- Historic Sites
The Powder Maker’s Garden
When Pierre S. du Pont bought the deteriorated Longwood Gardens in 1906, he thought that owning property was a sign of mental derangement. Still, he worked hard to create a stupendous fantasy garden, a place, he said, “where I can entertain my friends.”
April 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 3
Longwood is a “coherent hodgepodge,” a garden writer recently remarked in Horticulture magazine, held together by tree-lined paths and swelling green lawns. Another garden writer, trying to get a grip on Longwood, calls it a “mini-history of garden style” and rightly notes that the chief historic styles of the Western world all may be seen at Longwood. The Italian Renaissance garden of the sixteenth century stands superbly exemplified in the bluetiled water garden as well as in the general profusion of fountains and statues and stonework. The formal French garden of the seventeenth century may be seen in the six-hundred-foot garden walk and in the splendor and geometry of the Main Fountain Garden. The English landscape park of the eighteenth century reappears in the rolling greensward and massed clumps of trees bordering the lake. Victorian “bedding out,” too, may be seen in all its floral glory inside Longwood’s Main Conservatory and along the brick garden walk, where tens of thousands of spring bulbs and perennials give way to gleaming flower beds of summer annuals and these in turn to autumnal beds of chrysanthemums. The procedure is doubly Victorian in that it requires vast Victorian-age greenhouses to supply blossoms on time; a vast Victorian staff of gardeners to do the growing, potting, and planting; and vast Victorian largess to pay for the extravagance of Victorian-style gardening in an age of high wages. All these Longwood can boast, however, thanks to the fact that the “coherent hodgepodge” was the personal creation, the only child, and in due course the principal legatee of Pierre S. du Pont, who bought Peirce’s Park and its 202 acres in 1906, around the time when the thirty-six-year-old chemist and corporate wizard was beginning to make the du Pont family rich beyond its wildest dreams.
Pierre du Pont confessed to being fascinated by both the beauty and the technics of running water.
Forget about Longwood as landscape art, says Longwood officialdom these days. The place just grew, like Topsy. What you are seeing, officialdom now advises the visitors—nearly eight hundred thousand of us a year—is “the ultimate expression of a country estate garden of the 1920’s.” So reads the latest brochure. Longwood is to be thought of as a historic relic, a rare survival from a bygone age—the socalled country-place era.
That era began in the late nineteenth century, when sober American bankers, merchants, and manufacturers lost their historic middle-class modesty and exchanged their row houses—Georgian or brownstone—for opulent freestanding town mansions, and their ancient burgher frugality for princely display, lordly rural acres, and “gentleman” farms. The era came to an end after the Great Crash of 1929, when merchants-turned-princes lost not merely money but faith in their own moral preeminence, without which life in an eighty-room palace begins to feel uncomfortably impertinent. One by one, they sold off their conspicuous town mansions and their oversize country places. There were exceptions, of course, notably various du Ponts—a famously stubborn clan—who left behind, lavishly endowed for perpetual public enjoyment, not only Longwood Gardens but Winterthur, the verdant country estate of Pierre’s nephew Henry, located seven miles from Longwood; and magnificent Nemours, the estate of Alfred I. du Pont, Pierre’s cousin and mortal enemy, which lies twelve miles from Longwood. Both are well worth a visit by the visitor to Longwood Gardens.
The country-place era sheds welcome light on Longwood’s past but not, alas, on its present, because the gardens simply do not look like a period piece. To some extent Pierre S. du Pont saw to that. Once there was a nine-hole golf course at Longwood, which du Pont installed to please his wife and which he shut down as soon as she died, thereby creating, willy-nilly, the English-landscape area, which is mainly the old golf course minus the holes, the tees, and the putting greens. Longwood used to have extensive working farms, also to please Mrs. du Pont, Pierre du Pont himself being “firmly convinced,” he once wrote, “that the so called ‘gentleman farmer’ is a menace to the legitimate farmer of his community.” Three years before his death he shut them down, too, and the old cornfields have long since been turned into lawns. Nor does Longwood boast that sine qua non of the country-place era—namely, a huge country mansion, such as Winterthur’s 196-room house.