Garden lets imagination soar

Delaware: Woodland spirits seem to have landscaped Winterthur's Enchanted Woods, where visitors lose themselves in a child's world of wonder.

Short Hop

April 01, 2001|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

As I pass beneath the arbor and bend down to enter the stone Faerie Cottage in the Enchanted Woods, I am transported back to the games of imagination that my brother and I played as children.

We had woods and a stream, but we never had a setting as filled with magical possibility as this. The thatched-roof stone Faerie Cottage looks like Beowulf's great hall on a child's scale, with an oak-leaf chandelier and marble-frame fireplace.

The cottage is the centerpiece of the Enchanted Woods, the first newly created garden at Winterthur in 30 years. Tucked among tall, old oaks with a panoramic view of the surrounding gardens and fields, this fairy village offers a wealth of things to inspire the imagination of child and adult alike.

The Winterthur estate, former home of Henry Francis du Pont, features a museum of early-American decorative arts, a research library relating to American history and culture, and 60 acres of gardens, all in a beautiful pastoral setting near Wilmington, Del.

In addition to the fairy cottage, the new children's garden has a troll bridge that children can crawl beneath, and the Acorn Tearoom, a roofless gazebo surrounded by leaf and vine-topped columns where kids can picnic or have pretend tea parties.

Youngsters can follow the writhing brick snake embedded in the wide, S-s-s-serpentine Path that runs from the garden's entrance to its end. They may discover the huge face of the Green Man emerging from the earth, half-hidden in a grove of azaleas, who, according to legend, wakes up the plants each spring. And they can be enveloped in the mists of the fairy circle, a ring of toadstools that are actually sprinklers, triggered when a child steps into its midst.

"Most children's gardens are about science education, ecology, or are a traditional playground," says landscape designer Gary W. Smith, who came up with the whimsical, detail-rich design. "This is unique. It's inspiring children to be creative by connecting with woodland spirits. It's a very playful environment."

Situated on Oak Hill, where Winterthur Museum founder H.F. du Pont's daughters once played, the village takes its theme from the German legend that "faerie folkes live in old oaks." But the idea for a children's garden originated with Denise Magnani, director of landscaping at Winterthur.

"I was a garden guide and brought my son here to Winterthur as a child," she says. "It's a big landscape where he could run around and annoy the geese on the pond. It was such a great garden for children, but none ever came. So I thought: Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could invite children in?"

The invitation she, Smith and a host of others have devised for children of all ages is irresistible. Take, for example, the Gingerbread House, which intrigues children with secret nooks and crannies, inventive props and natural pleasures like flowers and water babbling over rocks. Although the creators have named all of the features, there are no signs.

"That's on purpose," says Smith, "because for one kid, the faerie cottage might be a castle, for another it might be the general store. I tried to provide enough of an outline to allow children to create their own story."

Place for discovery

Whether store, castle or Beowulf's hall, the cottage is fabulous. It is studded inside and out with odd bits of garden masonry -- the chipped relief of an old man whose stone curls frame his face, a balustrade left over from the building of the museum. Beside the small oval doorway, concrete balls appear to cascade down the wall like a huge chain of pearls. Outside, a black iron eagle stands atop the chimney and a stone bench is melded into one wall. The bits have been salvaged from the esoteric pile H.F. du Pont and his antecedents discarded over years of garden creation at Winterthur.

The reclamation includes natural discards, too.

"We wanted a tree house," says Magnani, "but we didn't want it up in a tree. There was a big, hollow tulip poplar, an old thing we could all get inside, that was fallen in the woods. We brought it to the garden and turned it into the Tulip Tree House."

Engineers sawed the tree in two, and then built an invisible support system for each half. The upper half, which lies on its side, is now a tunnel. It will easily accommodate several children at one time, and because it isn't in a tree, it is accessible to those with physical disabilities.

"We tried to make everything wheelchair accessible," adds Magnani.

Although Smith's design is the backbone of the garden, everyone involved in the project, from garden staff to masons, carpenters and engineers, played a part in its creation. "You haven't lived until you see two big metalworkers surrounded by rusty stuff in a scrap yard arguing about how a fairy would make water dance," Smith says, laughing.

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