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The fantastical comeback of Longwood Gardens’ Main Fountain Garden

An “attack of insanity” turned into one of the world’s greatest gardens. So how on earth could it get any better?

It’s three days before the May 27 grand re-opening of the Main Fountain Garden at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Hundreds of people are milling about the restored garden, meandering along new and old pathways, admiring the mesmerizing fountains and meticulously carved boxwoods.

Then, the music starts. The crowd goes silent. And finally, after three years of painstaking restorations and renovations, the show begins.

But the fascinating, long, and complicated history of the Main Fountain Garden at Longwood Gardens begins long before that moment. It was 1876, and six-year-old Pierre S. DuPont was in awe. Like the rest of the nearly 10 million visitors at the Bicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia, he was being wowed by the hundreds of exhibits and design feats on display at the celebration. But DuPont was mesmerized by one feature in particular: A man-made pool in Machinery Hall.

DuPont would go onto write, “I could have remained all day beside this pool in Machinery Hall.”

Longwood Gardens’ Main Fountain Garden re-opens to the public on Saturday, May 27 after three years.

DuPont was born in 1870 as an heir to the storied DuPont company that had made its initial money as a gunpowder manufacturer. In his early life, DuPont grew up at St. Armour Estate near Wilmington, Delaware, where he spent his time wandering the grounds and tinkering with the garden’s simple fountains.

“At home, we had a garden fountain with one jet,” DuPont wrote, “the size of a knitting needle, turned on occasionally, closely watched, and turned off as soon as possible.”

Years after his inspiring visit to Machinery Hall, DuPont was armed with a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he followed in the DuPont dynasty’s footsteps, studying chemistry and mechanical drawing.

A smart and bright man, DuPont would go onto serve as president of his family’s company and lead General Motors, developing concoctions like the first American smokeless powder. But when he wasn’t taking the helm of the family business, he continued tending to his love of gardens.

Pierre S. DuPont bought an arboretum in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania that would eventually become Longwood Gardens. The grounds shown here would become the site of the Main Fountain Garden.
via Wikimedia Commons/Courtesy of Longwood Gardens

Perhaps that’s why on July 20, 1906, in what DuPont himself would call “an attack of insanity,” he decided to purchase an arboretum in Kennett Square from the Pierce family. Initially, DuPont had no plans for his newly acquired property but to save the trees. But a trip to Europe in the early 1900s would change that.

It was in Italy during a visit to the enchanting Villa de’Este, an estate in Tivoli where fountains shoot from nearly every corner of its expansive garden, that DuPont remarked, “It would be nice to have something like this at home.”

When he and his wife, cousin Alice Belin, returned to the states, DuPont was filled with inspiration to recreate the awe-inspiring fountain displays and formal landscapes he had just toured all throughout Europe. First came Longwood Gardens’ open-air theater, which was the first to employ a hydraulic system that spouted colorful streams of water from the stage’s edge. The Italian Water Garden, based on the design of the Villa Gamberaia near Florence, Italy, soon followed.

But it’s the Main Fountain Garden that DuPont pegged as a true rival to the fountain gardens of Europe. For years, DuPont tinkered with his own designs for the fountains and garden, eyeing a large swath of farmland that at the time was dotted in boxwoods and haystacks. A bit of a perfectionist, DuPont apparently fired many designers over the course of the years-long planning process, claiming that their work did not meet his standards.

“He really did it right,” claimed Longwood Gardens CEO Paul Redman.

It was well worth the wait for DuPont. When the Main Fountain Garden debuted in 1931, spewing 650,000 gallons of water from the earth, it was praised for its engineering feats and power. Longwood Gardens historian Colvin L. Randall described it as a sign of the times: “His creation was as exuberant as the era of the 1920s in which it was built.”

