Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Big Small House

In a 1950 letter to his old pal Eugene Grace, Henry F. (Harry) du Pont (1880-1969) wrote, "I have been building a small house at the foot of the lawn...(and) ordered steel long before Korea...I am really getting quite desperate." If building a "small" house required ordering steel in the first place, who better to complain to than the chairman of the board of Bethlehem Steel, who happened to be the old school pal. Grace replied, "I like your emphasis on 'small house.'" To which du Pont responded, "Perhaps I should say that my house is a big small house." Modestly called the Cottage, it possessed 21,345 square feet of interior floor space, of which about 50% was devoted to the activities of 13 live-in servants.

Mr. & Mrs. du Pont are seen below, flanked by their friends the Athertons, en route to Europe in 1956 on the Italian liner Saturnia. Ambassador Atherton, called by friends "the beau of beaux arts," and his golf champion wife Maude, made several crossings with the du Ponts - one on the ill-fated Andrea Doria, although happily not on the occasion she sank. Dressed for dinner in first class, the du Pont party seems unconscious of the pending end of glamorous transatlantic sea travel. Nine years after this photo was taken, the no longer profitable Saturnia was scrapped.

Harry du Pont was 71 years old when he converted his famous mansion Winterthur (see last week's post:'It's pronounced 'winter-Tour') into a museum of Americana, and moved into the big small house, located about 300 feet from the great big old one. "Nobody lived like Mr. du Pont did," observed family retainer Herman Regenard, accurately I'd say. The Cottage, a soigne essay in Regency Revival architecture, was the last work of architect Thomas T. Waterman (1900-1951). Not overly large compared to Winterthur (which has 175 rooms) it waa clearly built for Edwardian scaled living. The family, which at this point consisted of just Mr. & Mrs. du Pont, occupied the elegantly bowed wing on the right. Everything on the left was servants. "Big small house" says it well.

About 2/3 of the service areas are housed in the wing below, seen from the kitchen court on the west. Kitchen and pantries are on the ground floor on the left; the servants' hall and office are to the right; 8 of the 13 servants' rooms overlook the court from the second floor.

In the view below we've circled around to the north. The big glazed room on the right is the conservatory. The front door is on the left (east) side of the building, sheltering under that little bracketed shed roof. Institutional stewards of old houses, no matter how lovingly they maintain their charges, appear uniformly afflicted by an uncontrollable urge to strip away precisely the foundation plantings, vines and ivy that soften the building's line and connect it to its site. I know, I know..."bad for the facade." Well, worse for the way it looks.

For the last 20 years of his life, Waterman was Harry's architectural consultant. He was a disciple of William Sumner Appleton, founder of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, a restoration architect at Colonial Williamsburg, and a ground-floor architect-draftsman for the New Deal-era Historic American Buildings Survey, a.k.a. HABS. "Dedicated to authenticity," is how his HABS colleagues described him, which must have endeared him to Harry. The erudite Waterman gave du Pont a sophisticated and complicated retirement home - first floor plan is below - which allowed him to live and entertain on essentially the same manner he had at Winterthur - in 100,000 fewer square feet.

Here's Maurice in the dining room, making sure everything is perfect. Each table was a work of art. Harry "chose everything," Herman recalled, in an oral history in the Winterthur archives. "...the flowers, the mats, the colors, the glasses, everything," adding, with a laugh, "He was more concerned about the plates and the things than the food." The Cottage's furniture, incidentally, had been stored in a local warehouse since 1942, when the du Ponts' closed their apartment at 280 Park Avenue.

Florence Vanderbilt Twombley was known for her strapping young footmen; Harry had a penchant for good looking boys, purely for aesthetic reasons I'm sure.

The grand rooms on the main floor of the Cottage are today an elaborate gift shop; the rest of the house is given over to offices. The stair in the view below - seen "before" and "after" connects the small entrance hall inside the front door to a broad east west corridor with the dining room in the distance. We'll first visit what's labeled "sitting room" or "green room" on the plan.

