It’s 1919, and you have a one-year-old daughter. Wilmington summers can be oppressive, and in these days before widespread air-conditioning, there is not much relief. Where do you go to escape the heat? Fortunately at that time, if you were wealthy, you had many options—the beach, the mountains, or a European trip. I wonder about the conversations between Henry Francis du Pont and his wife Ruth when they were discussing the possibilities. People in the du Pont’s social circle in that era tended to congregate in familiar places with friends and family. In some cases, it was as if you transported the elite of a city en masse to these retreats. Philadelphians favored Northeast Harbor, Maine, Jamestown, Rhode Island, or the Poconos. Many New Yorkers relocated to the Hamptons or the Adirondacks. Families from Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Cleveland often summered in places like Hyannis Port or Osterville on Cape Cod or the Great Lakes resorts or Canada.
The du Pont family had no single destination, but Rehoboth Beach, the Chesapeake, Maine, and Fishers Island, New York, all had their devotees. H. F. and Ruth du Pont made a different choice—Southampton on Long Island. Winterthur may have produced the happiest moments and memories for H. F., but for Ruth it was Southampton where she had summered as a girl. Both her grandfather, Salem Howe Wales, and her uncle, Elihu Root, enjoyed shingle-style houses with wide porches and lawns. So in 1919, the H. F. du Pont and family joined the summer colony, renting a house for the season. In 1924 they decided to build, buying a choice piece of land along the dunes of recently opened Meadow Lane.
Having visited the Webb’s Shelburne in Vermont the previous year, H. F. was set on an American-style house. He picked the architects who designed the Webb’s “The Brick House”—the firm of Cross & Cross of New York. Henry Davis Sleeper would help create the interiors while Marian Coffin would create the landscape. In 1925 H. F. du Pont purchased woodwork from an 18th-century house in Chestertown, Maryland, thus inspiring the name of his new summer residence. He never did things in a small or lackadaisical way. Every detail, every piece of furniture, each window treatment, was carefully chosen with regard for color, symmetry, and overall effect.
On August 4,, 1926, the du Ponts moved into their new summer house, although since July they had been making the best of temporary quarters at the large, new garage—not as uncomfortable as it might sound! Chestertown House with fifty rooms, including nine bedrooms and eleven full bathrooms, was not your typical seaside home. Photos of the interiors and the terraced lawn looking out to the Atlantic, seem completely in keeping with H. F.’s style, overlaid with Ruth’s desire for a less-formal house than Winterthur.
I look at the images of the rooms and they remind me of many other summer houses of the du Pont’s social set. Less high-style furniture and ceramics and more simple pieces of pine or maple, hooked rugs, ship models, quilts, brightly colored ceramics, and pewter. The ornately carved Philadelphia Chippendale and elaborate Chinese Export porcelains would come later. It has often been said that Chestertown was his incubator house, where he first experimented with decorating with American objects and an innovative use of color. It became the foundation for Winterthur, and he even considered that someday it might also be a museum. But in 1931, after the major expansion of Winterthur, H. F. began to move some pieces to his Delaware house and eventually, even elements of historic architecture. Now Chestertown could remain more of a family home—Ruth’s place to get away and relax with her daughters and then grandchildren.
So what became of Chestertown House? Despite a brief consideration of selling it in 1933 as the Depression weighed heavily on family finances, they kept it. The house meant summer to several generations of this branch of the du Pont family and is remembered fondly by current members. With H. F.’s death in 1969, some objects came to Winterthur, many went to his daughters, and others were sold. The fate of the house itself is not a happy tale. After brief notoriety when it was owned by Andy Warhol’s inner-circle member Baby Jane Holzer in the 1980s, it mutated into Dragon’s Head, a turreted castle complete with basement shark tank. Obviously the new owner, Barry Turpin, had a rather different idea than H. F. about what made an attractive summer house. Stripped of most of its historic interiors, it continued to change under subsequent ownership and renaming, eventually named Eylsium. For more see http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/01/nyregion/long-island/01colli.html.
When fashion designer Calvin Klein purchased it in 2003 (now a long way from the original Chestertown House stylewise), he used the house occasionally but it clearly did not meet his needs. Architect Michael Haverland designed a new house referencing mid-century style, looking out over the dunes. The soon-to-be-demolished house was such a far cry from H. F.’s elegant residence that it was not hard for many of us to see it go, just a bit wistful to recall what it once had been. Happily, some of the few intact elements of historic paneling were removed before the demolition, and an architect working in traditional styles incorporated them into a new house.
So in these hot summer months, play a little game. Give yourself a nearly unlimited budget to buy a summer place and decide—where would I choose?
To learn more about Chestertown House see “H.F. du Pont’s Chestertown House, Southampton, New York,” by Joshua Ruff and William Ayres in The Magazine Antiques, July, 2001
Post by Jeff Groff, Director of Interpretation & Estate Historian, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library