- 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
Nothing was planned at Longwood Gardens except the immediate task at hand. “Whatever Mr. du Pont did in construction or addition came out of his mind at the time,” recalled one of the old hands at Longwood. “When he built the greenhouses in 1920, he never thought for one minute that nine years later he would put waterfalls and fountains in the corn fields in front of them.” Or another instant forest on the high knoll beyond them. Italy’s famed Villa d’Esté helped inspire the Main Fountain Garden at Longwood. So, too, did du Font’s childhood memory of the waterworks at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, which, he recalled long after, were “captivating beyond description with jets of all kinds spurting like mad and without cease.” The truth is, plain running water brought out the poet in the dry, crusty gunpowder titan. “I confess,” he once wrote, “to still feel a thrill at the sight of clear water running freely from a faucet.”
By 1931 the country-place era was over, never to return. But as du Pont intended, Longwood lives on.
It runs freely and gently from six hundred small jets at the Italian Water Garden, which du Pont, increasingly fascinated by both the beauty and the technics of fountains, installed at Longwood in 1927 at the marshy end of old Peirce’s Park. Water spurts more grandly yet at the Open Air Theater, which du Pont enlarged and befountained that same year with particularly stunning success at his annual June party. “The thousand guests assembled last evening in the open-air theater,” reported the “Society Hour Glass Column” of the Wilmington, Delaware, Sunday Star, “—sophisticated folk, for the most part, who simulate boredom as part of their code—gasped at the loveliness devised for their eyes, and shown for the first time last evening.... Even the languid young men waiting for the dance to begin seemed stirred to enthusiasm.”
Begun in 1928, the Main Fountain Garden was to be Longwood’s hydraulic masterpiece, the most impressive of all the love offerings from Pierre S. du Pont to his friends. And so it is. In the garden 229 fountain heads can drive ten thousand gallons of water into the air every minute—and do so three times a day all summer long. The strongest jets can throw up spires of water 130 feet high. Yet these powerful fountains are so ductile, so supple, so wonderfully controllable they can produce swift, endless changes of shape. Towering cathedral spires turn into sheer walls that suddenly collapse into low domes, which in turn dissolve into gauzy clouds. At night all these changing water shapes can be tinted by 740 red, blue, green, yellow, and white floodlights, themselves capable of generating endlessly subtle gradations of brightness and hue. As the designer of the fountains’ electric controls put it more than a half-century ago, “the expressions of appreciation escaping from the lips of the awe-inspired audiences give undeniable testimony to the magnificence of this man-made wonder.”
In 1931 the great fountains were turned on for the first time in public, and that was the last of Pierre S. du Font’s grand Longwood projects. The year 1931 also marked the end of the long line of June parties, except for a last fete in 1940, a swan song. The Great Depression had struck America; the country lay prostrate; angry voices were heard in the land. The powder magnate of the press was now more commonly referred to as a merchant of death and blamed for the world war’s carnage. In a word, the countryplace era was over, never to return. But Longwood Gardens live on, their power to make people feel happy increasing with age, as their founder had intended, perhaps from the start.