Landscapes of history

Glen Foerd plans to restore historical features throughout its 18-acre estate.

  • Digging in: A crew removes scaffolding to make room for a terraced garden.

  • Workers remove a catering tent from the grounds.

  • The front lawn was once home to a lily pond and fountain.

  • Old watercolor paintings will guide the work.

  • Place in time: Glen Foerd’s executive director, Meg Sharp Walton, discusses the estate’s garden restoration plans. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

Sur­roun­ded by gen­er­a­tions of urb­an de­vel­op­ment, Glen Fo­erd on the Delaware re­mains a pas­tor­al oas­is, and not merely be­cause of the mid-19th cen­tury man­sion that ac­cen­tu­ates the 18-acre, city-owned es­tate.

The grounds, with their sprawl­ing lawns and wooded groves, have sur­vived largely un­dis­turbed since the hey­day of the res­id­ent Fo­er­der­er fam­ily in the 1920s and ’30s. Yet, as a con­sequence, the vast post-Gil­ded Age gar­dens have lingered mostly un­main­tained since Florence Fo­er­der­er-Ton­ner’s 1971 passing and the sub­sequent trans­fer of the prop­erty in­to pub­lic hands.

Today, as the non­profit Glen Fo­erd Con­ser­va­tion Cor­por­a­tion em­barks on its fourth dec­ade, its lead­ers have iden­ti­fied the res­tor­a­tion of the es­tate’s bril­liant and me­tic­u­lously craf­ted his­tor­ic­al land­scape as a vi­tal pri­or­ity. Last month, the Amer­ic­an So­ci­ety of Land­scape Ar­chi­tects and Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice re­cog­nized Glen Fo­erd as an His­tor­ic Amer­ic­an Land­scape Sur­vey site, a rare dis­tinc­tion for a pub­licly owned prop­erty of such a large scale. In con­junc­tion, the Con­ser­va­tion Cor­por­a­tion con­tin­ues to raise private funds for a land­scape as­sess­ment pro­ject with the prom­ise of a match­ing grant from the Na­tion­al Trust for His­tor­ic Pre­ser­va­tion.

It is hoped that the as­sess­ment will cre­ate a de­tailed and defin­it­ive re­cord of the spe­cif­ic com­pon­ents and con­fig­ur­a­tions of the his­tor­ic­al gar­dens, based largely on ori­gin­al ar­chi­tec­tur­al blue­prints and artist’s ren­der­ings. From there, the Con­ser­va­tion Cor­por­a­tion can be­gin the work of identi­fy­ing and fund­ing spe­cif­ic res­tor­a­tion pro­jects for fu­ture years.

“What’s nice about the grounds of the es­tate is that they haven’t really been dis­turbed at all,” said Meg Sharp Walton, Glen Fo­erd’s ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or. “But they haven’t been main­tained as they would have been had Florence been here.”

This is not to say that the prop­erty has been al­lowed to de­cay in­to an over­grown mess. As dog walk­ers, bird watch­ers and oth­er reg­u­lar vis­it­ors well know, the grounds have long been a well-man­i­cured and freely ac­cess­ible city park. Vo­lun­teers even main­tain a vi­brant rose garden on the same site as the one in­stalled by Florence Fo­er­der­er and her moth­er Car­oline some 80 years ago.

Yet, oth­er his­tor­ic­al fea­tures would be un­re­cog­niz­able to the cul­tured Fo­er­der­er wo­men. The lily pond re­mains, but its foun­tains are dry and in­di­vidu­ally com­mis­sioned statues in stor­age. Re­si­li­ent grape vines still sur­round the old apple orch­ard, but just one apple tree still stands.

Even the grand­est of all fea­tures, the man­sion’s ter­raced garden, is a dis­tant memory. In re­cent years the man­sion’s ex­clus­ive cater­er paved over the ter­race and erec­ted a scaf­fold tent. The scaf­fold­ing is now be­ing torn down and pav­ing re­moved as Glen Fo­erd has entered in­to a new 20-year con­tract with a dif­fer­ent cater­er.

At one time, the ter­race garden fea­tured more than 30 dif­fer­ent spe­cies of wild­flowers, an­nu­als, rock plants, ferns and shrubs. The afore­men­tioned blue­prints item­ize each plant­ing.

“The most in­tense gar­dens are all in close prox­im­ity to the man­sion,” said Sharp Walton, who also noted that the Fo­er­der­ers left no square yard of the prop­erty un­con­sidered. “Noth­ing was left to chance.”

The founder of the es­tate, Charles Mac­alester, also took a keen in­terest in hor­ti­cul­ture. In de­vel­op­ing his coun­try home start­ing in 1850, Mac­alester in­stalled trees and green­houses. But the Foeder­ers took things to a whole new level after pur­chas­ing the prop­erty in 1895 at the height of the Gil­ded Age. By the 1920s, Florence’s fath­er, Robert, had died. She and Car­oline im­mersed them­selves in plan­ning the grounds with the as­sist­ance of two pree­m­in­ent land­scape ar­chi­tects, Thomas Sears and James Bush-Brown.

“It was a time peri­od when wealthy in­dus­tri­al­ists went on grand tours of Europe and they wanted to emu­late the gar­dens they saw,” Sharp Walton said. “[The Fo­er­der­ers] sub­trac­ted, they took the green­houses away then ad­ded. The point was to be very dra­mat­ic.”

In the ab­sence of col­or pho­to­graphs from the era, Glen Fo­erd has something bet­ter. In 1933, artist Wil­li­am Suplee painted about a dozen wa­ter­col­ors of the es­tate, fo­cus­ing largely on the spec­tac­u­lar land­scape fea­tures. They dec­or­ate a wall on the first floor of the man­sion.

“We’re not sure home much of [the blue­prints were] im­ple­men­ted, but we can look at the wa­ter­col­ors and get a sense of what was here,” Sharp Walton said.

The land­scape as­sess­ment is sched­uled to be­gin this month and will con­tin­ue through Septem­ber. Sharp Walton en­cour­ages the pub­lic to con­tin­ue vis­it­ing the prop­erty daily to stroll the grounds and ex­per­i­ence the se­cluded nat­ur­al en­vir­on­ment.

“We really want it to be a place where people can go and es­cape,” she said, “a place that is beau­ti­ful and quiet and sets you back in time. And a place where any­body can go.” ••

Glen Fo­erd on the Delaware is at 5001 Grant Ave. in Tor­res­dale. For in­form­a­tion about events, mem­ber­ship and fun­drais­ing ef­forts, vis­it www.glen­ or call 215-632-5330.

Up­com­ing events:

(All events at Glen Fo­erd on the Delaware un­less oth­er­wise noted. Call 215-632-5330 to re­gister.)

• East­er Egg Hunt, April 12, 10 a.m.

• Tai Chi in the Art Gal­lery, April 14, 6:30 p.m.

• Gar­dens of the Jazz Age lec­ture at Holy Fam­ily Univ., April 24, 7 p.m.

• Pho­to­graphy Work­shop, April 26 and May 3, 10 a.m.

• Bird Walk and Garden Work­day, May 3, 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.

• Vo­lun­teer Open House, May 10, 2 p.m.

• De­tox & Re­tox: Wine and Yoga, May 17, 10:30 a.m.

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