In late May, a splashy fanfare heralded the first stage of a major renovation of the historic Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Even a rainy night couldn’t dampen the effect of the Main Fountain Garden’s jet spray (1,340 new jets, 379 “legacy” ones) that shot up into the sky as high as 175 feet—the height of a 15-story building. The shimmering spectacle was dramatized by a multicolor array of LED lighting, and enhanced by an eye-popping display of fireworks. It all may sound ephemeral, but the event represented an impressive collaboration between New York architects Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB); the Dutch urban planning and landscape design firm West 8; a Los Angeles–based water feature consultant, Fluidity Design; and New York lighting specialists L’Observatoire and the interdisciplinary group Pentagram.
The event marked ongoing major plans for Longwood. “This is only the beginning,” says Paul Redman, president and CEO of the horticultural- display gardens, created from 1906 to 1954 by Pierre S. du Pont, an inventor, engineer, and scion of the chemical company. Today, du Pont’s accomplishment totals 1,077 acres, organized around three connected Beaux-Arts-style conservatories, and attracts an estimated 1.35 million visitors a year to this verdant territory near Wilmington, Delaware.
Just to touch on the significant components of Longwood: there are 20 indoor gardens, 20 outdoor ones, and three with fountains. The Main Fountain Garden, five acres in size in front of the conservatories, is the centerpiece— its loggias, arcades, basins, and plantings evoke the grandeur of Versailles’s landscaping. (du Pont himself designed the hydraulic wonder with R.P Brewer in 1931.)
The reopening of this largest fountain after a 2½-year reconstruction is tied to a 40-year master plan that Redman initiated in 2009, with an invited competition won by West 8. The firm’s plan, completed in 2011, doesn’t, according to principal Claire Agre, “just deal with horticulture and upgrading infrastructure and facilities, but addresses the guest experience and strategies for arrival, as well as how the entire acreage can be opened up for the public.”
For the renovation of the Main Fountain Garden, BBB, responsible for the restoration of Grand Central Terminal and the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden, led the team. For starters, the fountains needed major work, which, with improved technology, would cost $90 million, paid privately through the Longwood Foundation and its younger offshoot, Longwood Gardens, Inc.
Spearheaded by partners Jack Beyer and Richard Southwick, BBB installed new precast concrete tunnels and piping, and replaced crumbling limestone and marble. Since four new underground pump houses would replace the original single one, BBB, with Pentagram, converted the original Pump Room into a handsome exhibition space where visitors can examine the early 20th-century engineering equipment, along with related memorabilia. The small gallery now opens onto a new Pumphouse Plaza. In this phase, BBB and West 8 also built a small grotto with fountains behind the center loggia, put in pathways and ramps for accessibility, and oversaw the replanting of the Japanese boxwood, linden and European hornbeam trees, and other such species.
With regard to the next phase, Redman explains that Longwood is exploring various options to enhance guest arrival, which will include the contributions of Weiss/Manfredi, architects for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Visitor Center (2012), and the continued involvement of West 8 as “the keepers of the physical manifestation of our bold vision for Longwood Gardens.” The multifaceted collaboration, so critical to preserving the legacy of the old gardens, seems to be a very promising direction for their future.