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A Feminist Plot
In Delaware, a New Look at Garden Designer Marian Coffin

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.

Gibraltar is the earliest of the three, begun in 1915, and though the smallest, it is the most lavish in some respects. Sharp seemed the sort of debonair client who would demand something especially stylish.

Enter the iron gate to the Formal Flower Garden and you find yourself in a large, walled garden where the paths are of broken slabs of white Italian marble, laid randomly. The flower beds are broad and colorful, filled in roses of yellow, pink, peach, with tall bearded irises, blue delphiniums, phlox, black-eyed Susans and so forth through the season.

I stopped to chat with Colleen Scheutz, the horticulturist. She explained that Coffin was a disciple of Gertrude Jekyll, the English garden designer who popularized the use of large plantings of perennials in thoughtful color schemes. These herbaceous borders seem so well married to the garden architecture, to the carved limestone benches, urns and statuary.

The formal garden leads to an avenue of bald cypress trees ending in an open, classical pavilion where, in the age before air conditioning, the Sharps would lay ornamental rugs, bring out the potted plants and retreat for cool, Sybaritic relief.

Today, you hear the sound of cars and trucks on busy Route 52, and yet the traffic cannot break the spell of the pavilion, with its marble columns, vaulted ceiling and small fountain, and its view back through the columns of cypress. With a few props you could easily imagine being in Tuscany, even Marrakesh.

Returning to the formal garden along the fringes of this cypress avenue, you find yourself in a serpentine path through the woods -- back in the northern world now, striding in mid-spring through a sea of bluebells.

You are vaguely aware of a large house on a hill overlooking these gardens, but it is not until you climb twisting marble stairs that you realize you have entered the garden (by necessity) from the bottom, not, as Coffin had intended, from the top. The public entrance to the garden is through the lower gate.

The steps lead you past a swimming pool terrace (now converted to ornamental use), and then to another, more intimate terrace of evergreens, and finally upward to the peak of the six-acre parcel where the now-tatty Victorian mansion sits.

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.

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.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company