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Chester County Press

A spectacular new Longwood

03/30/2017 12:03PM ● By J. Chambless

New LED lighting allows a limitless array of colors when Longwood's Main Fountain Garden reopens in May. (Courtesy photo)

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

The greatest compliment that could be given to the renovation of the Longwood Gardens Main Fountain Garden is this: Founder Pierre S. du Pont would have approved.

After a two-year project that cost $90 million, the Fountain Garden opens its season on May 27 with broad walkways, a fully operational and restored South Wall of fountains, more spectacular water jets and LED lighting that will dazzle visitors in brand new ways.

Longwood president and CEO Paul Redman addresses the press at the preview event.

 During a media preview at Longwood on March 29, Longwood president and CEO Paul Redman paid tribute to the artistic vision and engineering skills of du Pont. “The Fountain Garden is an iconic piece, the last piece he designed for Longwood, and it had worked with original equipment from the day he started in 1931 up until 2014, so he really did it right,” Redman said.

But time had caught up with the fountain system before it was partially closed in October 2014. The South Wall of fountains “hadn't worked for 25 years, so there is an entire generation who has never seen it in operation,” Redman said. “We bought it to life again.”

Before the 2014 work, crews had to dig up one problem area and re-close it so often that it was dubed “the zipper,” Redman said. “We wanted to use new technology and make it easier to perform upkeep, so we preserved the old and added new features,” he said. “So it looks the same – but better.”

Redman said some 3,000 people have been involved in the renovations, including companies from the region and around the world that signed on to contribute expertise, workers and designs.

Visitors will first notice that the garden looks much larger. Broad avenues with new trees and benches have been added along both sides of the garden, creating “allees,” or avenues, in the European tradition. While the whole garden was theoretically open to anyone during fountain shows, people often didn't walk onto the grass because the area didn't look inviting. That has been solved with a new design that incorporates seating-level walls, new lighting, 5,700 feet of new walkways, and a broad avenue along the South Wall that invites strolling and lingering.

Workers were putting finishing touches on the South Wall during a recent tour.

 During a walk-through of the gardens, while workers were still busily putting finishing touches here and there, Redman pointed out that “about 2 million decisions” had been made about every aspect of the renovations – new railings, new boxwood plantings, a stairway and elevator that lets visitors see the spectacle from above, and a spot on the upper level walkway that's about 10 feet away from the huge jets that will shoot water up to 175 feet in the air during the daily fountain shows. It's going to be a must-visit spot to feel immersed in the shows.

The South Wall has more than 4,000 pieces of original limestone sculptures and fountains that were shipped out, piece by piece, to a Conshohocken company for cleaning and restoration. More than 800 pieces were created to replace parts that were beyond repair.

Not that visitors will be counting, but there are 379 original water jets in the Main Fountain Garden, plus 1,340 new jets that will make water move in previously unseen ways – such as a basketweave pattern, swaying curtains of water, and combinations of patterns that create an endless array, all lit by LED lights at night. And there's a nozzle that will shoot a foot-high flame atop a 10-foot-tall water jet. That effect is seen nowhere else in the world, Redman said.

There's a Pumphouse Plaza cafe at the western end of the South Wall where visitors can enjoy snacks and drinks outdoors. The cafe has one of du Pont's original lead fountains that he created to use as a test model. The new Pump Room exhibit nearby will show off the original, huge pumps that once made the fountains work.

But perhaps the quiet showpiece of the new Fountain Garden is The Grotto, a stone-lined room in the middle of the South Wall. Visitors enter down a gently sloped tunnel to a room where water trickles into a pool on one side, while a circular fountain runs from floor to ceiling in the middle of the room. The cool, subdued room is intended to be “a place of spiritual beauty,” Redman said, giving visitors a feeling of being at the heart of the water all around them.

Redman said that, in addition to the carefully designed spectacle above ground, “90 percent of our visitors will never see the rest of the renovations” accessible to staff and workers at Longwood. Beneath the Main Fountain Garden, there's 1,400 feet of cement walkways installed during renovations. The pipes that carry the water, and the wires that make the lighting work, are all accessible in the tunnels. Previously, the pipes were simply buried, and were susceptible to freezing and cracking. Now, with some level of temperature control, the fountain show season will be extended, Redman said, perhaps until November.

The tunnels also make repairs much easier. The pumps that move the water for the fountain shows are also in the underground rooms, as are the holding tanks for the water.

During a walk-through of the tunnels, Redman said, “We could have just put the pipes underground again, but we wanted this to last for another 100 years, so as technology advances, the gardens can grow as well and bring in new generations of visitors.”

Longwood's “Summer of Spectacle” season runs from May 27 to Sept. 30, and features Main Fountain Garden shows set to music daily at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., and 5 p.m., with additional evening shows at 7 and 9:15 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Longwood hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday to Saturday for illuminated fountain shows. Admission is by timed ticket only. Tickets are $23 for adults, $20 for ages 62 and older, $12 for students, and free for children 4 and younger. Tickets for “Summer of Spectacle” go on sale April 3. For tickets and reservations, visit

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].