Thousands of commuters zoom along Pennsylvania Avenue to and from work each day. How many realize they are flying by two botanical treasures situated across the street from each other? Goodstay Gardens, on the campus of the University of Delaware’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and Gibraltar, behind the tall stone walls at Greenhill and Pennsylvania Avenues, both represent a delicious slice of Delaware’s horticultural history.
Both gardens’ present-day designs date to the early 20th century and are faithful to the original plans of significant landscape architects from the time. Both gardens are also part of the Du Pont family legacy, whose network of beautiful properties makes Delaware an international tourist destination. So how come no one knows about them? Yards from the busy street, surrounded by city neighborhoods and bustle, they are a haven for the lucky few who bother to seek them out. And while Gibraltar is now a garden in transition, its fate yet undecided by nonprofit groups who seek to preserve it, Goodstay has more reliable stewardship. In order to continue to exist, however, both gardens will depend on volunteer and community support.
The best time to visit both gardens is in spring and early summer, but a recent stroll through them reveals an enduring appeal. Designed thematically, they draw you from outdoor “room” to “room,” each showcasing different types of plants and creating different moods. The structures that surround the serial gardens, be they stone walls, boxwood hedges, or tall trees, enclose the gardens in serenity and obliterate any sense of urban encroachment. Constructed almost simultaneously, they express divergent sensibilities.
Goodstay, originally known as Green Hill, traces its history to before1685. The first homeowner was Andrew Lynam, who purchased the property in 1732. The house was added to by a number of distinguished owners, including not only the Howard Pyle family, but before them, Dr. Allan McLane, a surgeon in Caesar Rodney’s Company during the War of 1812. Margaretta du Pont, grandmother to the famous cousins, T. Coleman, Pierre S. and Alfred I., purchased the property in 1868 and changed the name to Goodstay (from the French, Bon Sejour). Ellen Coleman du Pont Meeds bought the property from her father for $10 in 1923 and hired landscape architect, Robert Wheelwright, who designed Valley Garden Park, to restore and enhance the gardens. The two later married.
Maintaining the characteristic Tudor style, they changed the focus from vegetables and flowers to a completely ornamental garden, with each of six geometric enclosures planted thematically. The main attractions today are what they were in the Wheelwright’s time – a knot garden, rose, iris, and peony gardens, and the turkey rock garden, where turkeys used to roost. A more naturalistic area, known as The Park, was recently renovated, as was the Magnolia Walk, which Mrs. Wheelwright added in 1938. Upon her death in 1968, she left the property to the University of Delaware.
The most significant treasures at Goodstay Gardens are an historic ginkgo, boxwoods, camellia and a soaring sycamore tree in The Park, as well as an unusually large tamarisk tree (Tamarix africana parviflora) with dusty pink flower sprays. Visitors can also view one of the most extensive iris collections in the area as well as a garden of herbaceous peonies dating to the 1930’s. The turkey rock garden serves as a popular backdrop for wedding pictures and the house, now known as the Goodstay Conference Center, is often used for wedding receptions.
In 1993, the Friends of Goodstay Gardens was founded to help maintain the garden and also give tours.
Across the street, the Gibraltar property sits waiting its fate. The mansion was originally built by Wilmington businessman John Rodney Brinckle, who christened it in 1844 after the rocky promontory on which it stands. In 1909, philanthropist and preservationist Hugh Rodney Sharp and his wife, Isabella Mathieu duPont Sharp, purchased the property and undertook extensive renovations to the house and grounds, creating the six-acre estate that exists today. In 1917 they hired Marian Cruger Coffin, one of the country’s first and most accomplished female landscape architects, to design the formal gardens. Her plan combined the formality of Italian Renaissance gardens with the blowsy informality of English cottage gardens. The result yielded commanding views from the three terraces that lead down from the mansion. Visitors walk along marble paths and up a sweeping marble stairway. Long vistas are lined with trees or punctuated by statuary and fountains. An allee of bald cypresses, originally topped and pollarded, was meant to screen out the cityscape beyond.
Throughout the 90’s, after the death of H. R. Sharp, Jr., the gardens were overrun with invasive vines and most of its architectural features like pool, pathways, and statuary were obscured by years of neglected vegetation. Ultimately, Preservation Delaware acquired the property and undertook the monumental task of restoring the gardens according to Coffin’s original plans, launching a capital campaign in 1997 to fund the project. The project restored the hardscape as well as the flower gardens and the results were resplendent until recent uncertainties about the property’s usage and whether the gardens will be maintained.
Gibraltar was overseen by Preservation Delaware for many years before finally being deeded to the Gibraltar Preservation Group in the beginning of 2010. Another nonprofit, The Marian Coffin Garden at Gibraltar, Inc., maintains a Facebook page to encourage preservation of the gardens.
It would be a tragedy if either of these gardens should slip into oblivion because there was no one to care for them.