The new design marries water with fire. Picture: Daniel Traub.
The new design marries water with fire. Picture: Daniel Traub.
Among the effects: a basket weave of water colored by LED lights. Picture: Samuel Markey.
Among the effects: a basket weave of water colored by LED lights. Picture: Samuel Markey.
An hour or so after sunset recently, visitors to Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia saw the debut of a fountain garden to rival any in history.

Dancing fountains have been the subject of garden theatre for hundreds of years, but the arrival of Longwood’s Main Fountain Garden and its first illuminated public show was a display that Europe's old ruling grandees would have loved.

Advances in fountain engineering and lighting technology in the digital age made for a dazzling display of dancing water by a shape-shifting troupe of liquid costumed in a rainbow of changing colours.

After a two-year, $90million (R1.15billion) dismantling and near-total rebuilding of a fountain garden unveiled in 1931, the revived 2 hectare garden increases the number of fountains from 380 to 1719 and incorporates LED lights that bring colours unknown to the old show - along with bursts of water propelled by compressed air and flames of propane gas that flare atop columns of water.

The jets sway and pirouette to music on a stage of interlaced basins, canals and circular pools. The highest reach 52m.

The backdrop is provided by the fountains in the largest water feature, a rectangular basin that sits above and behind the rest of the garden.

If you want a dollop of cream on this sundae, the folks at Longwood are adding fireworks to the spectacle on six nights this year, though the first was sold out.

More than 860 guests got a sneak preview of the new fountain garden at an evening fête on May 18, when threats of storms held off for a show of thundering aplomb, to hits by The Beatles.

The fountain effects are integrated into the music by designers using fancy German software and crafted much as a choreographer would piece together a dance.

Longwood’s chief executive, Paul Redman, told the gathering of Longwood devotees and the region's horticultural movers and shakers that the formal gardens and fountains had “layers upon layers upon layers of details that many of you will never see. More than 3000 people worked on this project”.

Many of the visitors, however, did get to see much of the hidden infrastructure: unlike the old fountain garden, the new one is underpinned with a huge underground bunker of tunnels and chambers that house pipes, wires, gas lines and pumps and which provide subterranean access to all the basins, nozzles and lights for ease of maintenance and repair.

This area is not open to the public, but a newly built historic pump room and gallery does provide a sense of the early 20th century technology that went into the original design.

The fountain garden was one of the abiding passions of Longwood’s creator, the industrialist Pierre S du Pont, and its hydrology and lighting effects, in that time, were innovative.

The guests at the fête saw some impressive entertainment, including slender jets that knitted together as a basket weave, in changing colours, and ranks of fountains rising and falling in split-second synchronicity with the musical dynamics. Colours changed to match the songs.

The epic effects of the new performing fountains, designed by a team led by Jim Garland, of Fluidity Design Consultants, may make the observer forget the beauty and significance of the garden itself, which is one of the largest and most alluring classical revival landscapes in the country.

For du Pont, who was head of the chemical company in his day, the garden was the synthesis of years of study of water gardens in Europe, especially at the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, Italy.

The rebuilt garden at Longwood - sunken and framed in limestone walls, avenues, and a façade of arches and carved wall fountains - has enlarged paths, extensive new plantings of boxwood and trees, sparkling masonry and decorative fountains. The garden is formal and elegant without being stuffy.

Many of the smaller fountains, especially along the arched wall, packed up more than 20 years ago, and access to the rear, elevated terrace housing the largest fountain basin had been blocked due to crumbling masonry.

Under the restoration, 25 masons from Dan Lepore & Sons Co in Conshohocken, Philadelphia, dismantled 5312 pieces of structural and carved limestone, which were cleaned and repaired. A total of 855 pieces were created to replace those beyond repair.

A whimsical grotto has been added as the central element of the fountain wall.

Du Pont chose a tree species - Norway maple - that was popular decades ago but fell from grace for being invasive and oppressively dense in form. The allees have been replanted with 168 native little-leaf linden trees which will be clipped into an aerial hedge.

The old ailing ribbons of English boxwood and later substitutions of Japanese holly have been replaced with an improved variety of Japanese box named Green Beauty - 3000 in all.

About 6300m of the garden's topsoil was trucked off site, sterilised and returned as part of a fresh soil mix better designed to deal with compaction from visitors.

Longwood Gardens is off Route 1 in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, and contains more than 400ha of gardens, woodland, meadow and conservatories. In the Main Fountain Garden, 12-minute fountain shows will be held daily at 11am, 1pm, 3pm and 5pm. Thursdays to Saturdays, there is a 12-minute show at 7pm and a 30-minute show at 9.15pm. - Washington Post