I have fond memories of touring ancient Roman gardens in Italy and Greece and recall imagining how spectacular these structures must have been in their glory. I also marveled at how magnificent they were in ruin. Imagine how I felt during a recent, private tour of Louise duPont Crowninshield’s ruin garden at Hagley, which immediately transported me to those amazing places in Europe.
Hagley is situated along the Brandywine River in Delaware on the site of the former Eleutherian Mills gunpowder factory founded by E. I. du Pont in 1802 and considered the birthplace of the du Pont company. After the mill was shut down in 1917 due to a catastrophic explosion, Louise, great granddaughter of E. I. du Pont and the last du Pont to live on the estate, created a garden on the 20-acre steep slope that descended 90 feet from the house to the river. It’s hard to say exactly what inspired her to build a ruin garden on the site, but it was clear she wanted to create a space for entertainment and amusement. Strong willed, she rejected the architect’s idea of leveling the space and putting in pastures for sheep. Thank goodness for us as the garden is unique in many aspects.
Louise was not at all concerned that her garden did not conform to the current style or tradition. She ignored the common practice of situating formal gardens near the house and informal gardens distanced from the main residence. She utilized surviving components from the mill such as evaporation cauldrons and structural walls as integral parts of her design and then added statuary, mosaics, columns and pools. Supposedly Louise’s husband requested that the worst masons be assigned to the job so the walls would be crooked and appear distressed. Chains and chisels further weathered the materials and gave them an authentic ruin look.
I feel honored to have witnessed this marvelous space with a rich history that teaches us many lessons. The significance of honoring a space’s history. The importance of making a garden your own – something that pleases its creator first and foremost. And the parallels we find in gardens that mimic life and death or in this case life and ruin.