Paul B. Redman, executive director of Longwood Gardens, stood on an upper level of the five-acre Main Fountain Garden and surveyed the hundreds of fountains pluming up, streaming down, and weaving water in the bright sunlight.
He cast a fine eye over the pathways and lawns, the thousands of newly planted boxwoods, the new and refurbished limestone elements, and the stone flowers crafted by French masons in Wisconsin.
"Imagine water coming out of all the masks, spilling onto the shells, and where the bouquets are on the blue tiles, water coming up from there, water spilling down here," he said, looking toward various decorative limestone elements of what is Longwood's central lawn and fountain area. "There is a lot of life to the garden. It's spectacular. The architectural lighting and the lighting of the water is extraordinary."
Covering about 1,000 acres in Kennett Square, Chester County, Longwood is set to reopen its Main Fountain Garden on Saturday, May 27, after two and a half years of a $90 million refurbishment and renewal.
Would Louis XIV look down his nose? Highly unlikely.
There will be 30 new propane-laced flame jets to shoot fire and water into the air. Fountains have been honed to dispense unbroken sheets of water cascading over lips of pools. Little limestone flowers have been restored and rebuilt to allow the flow of water.
Redman pointed across what used to be the vast lawn that sprawled south from Longwood's elegant conservatory building. Above it, along the south wall, are powerful fountains, just as before the restoration. But now, streams of water shoot up and sway back and forth like watery fans, twirling, quivering, spinning.
"That's new," said Redman. "The spinning. That movement, that ballet – that's totally new. Originally [the fountains were] set scenes, beautiful scenes. But now it's an actual choreographed ballet that people can watch."
Redman is particularly keen on dozens of new "basket weave" fountains, designed by James A. Garland, founder of Fluidity Design Consultants in Los Angeles. The water is propelled with these fountains in such a precise fashion that it forms a kind of aquatic interlacing.
"That's never been seen in the world before," Redman said. "It was designed just for us by Jim Garland. The inspiration is a basket – as if you were holding it, harvesting flowers from your garden, and placing your cut flowers in the basket. When this is illuminated at night, the lighting is so precise that the … stream of water is illuminated perfectly."
The fountain garden's 4,000 pieces of decorative limestone have all been refurbished or remade, and details of the original design have been replicated in new elements throughout the garden. For instance, a particular diamond and twist pattern, found in original wrought iron, has been replicated in new elements, new railings, new stonework, even new benches.
"With our interventions, we went back to original intent," Redman said.
The garden was originally designed in 1931 by businessman and philanthropist Pierre S. du Pont for his estate.
The original pump house has been retained, restored, and turned into a gallery and museum. Pumps powering the garden's 300,000 gallons of water are now underground.
Before restoration began, with the closing of the garden in November 2014, the whole south wall was inaccessible.
"It was like a Roman ruin," Redman said. But now the wall and all of its decorative features have been rebuilt, with paths and stairs inviting visitors to wander. Behind the wall, almost like a secret, a new grotto has been installed, with rivulets of water, a rock garden, and seating – all inviting cool, watery contemplation.
Above the wall, at the southeast corner, du Pont's original "Love Temple" has been taken from a storage barn, restored, and installed overlooking the garden. A second Love Temple remains on a small lake in Pierce's Woods.
Visitors can stroll up and down linden tree allées in front of the south wall or head up the stairs to take in garden vistas that have not been seen for a quarter-century.
"An entire generation of people has never experienced this," Redman said. "They've never seen an Italian water wall like this. Pretty cool, isn't it?"
But perhaps the greatest change at Longwood is not visible to visitors. A quarter-mile of tunnels have been built beneath the lawn area. They provide access to every fountain and all their plumbing. That means the garden does not have to be dug up whenever there's a malfunction. A problem with one fountain can be isolated. All maintenance infrastructure is underground and accessible.
"We tried to think of every possible risk and problem," Redman said.
Was it worth it?
"Without a doubt," he said.
Longwood by the Numbers
$90 million Cost of restoration
4,000 Pieces of carved Italian limestone cleaned and repaired
1/4 mile Length of underground tunnel
1,340 Jets and streams added with restoration
30 Flame features
1,389 LEDs added
2,640 Boxwoods planted
168 Linden trees planted for allées
If you go: Longwood is commemorating the reopening of its Main Fountain Garden with a "Summer of Spectacle" – fireworks, fountain light displays, music and other programs will extend through Sept. 30. The weekend of May 27 to 29 is the kickoff. A members preview will take place May 24 to 26. For more information and the schedule for fireworks, visit the Longwood website at longwoodgardens.org or call 610-388-1000. Admission is by timed ticket.