Laura Kise is a preservation writer, advocate, and historic house tour guide. A Pennsylvania native with deep ancestral roots in the Keystone state, she is ardent in her mission to preserve the Commonwealth’s built history and intangible cultural heritage via advocacy, education, and hands-on preservation work.
In this essay, she shares a special place that grew on her: Longwood Gardens (Chester County).
Dear Longwood Gardens,
It wasn’t love at first sight. I know that sounds unromantic, but in my defense, I was still a very young child and don’t even remember our first meeting. When I became a pre-teen, you were still unfamiliar to me, just some place where I tagged along after the adults who liked to visit. But, over time, as I visited again and again, I developed a fondness for you the way one does for a great-aunt who lives in a big old house: your serene scents comforted me like a warm hug; your stone garden features and lattices served as portals to real-life secret gardens, like the hidden realms of an old attic, beckoning my inner explorer; and your – at the time – dilapidated Main Fountain Garden hinted at its once grand show-stopping past, like a woman whispering to me about the delightful adventures of her youth.
Especially when in full bloom, you transformed me into Anne of Green Gables, and I relished living out my own version of her sometimes-fantastical descriptions of immersion in nature. Even in my inexperienced formative years, I sensed your grandeur under your patinaed surface, and I found myself ever hopeful this magnificence would be further revealed. You were something to admire.
By early adulthood, you served as more than just a delightful fairyland; you were medicinal. The mysteriously magical nooks and crannies, the ambrosial white flower-perfumed air inside the orangery and exhibition hall, and the divine colors ablaze in all directions weren’t the only things I loved about you. It was something else entirely. At first, I couldn’t define what “it” was. I just knew I felt healed after my visits to you. But, eventually, I understood what “it” was: a sense of place.
With maturity and life-experience, I could step out of the narcotic haze of the more obvious sensual delights and see that you were so much more than an otherworldly garden. With clarity I noticed the significance of your history. I was fascinated to learn how Pierre du Pont saved you when you were just an arboretum. Du Pont created a legacy of preservation and conservation that generously benefits the public to this day, providing bucolic respite in an area of the country congested with the crowded, noisy trappings of modern life. And it is this history that anchors you in a sense of place, with a unique identity all your own. Being a life-long history-lover, it was hard to believe I hadn’t noticed it sooner. But as your stewards continued to preserve, update and restore more and more of your most historical parts – among them the Pierce-du Pont House, the Webb Farmhouse, and, most stunningly, the Main Fountain Garden – I gained a better sense of your historical significance.
Wonderful events, including the fountain shows and the Wine and Jazz Festival make you a cultural mecca and seem so much better just because they happen with you.
With this broad awareness, visiting you now is a holistic treatment. I get the simple joy of experiencing lovely things through my five senses, I can travel back in time to my younger years or even a place in long ago history, and I can support conservation and preservation of Pennsylvania’s natural and historical resources.
Improvements have been completed so seamlessly I can’t remember a time when you weren’t as you are – a complete package that’s only gotten better with age. Even new additions appear as though they were approved directly by du Point. Just as you’ve evolved, I have, too, and feel like I’ve grown with you. I’m not just smitten; my love is enduring and grows stronger with time. Please forgive me for not knowing how wonderful you were from the beginning.
Now I need you more than ever, and it has been difficult being separated from you over the past year given current events. But, just as you remain steadfast, so do I, and I am comforted to know that in time, we will meet again.
Longwood Gardens, John Milner Architects, and Jonathan Alderson Landscape Architects were honored at the 2015 Preservation Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Awards with an Initiative Award for Stewardship for the Webb Farmhouse restoration project. The Webb Farmhouse, set in the 86-acre Meadow Garden, has been preserved as part of the site’s history and a link to the farmers who originally cleared and farmed the land.
Built using stone from the fields that surround it, the earliest part of the Webb home dates from 1730. In the early 1800s, a new addition doubled the size of the house. In 2014, the exterior of the farmhouse was restored by John Milner Architects of Chadds Ford to reflect its appearance at the end of the 18th century.
As restored, the Webb Farmhouse’s materials, architectural style and relationship to its setting exemplify what is known as “The Brandywine Aesthetic.” Inside, exhibits in the West Gallery highlight the meadow’s seasonal beauty, while the East Gallery presents a variety of historical documents and objects within the context of the restored “Hearth Room” with its impressive walk-in cooking fireplace.
Please note: If you plan a visit, check the Longwood Gardens website for updated COVID-19 visitation information. At this time, the gardens are open but guest numbers are restricted and visits are timed, and all summer special events are still cancelled.