Here's a behind-the-scenes look at the $90 million renovation of the Main Fountain Garden in Kennett Square, Pa. (Longwood Gardens)

In his black rumpled suit and probing glances, Jim Garland might be mistaken for a priest from a gritty parish. But the eyeglasses betray a more artsy, secular mien: They’re thick-framed and the color of hardened caramel, and beyond them he observes a world through which water moves. Water is the stuff of life, but for Garland it is also the ultimate medium of expression and feeling.

From his studio in Los Angeles, he creates some of the world’s most spectacular fountains. He’s a peculiar blend of theater architect, hydraulic engineer, lighting designer and choreographer, and there may be only a dozen or so people on the planet who do this at this level. Above all else, Garland is an artist. Paul Redman, the executive director of Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., describes him as “the Elton John of the fountain world. He just has that level of charisma and passion, it just inspires you to reach higher.”

Thirty years into his odyssey, Garland, 57, is in the midst of his biggest project so far, the $90 million renovation of the Main Fountain Garden at Longwood Gardens.

When most people look at a fountain, they see its structure, but when Garland describes a fountain, he talks about how it directs the behavior of the water. He speaks of the Fountain of the Innocents in Paris, old and beautiful with cascades that emanate from an urn at the top. But if the water flow were turned up a hair, he says, you’d get a froth in the glassy cascade “so that it’s lace that moves through crystal.”

His mind is also drawn to the pair of fountains by Edwin Lutyens in London’s Trafalgar Square and the way the flow and the bowl work together so that “the bowl itself is completely coated in a membrane of water.”

If you look at the fountain from the north “you see thousands of droplets alive in the spray. The basin is a silhouette.” Walk around so the sunlight is behind you, and the water becomes more solid and the stone of the fountain is lit. These effects “take a long time to understand,” he said.

At Longwood Gardens, the popular du Pont estate and garden near Wilmington, Del., the fountain was the grand gesture of industrialist Pierre S. du Pont, a polymath who at one time headed both the Dupont chemical company and General Motors. When the fountain restoration is finished next year, visitors accustomed to the summer evening show of water, lights and fireworks set to music, will see new performances that will incorporate du Pont’s light and water show with its 138 “legacy” jets and 380 fountainheads, all framed in a formal Italianate garden. But as each half-hour show unfolds, the audience will see that as spectacularly advanced as du Pont’s fountain was when it was built in the 1930s, fountain shows in the 21st century have been transformed.

The new Longwood fountain will incorporate effects that would make Louis XIV, the patron of Versailles, hold tight to his powdered wig: a total of 1,719 coordinated jets and streams, some emanating from robotic nozzles that swivel to make the jets dance; water pumps that dial the pressure up or down; LED lights that will bring colors never before seen in fountains; bursts of water propelled by compressed air; fire incorporated into the columns of water; an advanced sound system; and software programming that will blend the spectacle together with split-second synchronization.

When the restoration is finished next year there will be a total of 1,719 coordinated jets and streams, LED lights that will bring colors never before seen in fountains and more. (Longwood Gardens)

“The old sound system was actually quite nice, and the new one will shame it,” Garland said. “The old lighting system was superb — you might consider it an instrument. The new one is like an orchestra.” (Garland’s 20-member studio, Fluidity Design, is part of a blue-chip restoration team led by the architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle. The landscape architects are West 8, based in Rotterdam and New York).

When you look down at the Main Fountain Garden, which now looks like some great excavation of ancient Egypt, “fountain” seems such an inadequate word to describe the 5-acre site.

The principal fountain pool, the rectangular basin, sits at the far end of Longwood’s Conservatory overlook. Italianate arcades frame the space, decorated with 4,000 limestone panels carved in Italy. They have all been removed and cleaned for the project, and the tired soil and plantings of the formal garden also have been removed. An old allee of clipped Norway maple — a tree popular in the 1930s but now unloved for good reasons — will be replaced with native littleleaf lindens.

Somehow, du Pont designed an enormous show garden that remained elegant. Part of it is down to the Italian stonework, but even if it were just in concrete, the proportions are just right, further leavened by the garden’s sunken nature.

The backbone of the garden is an entirely new network of underground concrete tunnels — 1,400 linear feet that will house and provide maintenance access to the miles of plumbing, electrical and propane gas lines, and the pumps and valves that animate the water displays.

Between the allee and the overlook lie two parallel canals connected by a central, circular pool. Together, the layout to Garland suggests a thrust stage, and the fountain jets a company of dancers.

“Our intention is that they have a real personality,” he said, “and it doesn’t look like a dancing fountain but that the performers are made of water.”

The central water jet is Garland’s prima ballerina. “She has extra personality and skill level,” he said. “It’s going to be, I believe, mesmerizing and have a lot of theatrical emotion.”

