In 1798, the twin grandsons of a Quaker who was farming 400 acres in the far southeastern corner of Pennsylvania developed an interest in natural history; they began planting a collection of trees that eventually included specimens from throughout the U.S. and overseas. The grove, which grew to 15 acres, became a popular spot for picnics and family reunions. Generations later the family lost interest in the arboretum and new owners were at the point of contracting with a lumber company to remove the trees when successful industrialist Pierre du Pont purchased the land in 1906 to preserve its botanical richness and create an outdoor sanctuary for enjoyment.
“I have recently experienced what I would formerly have diagnosed as an attack of insanity,” du Pont wrote to a friend soon after. “I have purchased a small farm. I expect to have a good deal of enjoyment in restoring its former condition and making it a place where I can entertain my friends.” Without fixed plans, he gradually added gardens, an open-air theater, then a vast greenhouse, and large buildings for music and entertaining. He began hosting elaborate garden parties, and created illuminated fountains that shot 10,000 gallons of water per minute as high as 130 feet.
Du Pont eventually gave a great deal of thought to the future of his gardens, and in 1937 began the Longwood Foundation to maintain them for long-term public enjoyment and education. At his death in 1954 he left the foundation with a sizable endowment, a solid board of trustees, and a long tradition of offering visitors rare beauty. The gardens have continued to grow, and with an annual budget of nearly $50 million and a staff of 1,300 employees, students, and volunteers, has become one of the world’s great gardens.
In 2016, the Longwood board completed a $90 million renovation and enhancement of the garden’s most prominent feature—the astonishing dancing fountains that Pierre du Pont was intimately involved in creating. Rather than simply restoring the 80-year-old structures, the board returned to the founder’s original vision of using the best available modern technology to create the most entrancing fountains in existence. Du Pont’s layout of classical sculptures and limestone basins was scrupulously rebuilt, but the guts of the fountains were redesigned with special pumps, thousands of LED lights, and computerized effects, to make sure that the donor’s legacy would remain in the future what he created it to be in his own day—the most spectacular example of its kind.
- Longwood Gardens, longwoodgardens.org
- History of Longwood Gardens, longwoodgardens.org/history
- Tim Richardson, Great Gardens of America (Francis Lincoln, 2009)