The Other Magic Kingdom

by Terry Dinneen, Winterthur Interpreter
du Pont Dining Room
The 100th anniversary dinner of 1900, commemorating the du Pont family’s arrival in America, is re-created in this year’s “Best of Yuletide” tour at Winterthur.

I was recently quoted in the News Journal as saying, “Winterthur is like the Disney World of history, but it’s the real thing.” For those of you who are wondering what I was thinking when I said that, here is a brief comparison of the two, and you can be the judge if Walt Disney and Henry Francis du Pont shared similarities.  Both men started in 1923—that’s the year H. F. du Pont started his Collection and the year Walt Disney started his movie studios. H. F. started building his magic kingdom Winterthur in the 1920s, while Disney started building his Magic Kingdom in the 1950s.  H. F. opened his “magic mansion” to the public in 1951, and Walt opened his “magic castle” in Disney World to the public in 1971.

And talk about a “magic mansion!”  Let me just digress here for a minute. Winterthur is at its most magical at Yuletide.

How can anyone take the Yuletide Tour without feeling the magic, without feeling a little cold in the Court because of the snow, and without wanting to enter the Red Lion Inn to get warm and buy something at the Dorcas Society Fair?  Can’t you just hear Ben Franklin telling funny stories while drinking a beer in the Powell Room, or see Martha and George celebrating their wedding anniversary by dancing at the Twelfth Night Ball in the Walnut Room?  As guests enter Mass Hall, they can almost feel the change in the way we celebrated Christmas. As they peek into the Philadelphia Empire Bedroom, they can almost hear the children screaming with joy as they open their gifts around the fancy tree on Christmas morning. Each room pulls you in to see what is going on.

When you look around the hall you can almost hear someone whispering, “come into my parlor” as you are drawn into the web in Empire Dining Room. It only gets better when you go down the stairs to the Chinese Parlor and sing along with Linnea Raffaele playing the piano just like the du Pont’s guests did when Ruth played the Steinway.  Next you are drawn down the hall toward the Conservatory with its spectacular tree, and to the du Pont Dining Room. All you can say is, “wow!”

Now back to my Disney comparison. The similarities between the two don’t stop with the respective mansions and castles. As Disney created other attractions like Epcot Center, H. F. du Pont added other attractions like the Winterthur Gardens and the Winterthur Library.  In the last 20 years, Winterthur has also added the Galleries and the Enchanted Woods.

Let me just digress one more time. Saying Winterthur has Galleries is like saying Henry Ford had cars.  In some ways they remain pretty much the same, but in other ways they are transformed from year to year.  At  Winterthur’s Galleries, a five-minute, self-directed tour will take you within feet of amazing examples of over 200 years of American furniture. If you’re interested in metals, textiles, or ceramics, there is enough “eye candy” in the Galleries to make your heart beat faster.

You may argue that every attraction at Disney World is magical, but the same can be said for Winterthur if you’ve ever seen the reaction of guests on the tours, or seen the smiles on faces as guests look at paper dolls in the Downs Collection. Is there a person alive who wouldn’t be happier after a walk in the Winterthur Gardens in the spring, or a child who wouldn’t be happier after a visit to the Enchanted Woods?

I hope you all enjoy your time at Winterthur’s “Magic Kindgom” as much as I do.  Thank you for all the fun emails and remarks about the News Journal article.

We have no choice but to grow older, but we don’t have to stop enjoying life.

Happy Thanksgiving and Season’s Greetings!

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