Big splashes in Vegas, Dubai

Probably the most famous theatrical fountains in the United States announce the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, which opened in 1998. The fountains employed their own leading-edge technology, including robotic nozzles, LED lights, flames and “shooters” — bursts of water propelled by compressed air. The Bellagio Fountains were the work of the industry giant WET, based in Sun Valley, Calif. The company has designed more than 300 fountains, its biggest to date the world-famous Dubai Fountain, set next to the Dubai Mall on a 24-acre lake, and opened in 2009 at a cost in excess of $200 million . Billed as the world’s tallest performing fountain, its features include water jets that reach 450 feet and a battery of projectors that add colorful abstract patterns to the water displays.

A fountain show at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. (MGM Resorts International)

Compared with the Bellagio, “it has a lot of the same technology but it’s been vastly updated over the course of 14 years,” said Jim Doyle, WET’s director of design technology. Among the advances are robotic nozzles that are “much smaller, much faster,” he said. Known as “oarsmen” because of their synchronized movement, early examples cost about $50,000 apiece.

Lighting technology has also changed dramatically. Du Pont lit his fountain with incandescent lamps and arc lights, with housings and lenses specifically built for the fountain. They were expensive and sophisticated for their day, and used red, blue, green, amber and clear Pyrex lenses to create a mix of colors. The lenses alone cost $4,248, a princely sum during the Great Depression.

Among their limitations: They used a lot of energy and were high-maintenance. You might have to use a 1,000-watt bulb behind a red lens to get 100 watts of light, Doyle said.

Advances in light-emitting diode illumination have brought color effects to new levels. The earliest LED systems consisted of red, blue and green light arrayed in a honeycombed lamp. “They would try on different combinations to create different colors,” Garland said. “In fact, color is much more complicated than that.”

In time, white light was added to the mix, but the effect was too cold. Current systems add amber lighting that provides more warmth. At Longwood, the LED arrays will contain a next-generation system that Garland said will “deliver the strongest, and most artistically nuanced lighting design to date.”

All the permutations of various effects are set to music, which requires a programmer to take a song and marry the toy box of fountain effects to its musical lines, rhythms and crescendos. A four-minute number might take two weeks or more of programming. “It’s really hard to do this because people have to have a lyrical sense,” Doyle said. “They have got to be artists.”

“It’s exciting because we will be able to do things that I’ve thought about for many years,” said Colvin Randall, one of Longwood’s three fountain show designers. They are putting together a dozen shows for the first year.

The paradox is that the world’s newest theatrical fountains are using leading-edge, digitally begotten technology to create a consummately physical form of entertainment.

“We sell reality,” Doyle said. “People are getting hungry for reality. They’re getting tired of YouTube. You can only see so many dancing cats.”

Maybe the reality of theatrical fountains is the unreality of it, the glimpse of the fantastic.

Trickle-down from antiquity

As dynamic as major fountains are today, the need for us to find magic in water has abided through the centuries. Two thousand years ago, the Romans developed sophisticated hydraulic systems and used them for amusement as well as utility. And when classical Rome was reborn in the Renaissance, the theater of the fountain was taken to heights that still draw millions of visitors.

In Italy, two Renaissance villas remain exemplars of fountain entertainment and beauty. At the Villa d’Este in Tivoli and the Villa Lante near Viterbo, the water features form the primary elements of the gardens and draw hordes of tourists. (Like Longwood, they were created as a private paradise that later became a public attraction.)

Garden historian Christopher Thacker described Villa d’Este as “the most complete water garden in the world, with infinitely varied water spectacles.” These include the Hundred Fountains, a wall of jets and streams, and the monumental Ovata Fountain inspired by the water garden of the Emperor Hadrian, also in Tivoli.

At the Villa d’Este, the hydraulic engineers who built the fountains in the late 16th century also incorporated watery gags that ensured that guests of the patron, Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, would get a surprise squirt or two.

But the most technically advanced fountain was the Organ Fountain, designed by two Frenchmen, Luca Clerico and his nephew, Claude Venard. Among the fountain’s innovations was a chamber in which water would pressurize air to sound the organ pipes. It played automatically, without the need for a musician, and still does.

What Villa d’Este demonstrated was that if you were going to incorporate water features into a garden effectively, they needed to be as ambitious as the plantings and garden architecture.

Du Pont was in his late 60s when his fountain was finally finished, but the inspiration for it came from a lifetime of experiences, including a visit in 1889 to the Paris Exposition where he saw a fountain at the base of the newly built Eiffel Tower, illuminated with newfangled electric lighting.

Four years later, du Pont made his way to the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where the fountains in the Court of Honor formed a lasting impression.

Later trips to Europe also had a powerful effect, including the great chateaus of France, the Moorish water gardens of Grenada, Spain, and the Villa d’Este. Randall, who is also Longwood’s historian,wrote that the last venue prompted du Pont to declare, “It would be nice to have something like this at home.’ ”

Du Pont brought many other luxuriant elements to his garden: a grand conservatory, choice woodlands and formal flower borders. But he knew what other gardeners have discovered through the ages. Nothing gives a landscape its soul quite like water. A garden where a fountain is turned off and its pool drained “is not a dead space,” said Garland. “But it’s not alive.”