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A Feminist Plot

The house and its grounds are to be restored in the coming months, when the mansion is converted into a luxury hotel. During and after the work, the gardens will remain open to the public.

At Winterthur, the pool terrace was designed and built 15 years later. It is a monumental work, and yet Coffin's use of rustic Brandywine River stone, bluestone paving and distinctive curves suggests the work of a designer now supremely confident of an American form of classicism. Sadly, lower terraces at right angles to the pool have been lost to the construction of the Winterthur library. More puzzling is why the door to the garden, built when du Pont enlarged the house, is so small and unassuming. It seems the landscape design deserved something more.

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Still, from the stuccoed tea house at the top terrace to the pair of pool houses at the bottom the garden ties together, giving it a harmony that belies its complexity.

Coffin, you realize, had to thread the staircase down a steep hill between large old trees that, then and now, give the garden its sense of age and permanence.

There are many difficult changes of level, all deftly executed with steps of differing width and mood. But forget the engineering, the underlying theme here is one of entertaining. One can imagine the parties on sultry summer evenings, the exuberant pots of flowering and fragrant plants, the attentive servants, the quiet corners and the sound of water.

The rear, curving wall contains three holes, veiled in decorative grilles. Their cavities once housed loudspeakers, to fill the precinct with strains of Wagnerian opera.

To the side, broad steps lead to a series of naturalistic ponds, fed by an artificial waterfall. H.F. du Pont may have been a taciturn fellow, but this garden alone dispels the idea that he was shy or socially awkward.

In Greenville, the Copelands built their home, Mount Cuba, in the mid-1930s. The house is large but not ostentatious, and Coffin's garden is correspondingly subdued but elegant. A pond terrace becomes a pivot for an avenue of lilac trees that predate Coffin's involvement but which, in late April, evoke the heady days of life in a du Pont garden. Most of Coffin's work has been erased and Gibraltar came close to being the next.

But her work endures in three of my favorite gardens: They are all distinctly different, from different periods in a great designer's life, and yet all share a capacity to welcome.

ESCAPES KEY

GETTING THERE: The Marian Coffin gardens of Wilmington, Del., are about two hours from Washington. To reach Winterthur Museum and Garden, take I-95 north to the Delaware Avenue/Route 52 exit. Left on 52 north, six miles north to Winterthur on right. To reach Gibraltar, from I-95, take same exit. Once on Route 52/Pennsylvania Avenue, look for the Devon Apartments on right and turn right onto Greenhill Avenue. Gibraltar is at 1405 Greenhill.

BEING THERE: Winterthur (800-448-3883, www.winterthur.org; admission $8) is open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays noon to 5 p.m. Gibraltar (302-651-9617, www.preservationdelaware.org; free), owned by Preservation Delaware, is open year-round Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Coffin gardens at the Mount Cuba Center for the Study of Piedmont Flora (3120 Barley Rd., 302-239-4244) are just north of Winterthur in Greenville, Del. They are open only by appointment to garden groups in September and October and in the spring. The estate is next open to the public May 4, 2002, on Wilmington Garden Day; the tour includes approximately 20 gardens in the Wilmington area ($15 in advance; www.gardenday.org).

EATING THERE: Winterthur has a cafeteria and a cafe offering soups, sandwiches and limited entrees. Buckley's Tavern (5812 Kennett Pike), just north of Winterthur, is the essential du Pont region dining experience -- gourmet burgers at a place where pickups and Bentleys park side by side (either one could be owned by an heiress).

INFO: Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-422-1181, www.wilmcvb.org.


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