Lasting Landscapes by Carol

A garden in ruin

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.

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

The ruin garden at Hagley reminded me of my visits to Italy and Greece

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

The Hagley mansion provided no indication of the ruin garden located beyond the façade

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.

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

This painting shows Louise’s garden design

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.

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

Evaporation cauldrons and walls from the factory served as integral components to the garden’s design

 

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

The cauldrons looked different from every angle

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

I imagined the cauldrons ablaze during parties like modern day firepits

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

The use of existing factory structures added to the ambiance of the space

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

Despite the green water of the original pool, I  pictured the grandeur of the space in its prime

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

The worst masons created crooked and leaning walls

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

Different types of stone and brick made the ruin more authentic

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

Masons used chisels and chains to distress the brick for an aged look

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

Statuary played a key role in the garden’s design

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

Figures graced the columns of archways

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

Mosaics decorated the floors of entertaining spaces

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

At the garden’s peak, this figure spit water into the cauldron as a whimsical water feature

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

Rambling vines and a naturalistic landscape added to the ruin feel

Lasting Landscapes by Carol

The columns mimicked the trees in the mature landscape

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.

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Rediscovering America’s First Botanic Garden

“We are still in Eden. The wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly.”

Thomas Cole

More than half a million people flock to New York City’s Rockefeller Center each year to admire the Christmas tree and watch ice skaters glide along the famous rink. Others prefer to get into the holiday spirit by watching The Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. I suspect that most of these visitors (and perhaps even you) have no clue that beneath their feet once stood America’s first medicinal botanic garden.

Lasting Landscapes Rockefeller Center Ice Rink

The popular Ice Rink at Rockefeller Center

I became aware of David Hosack and his Elgin Botanic Garden when I heard Victoria Johnson speak at a Hardy Plant Society event last year. She talked about her book American Eden, a biography of Dr. Hosack, who was the personal physician present at the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804.

Lasting Landscapes David Hosack

A portrait of David Hosack

By reading American Eden I learned how Dr. Hosack treated patients in the early 1800’s through innovative plant combinations. He used juice from his orange trees to ward off scurvy and determined that figs were not only delicious, but also could be made into a poultice to soothe infected skin. He realized that Peruvian bark along with heat would cure an infection, a more effective alternative to the bleeding technique that was so popular at the time.

Hosack established his 20-acre Botanical Garden in 1801 and named it Elgin after the town in Scotland where he grew up. He cultivated unusual plants from around the world and utilized his garden as a living classroom where he taught the next generation of botanists and doctors as a professor at Columbia University. He even built a large conservatory where tropical and tender perennials were sheltered from adverse weather conditions.

A rendering of the Elgin Garden Conservatory

 

Hosack poured personal funds into the growth of the garden until at its prime, the garden featured over 2000 plant species. Realizing he could not afford to sustain it, Hosack sold it to New York State in 1811 with hopes it would be maintained and further developed. Unfortunately, the garden fell into neglect and was eventually consumed by New York’s urban expansion.

Although the Elgin Botanic Garden no longer exists, I hope you’ll pause to remember it during your next visit to Rockefeller Center. Take time to dine at The Elgin, a casual eatery situated on what would have been the southwest corner of Hosack’s Botanic Garden, which honors the garden and its founder. The Elgin brings the garden to life again with numerous plaques and botanical prints of plants that would have been growing on the site in Hosack’s day. Then seek out the small sign in the channel garden on Rockefeller Center’s concourse and pay your personal respects to an important man who devoted his life to New York, people’s health, his nation and nature.

The façade of The Elgin restaurant

Botanical prints line a wall at The Elgin

A swanky interior invites you to eat, drink and be merry.

The channel garden at Rockefeller Center

Hosack plaque NYC

The hard to find plaque that pays tribute to David Hosack