In du Pont's day, this was what the hall to the green room, which you can just see in the distance, looked like. (How about that tapestry?) Mrs. du Pont died in 1967, her husband in 1969, after which all the furniture and some of the fireplaces were sold at auction.

Those same bow windows today, minus curtains.

Below is the fireplace in the green room then, and below that, its replacement now.

The corridor back to the main hall doesn't look so grand without its tapestries.

Now we're in the main hall looking east. The front door is visible at the end of the entrance hall, framed by the split stair. The entrance to the conservatory is between the columns on the left.

Not a very good shot, but an evocative one, of a cultured old man near the end of life, quietly reading in his conservatory.

Infinitely more people enjoy the same room today, although it's not really the same room.

Across from the conservatory is the drawing room, labelled "living room" and "recept room" on the plan.

The early 1950s, contrary to their Vaseline-lensed image, was a period of high prices and scarcity. A great deal of the Cottage was cobbled together from salvaged materials - mantels, fanlights, doors, fireplaces and especially bathroom fixtures - that were either on hand or surplus from Winterthur across the driveway. "Scarcity," however, isn't a concept you'd associate with this exquisite traditional drawing room.

The flowers were changed every day. Each evening, a footman would collect every vase, store salvageable stems in a walk-in cooler, and in the morning take them all out, rearrange them in fresh vases and return them to the main rooms. Who is that lady on the sofa? Not Mrs. du Pont, but Elsie Woodward, made notorious years later by Dominick Dunne's profoundly unfair book, "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles."

The same room today, minus its original fireplace. The door to the left of the windows leads to the green room.

We're back at the western end of the hall, looking into the dining room...

...which used to look like this. Mr. du Pont's daughter, Ruth Lord, remembers a man who for 50 years kept a daily record of table settings but rarely had much to say to his children. He was, as she put it, "a very sort of kindly person, but he was not intimate."

The same room today, now the gift shop cafeteria. The doors on the back wall are new.

Highly unusual in old houses is photo-documentation of service areas. These views were taken after Mr. du Pont's death. These pristine mid-century Modern service areas, despite half a century of disrespect, are largely intact.

Here's the "cold room," where flowers were stored at night.

The glazed block walls in the service corridors, not accidentally I suppose, have the air of a public school from the 1950s.

Here's the kitchen, then and now. It would be a terrific restoration project.

A long corridor wanders south from the kitchen, past the butler's office, eventually to the servants' hall, now divided into modern offices.

We're not taking the service stair, but returning instead to the main stair and climb to a mid-point mezzanine above the entrance hall. In addition to Mr. & Mrs. du Ponts' suites are 7 guestrooms. Two are reached via a door on this mezzanine.

Minus du Pont furniture, these rooms look undeniably spartan.

The 2nd floor begins at the top of the stairs.

The mezzanine and 2nd floor interlock cleverly on the east and west sides of the house. If you're a floor plan maven, you can figure it out from the plans. The image below is of the hall labeled 4F, looking south towards the entrance to the owners suites. 4B is a lobby between those suites. Mr. du Pont's rooms are his study (4A), bedroom (4C), dressing room (4D) and bath (4E).

The lobby, then and now, is virtually unchanged.

The study is quite recognizable too.

Mr. du Pont's bedroom may be unchanged, but without his furniture it is unrecognizable .

A bit of the original dressing room has survived. However, the adjacent bathroom has been demolished and replaced with an office. Winterthur's 39 bathrooms, torn out during convertion to museum use, provided the Cottage with sinks, tubs, towel bars, toilets, fixtures and mirrored cabinets.

Mrs. du Pont's suite was on the left (west) side of the lobby. It contained her bedroom (4H), dressing room (4J), small sitting room (4G), bath (4K) and closet with separate maid's entrance (4I). According to Herman Regenard, "In the morning when Mrs. du Pont was ready, she would Emile (the chef) to see her. She would make the menu; Emile would make a suggestion what was fresh in the kitchen and if she gave her 'all right,' she would make up the menu. After this, Emile had to go with the tray to Mr. du Pont, show him a plate, a placemat, and a glass and a flower."

