An hour or so after sunset on Saturday evening, visitors to Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia are due to see the debut of a fountain garden rivaling any in history.
Dancing fountains have been the subject of garden theater for hundreds of years, but the arrival of Longwood’s Main Fountain Garden and its first illuminated public show promises a display that Europe’s old ruling grandees could not have imagined but no doubt would have loved.
Modern advances in fountain engineering and lighting technology in the digital age — not to mention Longwood’s deep pockets — promise a dazzling display of dancing water by a shape-shifting troupe of liquid costumed in a rainbow of changing colors.
After a two-year, $90 million dismantling and near-total rebuilding of a fountain garden unveiled in 1931, the revived five-acre garden increases the number of fountains from 380 to 1,719 and incorporates LED lights that will bring colors unknown to the old show — along with bursts of water propelled by compressed air and flames of propane gas that flare atop columns of water. The jets sway and pirouette to music on a stage of interlaced basins, canals and circular pools. The highest reach 175 feet. The backdrop is provided by the fountains in the largest water feature, a rectangular basin that sits above and behind the rest of the garden.
If you want a dollop of cream on this sundae, the folks at Longwood are adding fireworks to the spectacle on six nights this year, although the first, this Sunday, is sold out.
More than 860 guests got a sneak preview of the new fountain garden at an evening fete May 18, when threats of storms held off for a show of thundering aplomb, to hits by the Beatles. The fountain effects are integrated into the music by designers using fancy German software and are crafted much as a choreographer would piece together a dance.
Longwood’s chief executive, Paul Redman, told the gathering of Longwood devotees and the region’s horticultural movers and shakers that the formal gardens and fountains have “layers upon layers upon layers of details that many of you will never see. Over 3,000 people worked on this project.”
Many of the visitors, however, did get to see much of the hidden infrastructure: Unlike the old fountain garden, the new one is underpinned with a huge underground bunker of tunnels and chambers that house pipes, wires, gas lines and pumps and which provide subterranean access to all the basins, nozzles and lights for ease of maintenance and repair.
This area is not open to the public (tours in the future are under consideration), but a newly built historic pump room and gallery does provide visitors a sense of the early 20th-century technology that went into the original design. The fountain garden was one of the abiding passions of Longwood’s creator, the industrialist Pierre S. du Pont, and its hydrology and lighting effects, in that time, were extremely innovative.
The guests at last week’s fete saw some impressive entertainment, including slender jets that knitted together as a basket weave, in changing colors, and ranks of fountains rising and falling in split-second synchronicity with the musical dynamics. Colors changed to match the mood of the songs.
The epic effects of the new performing fountains, designed by a team led by Jim Garland, of Fluidity Design Consultants, may make the observer forget the beauty and significance of the garden itself, which is one of the largest and most alluring classical revival landscapes in the country.
For du Pont, who was head of the chemical company in his day, the garden was the synthesis of years of study of water gardens in Europe, and especially at the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, Italy.
The rebuilt garden at Longwood — sunken and framed in limestone walls, avenues, and a facade of arches and carved wall fountains — has enlarged paths, extensive new plantings of boxwood and trees, sparkling masonry and decorative fountains. The garden is formal and elegant without being stuffy.
Although the old garden wasn’t derelict, it had decayed to a point where access seemed more restricted than it was. Many of the smaller fountains, especially along the arched wall, packed up more than 20 years ago, and access to the rear, elevated terrace housing the largest fountain basin had been blocked due to crumbling masonry.
Under the restoration, 25 masons from Dan Lepore & Sons Co. in Conshohocken, Pa., dismantled 5,312 pieces of structural and carved limestone, which were cleaned and repaired. A total of 855 pieces were created to replace those beyond repair.
A whimsical grotto has been added as the central element of the fountain wall.
Du Pont chose a tree species — Norway maple — that was popular decades ago but fell from grace for being invasive and oppressively dense in form. The allees have been replanted with 168 native little-leaf linden trees, variety Greenspire, which will be clipped into an aerial hedge.
The old ailing ribbons of English boxwood and later substitutions of Japanese holly have been replaced with an improved variety of Japanese box named Green Beauty — 3,000 in all. Approximately 7,000 cubic yards of the garden’s topsoil was trucked off site, sterilized and then returned as part of a fresh soil mix better designed to deal with compaction from visitors. The new garden is expected to increase the number of visits annually from 1.35 million to 1.5 million.
Longwood Gardens is off Route 1 in Kennett Square, Pa., and contains more than 1,000 acres of gardens, woodland, meadow and conservatories. In the Main Fountain Garden, 12-minute fountain shows will be held daily at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Thursdays through Saturdays, when Longwood is open until 10 p.m., there is a 12-minute show at 7 p.m. and a 30-minute show at 9:15 p.m., the latter with illuminations.
Special tickets are required for the Fireworks & Fountains Show, scheduled for July 2, July 22, Aug. 12, Sept. 2 and Sept. 16. The May 28 show is sold out.