DuPonts and Wyeths Lived Here

The Brandywine Valley gave rise to two 20th-century dynasties: one aristocratic and one artistic. Their homes can tell you stories.

Winterthur, a former du Pont estate. Photo courtesy of Winterthur

The lush Brandywine region has cast its spell on many a nature-lover. Among them: several well-heeled philanthropists of the du Pont family, three generations of Wyeths, and me. Stretching out from Wilmington, Delaware, and crossing the Pennsylvania border to points west, it’s a bucolic region of inspiring landscapes, botanical wonders and vestiges of Golden Age opulence. Here are three spots that make it well worth a visit.


A quiet path at Longwood Gardens. Phot by Larry Albee

Bright lights? Dazzling hydraulics? The main attraction in Longwood’s Summer of Spectacle (which continues through Sept. 30) is a recent $90 million revitalization of the 5-acre “fountain garden” that industrialist and engineer Pierre S. du Pont masterminded nearly a century ago.

Inspired by the grand allées of European villa gardens, du Pont originally designed the fountain display as the crowning gem on his estate in Kennett Square, where he threw lavish parties for friends and family.

By 2014 the waterworks had deteriorated and were closed for a major upgrade. Basically, “[We] peeled back the surface of the garden to install new infrastructure,” explains Longwood Gardens president Paul Redmond. More than 80 U.S. and European firms were involved in the “restitching” of a system that now includes 5 miles of new water pipes, 9,000 cubic yards of concrete and 4,000 refurbished pieces of Italian limestone.

Anticipation runs high as my friend Jan and I wander Longwood’s elegant terrace gardens and pathways, waiting for a fountain show. At 1,077 acres, the property epitomizes just what is possible when you have a grand vision and a whole lot of cash. It’s home to 11,000 types of trees, shrubs and flowers that erupt year-round in a rainbow of colors and scents in 40-some indoor and outdoor gardens (including a grand conservatory), fertile meadows and woodlands.

A spectacular fountain display. Photo by Laurie Carrozzino

Grateful that predicted rains haven’t materialized, we sip on locally brewed Oro Blanco wheat beers—made with the peels of grapefruits grown on-site—while admiring a display of symmetrical boxwood and Linden plantings. Quiet falls as flowing water leads us into a new stone grotto.

At 7 p.m. we take seats outside the conservatory, and it’s showtime. Soon, bold music fills the night air and towering plumes of water sway to the rhythm, keeping the beat as the soundtrack moves from a Mozart overture to the mezzo-soprano of Édith Piaf to the playful strains of Mancini’s “Pink Panther.” One moment the fountains look smoky, then air cannons boom. Sprays of water twirl and crisscross, their colors morphing like dancers changing costumes.

Whereas du Pont’s original fountains relied on 386 jets, the new computer-controlled design deploys more than 1,700 jets and LED lights to sculpt water and create visual effects, from basket-weave patterns to flames that miraculously shoot out of the water (the latter, Redmond explains, is achieved by injecting propane into the water column). Today, the fountain’s plumes reach 175 feet.

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