Let's leave the owners' lobby...

...and proceed west down the 2nd floor corridor to five additional guestrooms, distributed around a gallery lobby at the corridor's western end.

Located off the gallery (with scenic wallpaper) were two guest bedrooms, each with en suite bath. A third was located above them, in a small penthouse.

Two more bedrooms, each with bath, are on the other side of the gallery hall. I'll admit it's hard to appreciate Waterman's interesting plan without furniture. However, if you're like me, you want to see it anyway.

The small descending stair below the gallery on the left leads down to mezzanine level servants' quarters.

We can't leave without a look at the basement.

With the exception of the oddly labelled Play Room and Young Room, the Cottage basement is largely devoted to more service areas.

"He didn't ask for much," said Herman Regenard of his employer, "but he expected everything to be done to his pleasing. People wouldn't change their ways especially at his age."

Vintage images courtesy Winterthur Museum Garden and Library, and Maggie Lidz.


  1. Up until WWII, Madame meeting with Cook to set the day's menu wasn't unusual -- even in relatively modest American households where Cook constituted the entire domestic staff. What is unusual, however, is Hisself deciding the plate, mat, glass and flower. But then you show us that gloriously efficient expanse of cabinets in the kitchen and all is made clear: unlike most households limited by shelf space if not budget constraints, the small house offered scope for collections and combinations. One would be curious to peep at that log of entertainment settings, especially if it were illustrated by photos or, better still, watercolors.

  2. I find it interesting that he was the foremost collector of American antiques, yet ended up furnishing his own living spaces with European furniture. The french furniture in the drawing room is pretty impressive, not to mention the beautiful conservatory along with all of the painted wall papers and tapestries. Thanks again John for another enjoyable entry.

  3. What a difference the lack of exterior plantings and the changes in the interior furnishings and lighting make for the so much worse. I wonder what the view in the first photo looked like.

  4. These are wonderful photos of a time then and now. The grandness of the details are not to be overlooked. I especially like the large curved windows....very elegant. Plus, the bath rooms are huge, well lit and loaded with large classy porcelain pedestal sinks.

    The kitchen spaces are particularly well designed. The servants even have their own grand entrance. Their servant ensemble certainly lived intimately with the DuPonts. There's always some tension when the various castes are in close contact. I know this from my own experience when working in a large house like this.

    If you admire handsome footmen and butlers you may as well hire that type. I would imagine that still goes on today...depending on the employer.

    Overall, I would say this entire establishment is its own unique ''DuPont'' manner.

  5. Some of you will remember this tune from a TV show.

  6. While it's too bad that modernization must happen when a house becomes offices, a gift shop, and/or museum, at least it is still standing and hasn't been torn down. Thanks for always going below stairs and showing every nook and cranny!

  7. I grew up at Winterthur and was close with Chas F
    Montgomery, the first curator, and later with
    John Sweeney, curator emeritus, who did all the
    early installations. We had a 20 acre farm
    adjoining what we called the 'back entrance' to
    Winterthur on Adams Dam Road, and today our
    7 bedroom house and barns are part of Bidermann
    Golf Club, which was, in my day, Mrs. Victor
    duPont's estate. Mrs. Vic and I grew close when
    I was a child and she was about 90. I swam in
    her pool every day, and spent the evenings
    and weekends at Winterthur, which was, in effect,
    my 2nd home. Mrs. Vic had wonderful stories about
    "cousin Harry" (HF duP), one of which concerned
    his golf course, which he liked to play on alone.
    One day his cousin Belin duP called him up and
    said "Harry, this is just dreadful. I'm over at
    the Wilmington Country Club and I have to wait
    2 hours to tee off. Can I play a round today on
    your course?"

    Harry said "I'm very sorry Belin, but I'm playing

    Peter Hodge
    Box 16
    Mendham NJ 07945

  8. Schöner Blog! Dies ist nützlich für diejenigen, die eine Wohnung oder ein Zuhause in Winterthur suchen.