An aerial view of the heart of the fountain.

photo by: Daniel Traub, Longwood Gardens

June 6, 2018

Longwood Gardens' Show-Stopping Main Fountain Garden Restoration

  • By: Mikayla Raymond

Longwood Gardens, outside Philadelphia in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, has been known since 1936 for its fountains, but 2017 brought a whole new level of spectacle to the site. The Main Fountain Garden, which was built to rival Europe’s most celebrated waterworks, re-opened in May of 2017 after a $90 million restoration. Since then, Longwood has seen an increase in visitation that has exceeded even its most optimistic expectations, with more than 600,000 visitors in the first season (May-October) that the restored fountain garden was open.

A view of early-access visitors enjoying the fountains at dusk.

photo by: Daniel Traub, Longwood Gardens

The illuminated fountains at dusk.

These fountains are the result of nearly a decade of work by Pierre S. du Pont, gifted chemist and engineer and former president of both the du Pont family company and General Motors. He was fascinated with fountains from a young age and became singularly obsessed with creating something truly remarkable on this land, the former site of an arboretum. Inspired by his visits to grand European gardens such as Villa d’Este in Tivoli, he sought to build a system of new gardens built around extravagant waterworks that would rival the greatest that Europe had to offer. This began with the creation of an open-air theater garden with a hydraulic system that spouted colored jets of water from the edge of the stage, and an Italian Water Garden modeled after Villa Gamberia outside of Florence.

Visitors enjoying the newly renovated grounds.

photo by: Jennifer Fazekas, Longwood Gardens

Visitors enjoying the newly renovated grounds.

The crowning jewel, however, was the Main Fountain Garden, built during the 1920s. During construction, Dupont struggled to find designers who met his standards of over-the-top excellence, and ended up designing much of the fountain garden himself. When it opened in 1931, it was an artistic and engineering marvel unlike anything else in the United States, and pumped an astounding 650,000 gallons of water.

Over the years, the Main Fountain Garden had become increasingly difficult to maintain as its mechanical components aged. The massive restoration— a collaboration between 81 firms including West 8 Urban Design and Landscape Architecture, Beyer Blinder Belle, and Fluidity Design Consultants—sought not just to restore the fountain garden to its former excellence, but to balance the site’s legacy with modern innovation, and to further push du Pont’s vision of a fountain unique in its artistic and mechanical splendor. Aa team of more than 3,000 people ultimately built a quarter of a mile of piping underground, restored and repaired 1,719 water jets, and restored each original stone. They also added a grotto and created a new soil mixture for the grounds, a combination that allowed drainage for up to 12 inches of water per day.

The fountain garden’s new and improved technology—including colorful lights, elaborate water patterns, and, yes, real flames—has led to an uptick in illuminated shows. Guests are now enjoying and exploring the garden in ways they never have before… and new generations of visitors are being wowed by the magnificence of the Main Fountain Garden.

The newly installed grotto in the Main Fountain Garden at Longwood Gardens.

photo by: Jennifer Fazekas, Longwood Gardens

The newly installed grotto at Longwood Garden's Main Fountain Garden.

By the Numbers:

$90 Million Budget, primarily made up of donations.

650,000 Gallons of water pumping when the fountain first opened in 1931.

5,155 Italian limestone, marble, and serpentine stones individually restored.

1,719 Jets designed and repaired.

175 Feet in the air— the peak height of the new fountain.

0.25 Miles of underground tunnels and pipes installed.

81 Firms involved in renovation, including West 8, Beyer Blinder Belle, and Fluidity.

3 Years length of renovation.

Mikayla Raymond is a proud preservationist and editorial intern at the National Trust. She lives for public parks, weird art, and women’s history.

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