Tradition and innovation at Longwood Gardens

Editorial Staff Art

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, March/April 2012 |


Preservation was Pierre S. du Pont’s goal in 1906 when he purchased a derelict arboretum thirty miles to the west and south of Philadelphia. And preservation remains the most complex challenge today at what became, under du Pont’s hand, one of the premier public landscapes in North America, the internationally renowned Longwood Gardens. A garden, after all, even when an antique, must continue to grow and renew itself; attempts to keep it static only rob a garden of its vitality and mystery, the power by which it connects with visitors. It is a testimony, then, to the sophisticated skill set of du Pont’s horticultural heirs, the current staff of Longwood Gardens, that it has achieved such success in preserving the old while continually reinvigorating it with imaginative innovation.


Images courtesy of Longwood Gardens


There was in fact, much worth preserving here, even before du Pont began his improvements. The core of the property, some 202 acres (over the years, du Pont was to increase this by nearly 1,100 acres) was the remnant of a farm that a Quaker immigrant, George Peirce, was granted by William Penn in 1700. An interest in natural history was popular in the Quaker community as a means of comprehending the workings of the Almighty, and in 1798, the fourth generation of Peirces had begun collecting and planting trees from all over the world. The resulting arboretum came to occupy some fifteen acres and was considered one of the finest in the United States. As such it attracted many visitors and the Peirces began to manage their property as a public pleasure ground with croquet courts, summerhouses, and facilities for picnicking and boating. In 1905, however, the land passed out of the family’s hands, and when du Pont happened by a year later he found a sawmill on the site, which the new owner intended to use to convert the specimen trees into stacks of lumber.


  • Courtesy Longwood Gardens

  • Courtesy Longwood Gardens

  • Courtesy Longwood Gardens


The young industrialist was thirty-six years old at the time, and just four years into his program to transform a family gunpowder business, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, into one of the largest chemical research and manufacturing businesses in the world (later he would play a key role in the success of General Motors as well). He had not previously had much interest in country pursuits-indeed, in a letter to a friend he characterized his impulsive rescue of the arboretum as “an attack of insanity.” What attracted du Pont to this venture, it seems, was the landscape’s history of hospitality. Besides wanting to preserve the trees and make them available for public study, he wanted a place where he could entertain friends.


He set to work the following year on a six-hundred-foot-long “flower garden walk,” a simple cruciform of paths flanked by broad borders of his favorite flowers. In 1909 he invited four hundred friends to a garden party that featured refreshments, fireworks, and a military band. This began a tradition that continued, with an interruption during World War I, for more than two decades, as du Pont poured money into the gardens, adding a series of new features.


Impressively, du Pont did the design work, even the drafting, himself. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he abhorred imprecision. He had hired a firm of landscape architects a few years previously to design the setting for his family home, but identified errors in the initial site survey and immediately fired the professionals, vowing to do all such future work himself. As a result, what arose at Longwood (the name du Pont gave to the property in honor of an historic Quaker meetinghouse nearby) was intensely personal and eclectic.  


That is an advantage for the horticultural heirs, as Sharon Loving, Longwood’s current director of horticulture, points out. Because Longwood lacks any grand, inflexible plan, it is possible, with a bit of ingenuity, to tuck modern necessities and conveniences such as parking lots, classrooms, and a restaurant-café into the whole without violating the spirit of the place. Indeed, if handled with sufficient insight as here, the changes can become enhancements. Despite a buttoned-down manner, du Pont exhibited a love of drama in his gardening. When in 1913 he saw an open-air theater during a visit to the Villa Gori near Siena, Italy, he insisted on installing something similar at Longwood. He used it to stage entertainments at his garden parties and charity fund raisers by performers as diverse as John Philip Sousa and Martha Graham. This is a tradition the current management has maintained, so that the gardens have, over their century of existence, presented some twelve thousand events. This suggested the solution to hiding the long bank of restrooms attached to Longwood’s East Conservatory in 2007; they were buried in a tall berm of soil that British landscape designer Kim Wilkie sculpted into the seating of an open-air amphitheater that now serves as alternative performance space.


A key to the gardens’ enduring appeal is the way in which du Pont mixed sophisticated tastes with a naïve enthusiasm characteristic of the America of his era. He installed hundreds of water jets and blue, white, red, green, and yellow spotlights in the stage of the theater, so that a conductor could have the night illuminated with symphonies of colored fountains from an underground switchboard. When du Pont installed a water garden similar to one he had seen at the Villa Gamberaia in Florence, he included hundreds of fountains rather than the handful of the original. Subsequently, he created nearby what is now called the Main Fountain Garden with canals and pools and fountains that can spray ten thousand gallons a minute 130 feet into the air. Typically, du Pont made all the hydraulic calculations for these displays himself and equipped them with a new type of fountain nozzle he invented.

