- 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
In 1907 du Pont laid out the six-hundred-foot garden walk straight across a cornfield. “He was thinking monumentally,” Landon Scarlett contends. But the grand walk opened up no grand princely vista, as du Pont could easily have arranged. Instead, a wall of trees blocked—and still blocks—the view. The grand walk is actually cozy. Moreover, du Pont planted old-fashioned box hedge alongside it and cottage-garden flowers behind the box hedge. ‘The scale was grand, the accessories quaint—as if Pierre had crossed Hampton Court with Grandmother’s garden,” as Colvin Randall puts it. Du Pont was still hovering between the old middle-class modesty and the new country-place era of opulent display.
Lame of leg, bulbous of nose, du Pont suffered, says one biographer, from “paralyzing shyness.” Not until June 1909 did he feel bold enough to give a party at Longwood (which he named after the adjacent Longwood Quaker Meetinghouse, once one of the busiest stations on the Underground Railroad). Some three hundred guests dined on chicken croquettes, salmon, claret punch, and lemonade at a total cost of $450. Heartened by his first success as an impresario of fun—“good attendance,” he noted—du Pont decided to try it again. For the June party in 1910 he sent out eight hundred invitations and calculated, “as only Pierre would,” notes Randall, “that 57% of those invited had accepted, 30% had sent regrets, and 13% had not replied at all.” Despite foul weather, “almost everybody seemed to have enjoyed themselves or were pleased to be good enough to say so,” he wrote to his Chilean correspondent, “so that I am encouraged to make another attempt next year.” Destined to become an annual fixture, the June parties were still down-to-earth affairs. “When inclement weather has occurred,” du Pont instructed the caretaker in 1912, “the musicians go to the barn, where the guests gather for dancing.” Not quite the era of country-place opulence, but Pierre du Pont was getting closer to it year by year. Perhaps the decisive event occurred in 1913, when his mother died, for that snapped his last strong personal link with the vanishing era of “respectable gentility.”
The large, handsome greenhouses play havoc with the very distinction between inside and out.
That year, too, he and Cousin Alice visited twenty-two villas in Italy in search of Renaissance ideas for Longwood. Du Pont found one at the Villa Gori near Siena. It was not quite a garden idea in the modern sense, but it perfectly suited a shy, stiff person who seemed to look on Longwood as a kind of love offering to friends and kin and whoever else happened along. The Villa Gori had an open-air theater. By 1914 Longwood had one as well—on the site of the old Peirce barn, where du Font’s friends had danced just a few years before. The 1914 June garden party inaugurated the new theater and a new spirit at Longwood as well. When hired harlequins danced off the outdoor stage and into the crowd, hurling confetti and roses as they frolicked along, “the audience,” wrote a local newspaper, “might easily have imagined itself transported to the days of Marie Antoinette and the scene Versailles, with the wonderful setting of theatre, lights, dancers and nature.” “Nature” consisted in part of an instant copse of transplanted trees towering behind the new stage. Eight years after buying Peirce’s Park to “save the collection of old trees” Pierre S. du Pont had entered the country-place era. By 1914, too, money was an object no longer. Du Font’s income that year alone was $2,700,000 and destined to grow even larger in a world war that consumed more Du Pont gunpowder on a single day in 1917 than the company had sold to the Union army during the entire Civil War.
In 1915 the forty-five-year-old bachelor surprised Cousin Alice from Scranton—and everybody else—with a thoroughly unexpected offer of marriage. He showered his new bride with such country-place amusements as a golf course, four new farms, ever more elaborate June lawn parties. These were Longwood love offerings too, compensation for a marriage that was not only childless but, in the considered view of du Font’s biographer Leonard Mosley, probably sexless as well.
At war’s end the powder magnate, growing more lavish with each passing year, began work on the Main Conservatory. This large, handsome greenhouse looks like a Palladian mansion and displays not rare and exotic species for botanizers (other Longwood greenhouses do that) but indoor gardens, parkland under glass with ever-changing flower beds and never-changing turf, the sight of which plays havoc with the very distinction between indoors and out (which is the secret of its power to please, I finally concluded). Creeping fig and bougainvillea cover and conceal the conservatory’s indoor pillars, making the spacious rooms look, at times, like some antique temple invaded and conquered by unruly nature—a thoroughly romantic sight, though one, so far as I know, unplanned.