An early photo of visitors walking through the Main Fountain Garden.
Courtesy of Longwood Gardens

But after years of inducing wonder among Longwood’s millions of visitors each year, with firework displays and illuminated fountain shows, the initial luster began to wear off and wear thin. The Longwood Gardens crew nicknamed a section of the Main Fountain Garden “the zipper,” since every couple of years they would have to dig in and peel back the grass for pipe repairs.

“It was maintenance nightmare,” says landscape architect Claire Agre, whose team at West 8 was brought on five years ago to design a master plan for the entire Longwood Gardens. “The Main Fountain Garden was deteriorating, and as far as we were concerned, it wasn’t very connected or inviting.”

Redman recognized that, and assembled an all-star cast of designers that included West 8, architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB), and water consultant Fluidity (a total of 81 firms worked on the project). Their task was to make the Main Fountain Garden a place that visitors could actually interact with and enjoy up close—“using innovation as the guiding light,” Redman said.

“How do you bring the existing garden one step further?” West 8 designer Jelle Therry recalled trying to answer. “You could do a simple restoration of the garden, which means you keep it in the same time frame it was built, or push it one step further and bring it into the next generation. That was our push.”

“With the stipulation that we would never lose the sense of legacy or historic character of the garden,” BBB principle and architect Richard Southwick added.

The revamped Main Fountain Garden shows off its new technology four times a day.

Under a big, privately funded $90 million budget, the team of 3,000-plus designers, conservationists, and engineers got to work on the restoration in 2014, closing the beloved garden to visitors for the next three years. Layers upon layers were unstitched and peeled back, allowing the team to build a quarter-mile of tunnels of pipes underground.

“It looked like an entire city was being built,” Agre remarked.

The Grotto is a new addition to the Main Garden Fountain.

Another 5,155 pieces of stone—Italian limestone, marble, and Serptentine stone—were carefully removed from the site and shipped to Conshohocken, where Dan Lepore & Sons spent 16,000 hours total meticulously restoring them to their original color and state.

“I always say that if you do restoration correctly, it’s never supposed look brand new,” said Southwick.

There were new additions to the Main Fountain Garden, too, including a grotto below the raised, limestone walkway that’s meant as a place for reflection and solitude, a stark contrast to the whimsical and show-stopping fountain shows that take place above.

West 8 even brought on leading soil expert Dr. Barrett Kays to create a special soil mixture made of 13 different attributes for the grounds. This concoction, surely one that would have impressed even DuPont, allows for up to 12 inches of water to drain each day—so that the garden will never been off-limits to visitors again, even after a torrential downpour. “It’s one of the most important things that nobody will see,” said Therry.

West 8 designed more than 5,700 feet of paths that allow visitors to walk in, around, and above the Main Fountain Garden.

And of course, there’s the actual fountain design. Fluidity was given the tough task of creating a new set of fountain heads that would truly bring the fountain’s restoration into the 21st century. The LA-based water feature design and engineering firm designed and repaired a total of 1,719 jets, made so intricately and precisely to produce a basket-weave design, emit fire, and shoot up to 175 feet into the air.

Fluidity created a custom fountain jet design for Longwood Gardens that creates a basket weave effect.

The three-year-long, painstaking process of restoring the Main Fountain Garden came to an end a few days before its grand return on Saturday, May 27. In the days leading up to the first fountain show, Longwood members were treated to a sneak preview. Hundreds piled onto the lawn. Dozens stood above the garden at the Conservatory. Another crowd gathered on top of the restored Fountain Terrace bridge that had been closed to visitors for the past 25 years.

The excitement was palpable, but as the fountain show began, the murmurs fell to a hush as the crowd became captivated by the jets of water that sprang from the fountains in each and every direction.

For Claire Agre, the landscape architect, that’s all she could have hoped for in a project of this magnitude. “I was the only one in my office who knew about Longwood—I grew up going there once or twice a year,” she said. “It already brings everybody so much joy, but it’s really going to be visceral and exciting and I hope it lifts spirits. That’s what it’s for—all that work to bring joy and give some more life to a place that needed a few new layers of thinking.”

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