. This leaves us with a glossy, yet soft, shine and a protective, water-resistant layer.

As you walk the tour path, you are gradually wearing away this wax and dulling the shine, sometimes leaving scuffs and dirt behind, and taking a tiny amount of the wax with you on your shoes. In order to maintain that polished aesthetic to the floors and keep them clean of soil and small debris, the same electric floor buffers, again with a stiff bristled brush attachment, are run across the boards, with the grain. This happens daily in some higher traffic areas and monthly or even yearly in the seldom-toured areas. Eventually it will be time to start the process all over again, continuing the tradition of rejuvenating Winterthur’s floors…wax on, wax off, buff as needed.

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