The Splendor of Longwood Gardens
A du Pont passion for horticulture
Many people assume that highly renowned businessmen focus almost exclusively on one thing: the success of their business. Yet, some of our nation’s great industrialists have also displayed a fondness for hobbies. After the turn of the 20th century, Pierre du Pont, president of the prosperous E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, purchased a local farm to save an old grove of trees for posterity, spawning a passion for horticulture that evolved into one of our nation’s most beloved floral sanctuaries, Longwood Gardens.
In 1700, George Peirce came to Philadelphia from England and purchased the 402 acres in Chester County that would eventually become Longwood Gardens. His great-grandsons decided to start an arboretum covering 15 acres, a collection that became well known to visitors in the area. When the farm later passed to George Washington Peirce, the acreage was maintained and amenities like croquet courts, summer houses, and a rowing pond were added to increase its attractiveness to the public.
Despite the Peirce family’s dedication, George’s heirs demonstrated little interest in maintaining the property and sold it. The acreage was resold twice, falling into the hands of a man who had plans to cut down all the trees to produce lumber for his sawmill. In 1906, the possibility of losing this natural treasure caused 36-year-old Pierre du Pont to buy 202 acres of Peirce’s Woods for roughly $16,000. This gem became Longwood Gardens, named for its proximity to the Longwood Friends Meetinghouse.
Pierre’s worldwide travels to places like London’s Royal Botanic (Kew) Gardens and the Sydenham Crystal Palace, as well as California, Florida, Hawaii, the Caribbean, and South America, generated ideas to develop this horticultural haven. Stops at dozens of chateaus in France and several Italian villas gave him different concepts for architectural design and development. Pierre had hands-on experience with plants, as he had owned a commercial florist business with seven greenhouses by the age of 28. He also knew a bit about landscaping and design, supervising the building of 150 houses and later heading the team that built the Du Pont building in downtown Wilmington. He used this experience to eventually develop Longwood Gardens’ immense tapestry of buildings, walking paths, fountains, and gazebos amidst a huge assortment of plants, trees, and shrubs unequaled in the western hemisphere.
Pierre’s initial project was laying out the property’s first true flower garden, a 600-foot-long Garden Walk filled with annuals, biennials, and perennials. He built a 20-foot-wide pool holding the first of many fountains at the intersection of the main paths. Utilizing his experiences at the Villa d’Este outside Rome and the Villa Gori in Siena, Pierre built the Open Air Theatre and later hosted an elaborate garden party in 1914. He also had the Longwood greenhouse built to grow vegetables, fruits, and flowers. This was later greatly expanded into an enormous, classically designed building 181 feet wide and 204 feet long, with arched, bronze-rimmed windows—a structure reminiscent of 19th-century exhibition halls. Alongside it were single-story structures connected to pavilions with their own heat, water, and power supplied directly on site. Visitors could see a huge assortment of locally grown fruit, including apricots, peaches, figs, grapes, melons, pineapples, and nectarines. There were even experimental plantings ranging from coffee to coconut palms and maintained by eight full-time gardeners.
Over the ensuing years, Pierre wanted to entertain the public even more, so he built a full-scale concert hall and ballroom, which were perfect for his pipe organ (with 10,010 pipes ranging in size from one-quarter inch to 32 feet in length). Later, an Italian water garden and an expansion of the Open Air Theatre continued his dream of building a world-class complex that people could enjoy for decades to come. Subsequent improvements, which marked the end of major construction during Pierre’s lifetime, included hundreds of additional pools and fountains accompanied by ornate Old World sculptures imported from Italy, as well as an intricate lighting system with glass filters, which gave the fountain displays a surreal look at night. Years later, these would be accompanied by music, creating a spectacular synchronized panorama.
Pierre clearly succeeded in attaining his goal to create “a place where I could entertain my friends.” Pierre was more than a successful businessman and visionary horticulturalist. He was also a history buff, collecting and translating hundreds of family documents from French to English and compiling a family genealogy going back almost five centuries. In 1950, he even hosted a 150th anniversary celebration to commemorate his family’s arrival in the United States with a gala event attended by 632 family members and guests from around the world.
On April 2, 1954, Pierre du Pont was recognized by the French government for his lifetime achievement and awarded the Cravate de Commandeur of the French Legion of Honor in a ceremony at Longwood. Though he passed away a few days later, his beautiful gardens are still blossoming—an accomplishment that people may visit and admire.
Gene Pisasale is an author and lecturer based in Kennett Square, Pa. He’s authored eight books and conducts an historic lecture series focusing on topics related to the Philadelphia/mid-Atlantic region. His book, “Abandoned Address – The Secret of Frick’s Lock,” delves into the history of an abandoned ghost town in northeastern Chester County with ties to the Industrial Revolution and some of the greatest inventors of all time. His lecture series, “Frick’s Lock to Du Pont – How the Industrial Revolution Saved America,” highlights how inventors and companies like Du Pont contributed greatly to our economic survival. Gene’s books are available on www.Amazon.com. For more information, visit his website at www.GenePisasale.com or e-mail him at [email protected].