Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Long Day at Longwood Gardens

After having discussed this trip months in advance, a friend and I finally descended upon Longwood Gardens this weekend, in part to view the art installation “Light” currently on display there. Located in Pennsylvania’s Kennett Square, Longwood Gardens is the former estate of entrepreneur, philanthropist, and horticulture lover Pierre Samuel du Pont and his wife (and cousin) Alice Belin du Pont. Now approximately covering 1,200 acreage (with only some of that open to the public), Longwood Gardens came in to being when du Pont bought 202 acres of land from the Peirce family in order to save some centuries old trees on the property from being cut for lumber. Of interest (to me at least) is that the Peirce family had originally bought their farmland from William Penn himself. There is certainly a great deal of history behind Longwood Gardens!

After buying that initial tract of land, du Pont set about saving trees in the arboretum, participating in some “gentleman farming,” and expanding and improving the gardens, including numerous additions based on his personal interests and travels. For instance, Longwood sports a beautiful and elaborate Italian Water Garden, inspired both by du Pont’s love of water and a similar garden he saw while traveling near Florence with his wife. He also added a flowered garden walk, an enormous conservatory, and expanded the Peirce’s family home to include a library and covered courtyard, to name a few changes.

The Italian Water Garden at Longwood Gardens
After his death, Longwood Gardens were opened to the public, as stipulated and provided for by du Pont’s will. Incidentally, it is not the only du Pont estate in the Brandywine Valley open to the public; Alfred du Pont’s Nemours is in nearby Wilmington, Delaware as is Henry Francis du Pont’s Winterthur, which I have written about here before and would highly recommend. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find a good family tree online, so if anyone knows the exact relationship amongst these various du Ponts, I would be interested to know. My surmise is that Henry Francis and Pierre Samuel were some sort of distant cousins; they appear to share the same great-grandfather, Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, founder of the E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. (Both Henry Francis’s Winterthur and Pierre Samuel’s Longwood Gardens are listed in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, if you need any extra motivation to visit either one or both.)

Unlike Winterthur, there are few museum-like qualities to Longwood Gardens – that is not to say it is not a great place to visit, just an explanation of what to expect. There is some history on display in the Peirce-du Pont House as well as in the ballroom near the conservatory. The ballroom houses one of the world’s largest pipe organs to be installed in a private residence as well as an exhibit on organ history. (Interestingly, although I think many of us associate organs with churches, early Christians were opposed to their use.) In the music room at the conservatory, there was also a small exhibit on the “Light” installation currently at Longwood, but more on this later. Also, throughout the estate there is often signage explaining the historic significance of particular trees, plants, structures, or garden plans. Here, as in several of the exhibits, I really appreciated the use of photographs to illustrate how particular rooms or garden areas looked when the du Ponts lived at Longwood. Comparing these with the current landscape emphasizes how well the grounds have been maintained and conserved to look as they did back in the 1920s and 30s.

Longwood may not have an extensive amount of information for the history buff, but it more than makes up for that in its natural beauty. The grounds host plants, trees, flowers, vegetables, and herbs of all kinds, making it especially interesting for botanists (amateur or professional) to explore. However, even those without any flora knowledge can enjoy just soaking in the beauty. Those interested in fauna may also be delighted with some surprise finds – at least the bird-watchers amongst us will have plenty to see! The well-laid out paths, along with a handy map, make the large estate easy enough to navigate. Visitors can enjoy strolling through and near a topiary garden, a rose arbor, a couple of lakes, and a cultivated meadow, amongst other fabulous sites. There are also numerous tree-houses to explore along with an impressive chimes tower and accompanying waterfall. For those traveling with children, there are a few child-specific areas carved out, including an outdoor children’s corner and an indoor children’s garden.

Chimes Tower

A bird "condo" above one of the garden patches

An unexpected visitor. I suspected he was there because of all the birds, but he came to sit next to me on this bench instead.

Indoors, the conservatory hosts 20 rooms of rare, exotic, or just plain interesting plants and flowers. Here visitors can view bonsai trees that have been in training for nearly 100 years, a plethora of orchid variations, and various fruit trees, ferns, roses, and so forth. (Apparently, orchids and roses were amongst Alice Belin du Pont’s favorite types of flowers, while Pierre Samuel du Pont had a fondness for nectarines.) Some rooms are filled with flora fitting a specific theme, such as the silver garden or the Mediterranean garden.

Close-up of one particular species in the orchid room. The centers struck me as looking like fanciful little people.
One patch of the "silver garden" within the conservatory

Just outside of the conservatory is the main fountain garden. A personal project of Pierre Samuel du Pont’s, this set of fountains use his hydraulic designs to jettison spouts of water up to 130 feet high while pumping 10,000 gallons of water per minute. A brief 5-minute water show is displayed here several times a day, with a more elaborate 30-minute water-and-light show occurring every evening. This show is generally accompanied by music, but as the nearby outdoor theater on the grounds was entertaining guests with The Mikado last night, our show was sans music. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant display, and many visitors of the grounds grabbed a seat or stood outside the conservatory to watch this impressive entertainment – and made their own music with the collective “oohs” and “aahs” that sprung up with each new delight.

Traversing the main fountain garden is this bridge-like structure with additional fountains (apparently not in use now though) and sculptures. Unlike nearly everything else at Longwood, this whole structure had a dilapidated air that gave it a Great Expectations-like atmosphere. We hoped that it was slated for restoration/conservation next.

In addition to all the usual charms of Longwood Gardens, part of the reason we decided to visit this particular month was to see the art installation, “Light,” by Bruce Munro. This site-specific installation is actually comprised of several different installations throughout the estate. This varies from the amusing (large “lily pads” made up of foam and recycled CDs floating in the large lake) to the enchanting (a forest walk illuminated by 20,000 glass-blown baubles encasing LED lights that were constantly changing colors) to the profound (a section of the meadow littered with 69 towers made of recycled bottles filled with water and LED lights accompanied by music, apparently inspired by a novel the artist read in which a character had synesthesia). At the exhibit in the music room, a few details of Munro’s work were on display along with professional (and amateur via visitors’ uploads) photography of his installations at Longwood. Here the curators displayed a quote in which Munro explained his work, “Light is visceral and evocative. A certain quality of light can bring you back to a moment in the past. Every season has a light that brings back distinct memories, whether staring at a twinkling Christmas tree or lying under the window on a summer afternoon watching dust motes float in the sunshine. In my work I try to capture something of these ephemeral experiences. I want to express those moments of being lost, of discovering that feeling of merging with something greater.” What a beautiful sentiment.

In the distance is the "Water Towers" installation as seen in the daylight still

The only downside to our trip was that we came fairly early in the afternoon so that we were pretty exhausted from all our walking by the evening time, just as dusk was coming. As a consequence, we didn’t see Munro’s work in all its full glory of being lit up in contrast to a dark night. However, we did see enough to appreciate it and the stunning amount of work that much have gone into it. Like others, we marveled at the fairy tale-like ambiance of the “Forest of Light” and sat meditatively listening to music at the “Water Towers.” And, our long day at the Longwood Gardens meant that we got to traverse the public property in its entirety, even doubling back to certain areas.

While I still personally preferred Winterthur as a place I would go back to multiple times, visiting Longwood Gardens was certainly an enjoyable and informative experience and I would recommend it to others!

1 comment:

  1. More on this trip, along with some fabulous photos, can be found in this post from my friend Deb: