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WINTERTHUR: 1 MAN'S LOVE OF COLOR LED TO A BREATHTAKING GARDEN, MUSEUM OF DECORATIVE ARTS.

A place, wrote Wallace Stegner, is not a place until it has a poet.

If that is so, then Winterthur achieved its placehood early in this century when Henry Francis du Pont took up his rake and trowel and planted poetry in the sod.Color was the thing. Henry du Pont was enthralled by all the colors of nature. So, starting in 1902 and over the course of the next half century, he set out to create a garden surrounding his northern Delaware home that would be an ever-unfolding panorama of color and hue. From the time the March Bank bursts forth in early spring with a joyous profusion of snowdrops, snowflakes and crocus, until the last leaf falls on Oak Hill in autumn and even on into winter when the rich greens of the conifers in the Pinetum contrast with the white snows, the gardens of Winterthur are just that, a rich, neverending, natural kaleidoscope.

"Like a great painting, the garden is a personal creation and a work of art. It is a tangible expression of one man's love affair with Winterthur and the land," says Denise Magnani, current curator and director of landscape at the museum. "Henry Francis du Pont created a masterpiece of 20th-century American naturalism, characterized by its grand scale and punctuated by a unique and precise placement of plants."

Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, Winterthur was the home of the du Ponts, who came to America around 1800 - having been "invited" to leave France. Eleuthere Irenee du Pont, in fact, was the person who carried the papers for the Louisiana Purchase to Thomas Jefferson. Du Pont had planned on becoming a landholder and merchant in his new land, and Jefferson suggested that gunpowder would be a good way to go. By 1810, the family had built a black-powder mill on the banks of Brandywine Creek, amid the rolling hills of northern Delaware's Brandywine Valley. By the end of the War of 1812, they had made their fortune.

Winterthur itself was built by a son-in-law, Jaques Bidermann, and named after the city of Winterthur in Switzerland, his ancestral home. A son of Bidermann sold the estate to his uncle, Henry du Pont (grandfather of Henry Francis), in 1866. Henry Francis was born there in 1880, and inherited it for his own in 1926. Over the years, a number of additions were made, but it was under Henry Francis that Winterthur really took on its present-day character. Du Pont was not only a gardener (he studied horticulture and landscaping at Harvard), he was also an avid collector of early American furniture and furnishings. And the story of Winterthur is also the story of one of the country's finest collections of decorative arts.

Henry Francis du Pont began collecting American antiques because he believed "the early-American arts and crafts had not been given the recognition they deserved."

And he began collecting not only antiques but also architecture - fireplaces, windows, doorways and other pieces from colonial homes. He created rooms around these architectural elements, finding the furniture and accessories that would complement the time period. A new wing was added in 1929 to house his "period rooms."

In them are Chippendale furniture; silver tankards made by Paul Revere; paintings by Gilbert Stuart, John Copley and Charles Willson Peale; pewter; earthenware; Chinese-export porcelain, including a 66-piece dinnerware set made for George Washington; and much, much more. In all Winterthur claims some 89,000 objects, including furniture, textiles, ceramics, silver and other metals. The rooms are color-coordinated, not only with their own furnishings, but also with the garden views that are visible through the windows.

In the 1940s, du Pont decided to turn Winterthur into a museum and gardens for "the education and enjoyment of the American public." The first tours through the home took place in 1951. (Henry Francis and his family moved to a Regency-style villa built elsewhere on the grounds, where he lived until his death in 1969 at age 89. It is now the gift shop.)

In 1992, the Galleries were added, with three major exhibition halls. One hall houses a permanent exhibition, "Perspectives on the Decorative Arts in Early America." A temporary exhibit, "Romancing the Land," traces the development of the gardens and will be in place until Aug. 5.

Du Pont's collection was always more than just things. He was fascinated with how those things were used - what they said about their creators and their users - and this is the feeling that is carried throughout the "Perspectives" exhibit in the gallery. Divided into six themes, early-American objects are used to illustrate the search for style, how objects are made, how things are sold, how they contribute both to special occasions and daily routines, and the messages communicated by their symbols and decorations.

"The story of Winterthur tells the greatest story of our time," said du Pont, "the story of the American people."

A walk through the Galleries or any of the 180 period rooms is a walk through both time and place - through two centuries and 13 colonies. Du Pont's collection spans the time from the establishment of the first American settlements in about 1640 to the Victorian period of the mid-19th century, about 1860.

When he started, American goods were not much prized. In fact, du Pont furnished his own New York apartment with English and French antiques. But after World War I, the wave of nationalistic sentiment that led to the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's American Wing, and to the restoration of Williamsburg by John D. Rockefeller, touched du Pont as well. He began with the idea of decorating his Long Island summer home, but it soon became clear he would need more space, and work at Winterthur began. Eventually, he doubled the size of the existing house, and he realized that he had crossed into the realms of museums.

But even du Pont's fascination with decorative arts could be traced to his love of color. It really all began, he said, at the home of a friend in Vermont, when the colors of a pine dresser filled with pink Staffordshire plates caught his eye. So, it is no surprise that his indoor activities never detracted from his love of gardening.

After opening his home to the public, he said, "I'm only a visitor at the museum these days, but I'm still head gardener at Winterthur."

Du Pont's vision has created a place for all seasons, with sections like Magnolia Bend, the Peony Garden, the Reflecting Pool, the Sundial Garden and the Winterhazel Area to trace the year's progression.

But ask anyone who has watched that show, and they will tell you that du Pont's masterpiece is the Azalea Woods. Under a canopy of white oaks, tulip poplars and American beech trees, du Pont planted hundreds of red, white, pink, lavender and salmon azaleas - azaleas that provide a symphony of color, harmony and design. To stand in the Azalea Woods in May, they say, is to come pretty close to heaven.

But there is something to be found year-round. I should know; I was there in March. Too early for the azaleas, too early for the peonies. So early that only the tips of daffodil spears were beginning to create the patterns against the winter grass that du Pont first designed by laying branches on the ground.

So I could only rely on pictures in books and in the Galleries of the spectacular beauty the garden promises for later on.

Alas, but not a lack - because then I discovered the March Bank - a living carpet of purples and yellows and blues lying beneath the bare-branched trees that gathers up its courage and shouts: Spring! In that one sweep of vegetation is captured all that the season holds: rebirth, renewal, cycles - and hope that speaks to the soul. If the garden can do that in March, think what May will be like.

Poetry, said Robert Frost, begins with delight and ends with wisdom. The same can be said of Winterthur.

Winterthur is located about six miles outside Wilmington, Del., and about 30 miles sourthwest of Philadelphia. It is open year-round Tuesday-Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 12 noon to 5 p.m. and closed on all major holidays. Cost is $8 for adults, $4 for children 5-11; groups, seniors and students, $6.