“Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!” F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby.
“Do you ever wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it!” F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby.
It was a trip that took only a few hours. Arriving as we did on a morning of exquisite sun and warmth, we looked forward to a day that included garden tours, architectural design, and reasonable expectations for working ideas.
As the day opened, we knew that it was the summer solstice: the longest day of the year. And we had the added pleasure of experiencing it in magnificent surroundings. How many hours does it take to turn clocks back to the years before our memory?
The tour started with a walk down a corridor filled with dates and photos of major events. It was a walk through the history of newsmakers that ran parallel to the lives of those we would get to know. The trail down history’s lane led us to a theatre. A movie told biographical details of a privileged life beset with major emotional obstacles.
Nemours Mansion and Gardens is an estate that recreates a gilded age of 18th Century French landscape design with a not a little help from Louis XVI’s architectural apotheosis at Versailles. It was built during our own gilded age of industrialism, technology and unlimited dreams. It was finished at the height of our Great Depression.
The house is a model built for a second wife who loved everything French. She obviously had the wallet of A. I. Dupont available to satisfy every small detail. The lavish interiors are crammed with French art on the walls, stuffed in the curio cabinets, and carpeting the floors. Incredible examples of authentic, period-correct French furniture glow with gilded patina and petit-point needlepoint.
The dining room table expanded under the gilt-framed gaze of a royal Louis. It was set with porcelain nymphs frolicking around fresh flowers, candles, crystal, silver, and Meissen. The chandelier over our heads was said to come from the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. Marie Antoinette would have recognized it from her childhood in that city. Also, the Schonbrunn had a “French” landscape designed by a disciple of Andre Le Notre–Versailles garden designer.
Outside the front door, a gravel terrace separates the formal architectural block with a series of descending lawn terraces.
The lawns are pristine. No sheep shearing. The shearing is left for the borders on either side. Cryptomeria japonica ‘Yoshino’ create exclamation points of interest. The low-trimmed shrubs connecting the points are Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa.’ It’s an elegant shading of color down the allee, even if it requires incredible attention to cutting and shaping.
The statues that surround the pool are marble in the French monumental tradition. The larger-than-life-sized “Achievement’ is gilded with 24 carat leaf. It is centerpiece to the formal parterre of colored annuals and trimmed Buxus hedges.
On the other side of the colonnade, another gravel landing separates the architecture from a massive retaining wall balanced between two sweeping marble staircases. these flanking steps are very reminiscent of the grande staircase of the Opera National de Paris. This is a setting theatrical enough for a garden production of “Phantom of the Opera.”
The entire transit of house, garden, terraces, and history left me in a very contemplative mood. I didn’t walk as far as the Temple of Love with its great French bronze statue of Diana, the Huntress. At the end of this longest day I was haunted: with the vision that crafted this elegant life.
Great cubic yards of soil were moved to create this wonder. As with Central Park, the moving of earth is necessary when landscape art is created. Instead of brushes and canvas, the artistic effect is made with swaths of brilliant plants and sparkling marble. The glitter of romance is enhanced with tinkling cascades and shimmering pools of water. The trees that surround the major axis of landscape work wrap up the site with bordering green and fool the eye into thinking that it can’t escape from the magic of the natural artifice.
This dream-like visit on this longest day came to an end before many of us achieved the final vista. We traveled on to the next garden and a brilliant visit a DuPont brother collector of Americana. I recall a quote from a former neighbor of mine. She wrote of a time in our lives when we were remembering war and yet lived to experience a better world. Longest day? Longest night?
“The longest day must have its close–the gloomiest night will wear on to a morning. An eternal, inexorable lapse of moments is ever hurrying the day of the evil to an eternal night, and the night of the just to an eternal day.” Harriet Beecher Stowe.