The Powder Maker’s Garden

Forget about thinking of Longwood as landscape art. The place just grew, like Topsy.

Something else is missing too: No ramparts of brick ever walled off du Font’s country estate as they walled off so many others. Nemours, for one. Longwood was open “at all times” to the public, as it had been in the Peirce’s Park days. “The owner desires,” Pierre du Pont wrote to the caretaker in a 1912 manual of instructions, “that all visitors should take pleasure in going over the grounds and that they should have the maximum of liberty consistent with the use of the place by himself and friends.” They “are permitted to tie horses at the post under the maple trees near the garage … automobiles may be allowed to stand in the driveway.” Not until visitors grew so numerous that they threatened to crowd out “himself and friends” did du Pont decide—this was 1921—to charge an admission fee on Sundays.

A modest and practical man was Pierre S. du Pont, an administrator, an organizer, “an incredible engineer, rather than a lover of beauty,” according to Landon Scarlett, one of Longwood’s horticulturalists. A frugal man as well, who kept an eye on every penny, he nevertheless eventually spent $25.5 million on Longwood Gardens and bequeathed it an endowment worth some $300 million today. Probably no private garden in America, according to Colvin Randall, has so much money to spend on sheer horticultural display. So when an old tree dies and leaves an unseemly gap, Longwood does not plant a sapling. It finds a seventy-foot specimen of the same tree and fills in the empty space at once. When the managers of the garden decided a few years ago that the greensward could use more early-spring brightness, they began planting one million daffodil, crocus, and aconite bulbs. When the directors, guided chiefly by du Ponts, decided that a visitors’ center had become unavoidable, they molded an artificial hill and concealed the center inside it. The very parking lot at Longwood is shaded by a beautiful exotic species of birch that any botanical garden would be proud of.

In 1913 du Pont visited twenty-two Italian villas in search of ideas for Longwood Gardens.

So the question is, Did Pierre S. du Pont, this dry, meticulous nonlover of beauty, who was “basically direct, simple and practical in his approach to all problems,” as his former secretary described him, ever involve himself in the extravaganza of Longwood? Was it the country-place era working unconsciously on him? Perhaps so. The influence of social fashion is not to be scorned even when exerted upon those, like du Pont, who are inclined to scorn it.

What we do know is that in the early summer of 1906 du Pont heard a piece of bad news from one of his employees. The latest owner of Peirce’s Park was selling the great old trees to a sawmill, in fact, paying for the 202 acres by that wanton act of destruction. No longer the property of a Peirce, the place had been deteriorating for years, but the great double avenue of trees, the pretty lake, and its bathing facilities had kept it a pleasure ground of sorts, “a favorite goal for autoists from nearby cities,” the Philadelphia North American wrote at the time. Being one of those autoists himself, the indignant Pierre du Pont quickly bought out the new owners in order, he said, to “save the collection of old trees.”

The decision itself marked a breach in his settled convictions, as he himself admitted with whimsical rue. “I have recently experienced what I would formerly have diagnosed as an attack of insanity,” he wrote to a business friend in Chile. “That is, I have purchased a small farm about ten miles from here. As I have always considered the purchase of real estate a sign of mental derangement and have so proclaimed, I fear that my friends may be looking for permission to inquire into my condition. However … I expect to have a great deal of enjoyment in restoring its former condition and making it a place where I can entertain my friends.”

Doubtless du Pont needed some such place, for the powder magnate, as he was already called in the press, still lived at home with his mother, who pestered him incessantly to get married, preferably to his cousin Alice from Scranton.