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The Powder Maker’s Garden

May 2024
13min read

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.”

As I walked down a side path at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, on a bright, sunny day in June, two quite distinct sights converged just in front of me. One was a middle-aged foursome of fellow visitors, all clad in the near-mandatory style of the vacationing 1980s American: immaculate pastel sports clothes and bulbous white sneakers. The other sight was a spectacular tree, one whose branches, instead of ascending toward the heavens, droop mournfully down to the ground—what garden people call a weeping form. Suddenly a member of the foursome broke away from her companions, ducked between the sagging branches, and disappeared completely from view, rather like a chipmunk bolting into the shrubbery.

I knew quite well what the vanishing lady was doing. I had been doing much the same thing for hour upon hour at Longwood Gardens. She was looking for the tree’s identifying label, doubtless confident that one would be found attached to the tree trunk, for though Longwood calls itself a pleasure garden, it supplies labels for its eleven thousand varieties of trees, shrubs, and flowers with more meticulous care than many a world-famous botanical garden. This is a great blessing to name freaks, meaning people like myself who are not quite happy with even the loveliest tree, shrub, or flower until we have been formally introduced.

Three hundred guests attended the first party at Longwood; they dined on salmon and claret punch.

After twenty seconds or so the vanishing lady emerged from her leafy enclosure with her face beaming merrily.

“What is it?” I called out to her, name freak to name freak.

“Weeping European beech,” she shouted back. “Isn’t it just worth the whole trip?”

I signaled my assent—the tree was a beauty—and we went our separate ways. The pastel foursome was heading for Longwood’s Hillside Garden, a small, lovely affair of steep, narrow paths and dense, low plantings, which blooms in spring with alpine flowers. I myself was heading back to Longwood’s glorious assemblage of greenhouses—twenty indoor gardens under 3.5 acres of glass—hoping to figure out on a second examination why it is that an emerald green lawn growing indoors should prove so oddly pleasing a sight. To figure out why seemed my duty as a chronicler of Longwood Gardens, for while there are gardens more exquisitely beautiful and gardens (though not many) more grand, Longwood’s 350 landscaped acres have the power to make people feel happy, all kinds of people with all kinds of tastes,—very happy indeed.

Longwood is easier to enjoy than to understand. “The place would drive a landscape architect crazy,” says Colvin Randall, Longwood’s resident historian and spokesman. “There’s not one grand plan for Longwood, and there never was.” It seems on first (or second) go-round to be a vast miscellany of pleasures and delights: a formal sixhundred-foot brick walk, straight as a die, bordered with lavish flower beds in perfect, pristine bloom; a cool, stone-walled water garden with lovely blue-tiled pools poised at the edge of a woods; a lordly five-acre fountain garden complete with canals, statuary, and fountains that the eminent garden writer Edward Hyams deems “the most spectacular that have been made since the Renaissance.” There are separate little gardens, some of them neatly walled in by clipped arborvitae, making sweet, secluded little outdoor rooms. These include a peony garden, a wisteria garden, a square fountain garden, a rose arbor, a rose garden, and a topiary garden with deep green yew clipped into the shape of cones, cubes, and spirals as well as the shape of a chair and table, a bird, a rabbit. There is even an open-air theater with raised lawns for its two-tiered stage—a sloping lawn for the orchestra, clipped arborvitae for stage wings, massive Canada hemlocks and Kentucky coffee trees for a backdrop, and a row of jetting water for the theater curtain.

There are informal picturesque areas: a hilltop knoll behind the great fountain garden with hundreds of magnificent specimen trees—lofty white pine, floriferous Spanish chestnut, atlas cedar of astonishing breadth. There is a glorious wild meadow crossed by footpaths thoughtfully mowed by the garden staff; a bosky forest walk beneath soaring tulip poplars; a roaring man-made waterfall; a beautiful little lake bordered on one side by a dark forest and on the other by sun-drenched lawn. There are two 900-foot-long avenues of majestic nineteenth-century trees. These are the awesome remains of what had once been one of early America’s finest arboretums, known then and now as Peirce’s Park, after Joshua and Samuel Peirce, botanizing Quaker twins who started their tree collecting in 1798; the Peirce property itself was a grant to the family from none other than William Penn.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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