Saturday, September 17, 2011

Horticultural Society of New York Lecture with Maggie Lidz, author of "The du Ponts: Houses and Gardens in the Brandywine"

The Horticultural Society of New York hosted a lecture to mark the release of Maggie Lidz’s epic book, “The du Ponts: Houses and Gardens in the Brandywine.”
The subject material recalibrates the concept of “Curb Appeal.” 

The speaker was author and Estate Historian Maggie Lidz (That’s what it says on her business card. How glamorous is that job?!)
Author and Estate Historian Maggie Lidz

Lidz demonstrated her thoughtfully researched, and from the sounds of it, well-curated approach to the book. 
“We decided we’d concentrate on the du Ponts’ Brandywine estates only,” Lidz explained.  While she has the world of du Ponts at her own click and Google, she nevertheless had to determine which of the houses and estates to feature in the book. 
See, the du Ponts may have been simple folk of French descent but they did have multiple dwellings that could be the envy of any self-respecting hedge fund director or the Jolie Pitts.  From South Hampton to Montecito to New York City to Palm Beach, the du Ponts had all the right addresses on their stationary.  No frets.  The Brandywine zip codes offer more than enough for any garden enthusiast to get lost in for a long, long time.

Clearly at ease with the subject matter and obsessed about her protagonists -- in a very good way, Lidz offered a lively and informed talk, accompanied by expository images: most rare and some never before seen, that are included in the book.

This gave me pause to reflect how lectures offer a rare opportunity to learn so much about a passion. 
Why is it that so few attend live events – whether it is music or lectures or demonstrations?  That is another story but I can offer that seeing and meeting experts like Ms. Lidz enrich our lives and our culture.

How else to describe how Lidz’s years of dedication and knowledge and research culminate in a story about American immigrants who did good for their community, who changed the course of commerce, business, and through their ensuing wealth; elevated horticulture.

Lidz’s talk led us through the history of the family – from the 1800’s gunpowder making and the Italians brought to Delaware to work in the factories through the du Pont’s business diversification to synthetics, General Motors and “science-based services and products.” 
The resulting, outsized wealth enabled the du Ponts to design and create gardens of unimaganable grandeur and fantasy and sophistication.  “Horticulture itself was extraordinary in Delaware,” said Lidz.
The du Ponts took it up a notch or ten. 
It is somewhat difficult to imagine in this day and age in terms of present landscape design aesthetics, and therein lies the discovery – the inspiration and magic of what gardens can be and how they are enduring if yet ephemeral cultural art.

The generations of du Ponts and their gardens represent all the allure of great country houses from the Gilded Age through post World War II wealthy America.  After all, how many country homes could boast such a large staff that they could host their own baseball team – as we discovered the du Pont families did?! 

Clearly, it was the gardens that made du Ponts unique and part of the country estate movement, according to Lidz.
We learned how the du Pont family cultivated acres of single-species gardens and perennial borders that might make Vita Sackville West blush.
For example, Lidz described how the iris gardens could be one to two acres, designed in an Iris Bowl style that became very popular with a certain swanky garden set.
The Iris Bowl is/was a tiered garden planting designed so that one could be standing in the center of a stadium of blossoms -- surrounded by fragrance.  For the approximately eight days a year the iris bloom.

Personally, I applaud the pursuit of this garden style. 
While clearly those of us without the means to practice this kind of unrestricted, high horticulture would find it impossible to plant gardens of this scope, I do think we should practice the more seasonal, sustainable and successive plantings embodied in the Iris Bowl design concept, rather than make so many of the plants in the garden workhorses that perform from Pasadena to Palm Beach.

I was struck by another keen point Lidz cited in a news report of the day in 1942: “Gardening is considered part of the national war effort.”

We should certainly be making more of the same claim today…

Given their legacy of community support -- and long before the Garden Conservancy –( the du Ponts opened their private gardens to public visitation.  Lidz showed a classic traffic jam of motorists in their Model T’s in line to get into the garden. 
See—our lust for enjoying and experiencing gardens has a legacy.

In particular, Lidz described the different “mindsets” that informed the garden styles of the three du Pont cousins that characterize much of the book, all of which are museums or public institutions – sort of brining it full circle.

Today, there is Longwood Gardens  (  and Owl’s Nest Wilmington gardens designed by two of my favorite landscape architects – and women! -- Ellen Biddle Shipman and with later work by Marian Cruger Coffin.  FDR Jr married into the du Pont clan and the news was TIME magazine worthy:  

More from the Cultural Landscape Foundation:

The lecture fuels a discovery to learn more about the du Pont’s unparalleled contribution to America’s horticulturical legacy.  There are many stories here to explore from the du Pont family to very intense garden design and landscape architects, as well as interior design – many of the du Pont homes are decorative arts museums today run as non-profit cultural institutions. Especially noteworthy is Winterthur, the du Pont estate named for a family homestead in Switzerland.  It’s spring garden is breathtaking.  (  

Lidz pointed out an odd strategy the du Ponts employed: they used local garden architects for their homes and nationally-recognized landscape architects and garden designers.  This was the opposite of what was generally done in their day.
I say they got it just right.

Published by Acanthus Press ( 228 pages, filled with photos, Lidz’s book is must have for any garden-inspired library – and coffee table.

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