A Feminist Plot

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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 20, 2001

For half a century, tourists have been traveling to Winterthur to see the American furniture, decorative art and interiors amassed by Henry Francis du Pont.

Six years ago, I went to the estate north of Wilmington, Del., to explore a lesser-known expression of du Pont's artistry: his love of the romantic landscape.

But while focusing on his idyllic main gardens, I couldn't put out of my mind the smaller series of formal terraces of the Reflecting Pool Garden, which exuded an air of decadence unmatched in the chaste areas of natural beauty.

This was like going to a vegetarian restaurant and craving filet mignon, but I couldn't help it. There was something irresistible about this formal garden, the work of du Pont's lifelong friend, garden designer Marian Cruger Coffin.

Coffin has long fascinated me, a Whartonian figure moving in the uppermost circles of Wilmington (read du Pont) Society. But she was more: a landscape architect of great skill, and a professional woman working in an age and a field dominated by men.

I made a note to get back to Winterthur, though I didn't count on it taking so long.

The impetus for my return trip this late spring was the fresh restoration of another Coffin garden, this time in Wilmington proper at another du Pont estate named Gibraltar. To round off this Coffin pilgrimage, I visited a third property with du Pont connections: Mount Cuba Center for the Study of Piedmont Flora, in nearby Greenville, Del.

This is a botanical preserve established by Pamela Copeland. With her death in January at the age of 94, the formal gardens around her lovely Georgian revival house, again by Coffin, have been opened to the public for the first time, though on a limited basis.

Coffin's life holds uncanny parallels to that of her contemporary, Beatrix Farrand, the designer of Dumbarton Oaks garden in Georgetown. Like Farrand, Coffin came from a society family in New York, both were abandoned by their fathers, and both turned to landscape architecture as a way of supporting themselves, in spite of educational and professional hurdles facing women at the time.

Although du Pont didn't commission his grand formal garden until 1928, he steered others to Coffin years before, including Gibraltar's owner, H. Rodney Sharp, a du Pont by marriage.

I used to think of these neoclassical gardens as being spiffy but shallow, lacking the soul that their owners had tried so hard to create.

Coffin helped me change that notion. She in particular created outdoor spaces that blended exquisite design and proportion with superb craftsmanship to yield gardens of distinctive character.


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© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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