When du Pont decided to add a conservatory to his gardens, he again thought big, creating a masonry-framed glass-walled and -roofed pavilion 181 feet wide, 204 feet deep, and 40 feet tall. This included not only growing and display spaces for all sorts of exotic flowers and fruits but a walnut-paneled music room equipped with a pipe organ; later he attached to the glasshouse a ballroom with a new organ, one with 10,010 pipes, one of the largest private instruments of its kind in the world. To play this behemoth and entertain visitors, du Pont retained a staff organist who played for his personal guests and for the public on alternate Sundays.


The superlatives continued to accumulate as du Pont added new gardens and new features, often transplanting mature trees to give the landscapes an immediate impression of maturity. By the mid-1930s the basic layout was complete. The task of converting the gardens from private to a truly public space began after du Pont’s death in 1954, when Longwood came under the direction of a foundation headed by his five nephews. 


The success of this transition has come from the stability of Longwood’s management. Members of the family-including H. F. du Pont, the founder of the nearby Winterthur Museum-continued their support and remain prominent in the Trustee Advisory Committee to this day. The commitment of the staff has also been extraordinary. The first director, Russell J. Seibert, served for almost thirty years, for example, and the current director of horticulture started her career at Longwood as a gardener in the 1980s. 


As a result, the people managing this landscape know it intimately, and they do not act casually. Periodically, eminent landscape architects such as Thomas Church, Roberto Burle Marx, and Isabelle C. Greene, have been commissioned to redesign areas of the gardens that are no longer suited to the interests or needs of visitors. Yet even these creative giants are expected to work within the Longwood mission. 


Education was a passion for du Pont, who personally funded the upgrade and reconstruction of schoolhouses throughout his native state of Delaware. Longwood has maintained this commitment, sponsoring horticultural training programs for professionals and amateurs alike, as well as dispatching plant collectors all over the world to secure thousands of specimens previously unknown in cultivation. Thus, when California designer Isabelle Greene was commissioned in 1986 to redesign the displays of a small greenhouse within the conservatory complex, she was asked to work with a palette of the plants Longwood collectors had brought back from regions with Mediterranean-type climates. Because such habitats are characterized by seasonal drought, many of these plants had evolved gray and downy foliages that minimize water loss. Greene chose to weave these together in a “Silver Garden” that became an instant classic. 


Similarly, the “Cascade Garden” of sixteen waterfalls that the famous Brazilian designer Roberto Burle Marx created for another division of the conservatory display area was shaped by the collections of bromeliads and aroids that Longwood staff acquired during a trip to Marx’s native country. But when the work of an eminent designer is found to function less than well or has become unsuitable for Longwood’s needs, it is replaced.  For instance, the wisteria garden that Thomas Church installed in 1976 is now struggling because of the shade cast by an allée of twenty-seven bald cypresses that have grown to monumental proportions. Discussions are underway about what will replace the Church plantings-possibly lilacs, according to Sharon Loving, because these were a special interest of Pierre du Pont.


The planning process is exhaustive. The gardens as a whole have been documented in a master plan (with a history of the land reaching back to its Native American inhabitants) and mission statement, as well as in computerized maps with overlays to inform about every aspect of the landscape such as the character of the soils and drainage patterns, the degree and character of tree canopy, and the location of some three hundred “heritage” trees-venerable specimens, some of which have been cloned so that if one dies it may be replaced with a genetically identical tree.  


When a designer such as Isabelle Greene or Roberto Burle Marx contributes a new garden, they are requested to create as well a garden manual documenting their vision for the plantings and how they pursued it. A copy is issued to the gardener responsible for the new garden, and he or she is expected not only to consult this but to update it with their observations about the growth of the plants and notes on any additions or replacements they may make. The landscape’s designer, in turn, reviews these notes when he or she returns every few years, as Longwood typically requires.


Preserving du Pont’s original vision is the ultimate goal, even when it requires correcting the founder’s mistakes. Given du Pont’s commitment to good stewardship, Sharon Loving is convinced that he would never have used Norway maples to create the allée that frames the main water garden, had he known that this species would prove to be invasive in North America. As the trees in the allée approach the age where they must be replaced, Longwood’s horticulturists are readying other species in the nursery that will have the same visual effect as the Norway maple but without its aggressive nature. Loving seeks another characteristic as well: the ability to cope with climate change.


Mr. du Pont would surely approve. And he would be delighted with the results of his “insanity.”  From that first garden party for four hundred, visitation has grown to a million guests a year.  Longwood remains true to its roots.


Tom Christopher writes frequently for Antiques and is, among other things, a specialist in horticultural matters.