All Fired Up

Chanticleer proves that a public garden can be a hotbed of creativity

by ADAM LEVINE

photography by ROB CARDILLO

CHANTICLEER, A PUBLIC GARDEN in Wayne, Pennsylvania, has never been a place to stand on its laurels. New beds crop up yearly, sometimes even mid-season; the mistakes of one year disappear by the next; and even favorite garden sections receive frequent makeovers. This dynamism is due partly to the property’s continuing transformation from private estate to public garden, which began less than 15 years ago. But credit also is due to a board of directors that allows its staff, at every level, to dream up new ideas and implement them. The garden has no bureaucracy to bog down creativity, no committees to review suggestions other than the board as a whole, which in turn delegates most of those decisions to the director. Changes can be made quickly, often after a single conversation between director and gardener, which means that at Chanticleer, nothing is ever cast in stone—as it turns out, not even a stone house.

“Gardens come and go, beds come and go, as your taste changes, or as conditions change, as the woody canopy matures and creates shade where there was sun,” says Joe Henderson, a Chanticleer gardener and one of 14 full-time staff members. “I always encourage people to free themselves from the idea that once they plant something, it has to stay there forever. Here we have the freedom to experiment. If what we do comes across, that’s great. If it doesn’t, we whack it out and try again next year.”

ORIGINS

Adolph G. Rosengarten, Jr., the last private owner of Chanticleer, was an heir to a fortune consolidated when his family’s firm merged with Merck & Co. in 1927, creating what was then the largest pharmaceutical company in the world. After his death in 1990, Rosengarten left a generous endowment to preserve the property as open space, but what this bequest omitted has proved to be the garden’s biggest blessing.

“In his will, Mr. Rosengarten was loose in his instructions; he didn’t say things had to be preserved in any particular way,” says Bill Thomas, the garden’s current executive director. “Other horticultural organizations have extremely tight restrictions in their charters which tie their hands, but here, because of the looseness of the will, there’s definitely a dynamic feel that has allowed us to evolve.”

From 1990 to 2003, Chris Woods, the garden’s first director, guided this evolution. He worked first as a horticulturist for Mr. Rosengarten, and after the owner’s death was chosen by the board to prepare the garden for its public opening in 1993. The property, originally purchased and developed by Adolph G. Rosengarten, Sr., beginning in 1912, was beautiful when Woods took over. Initially laid out by landscape architect Thomas Sears, Chanticleer eventually included three houses set amid rolling hills, with wide sweeps of lawns, old trees, and a stream running through the bottom section. But the horticulture in many ways was uninspired, typical of the staid estates that can still be found tucked away in Wayne and other Main Line suburbs outside Philadelphia.

During his tenure, Woods gained the trust of the board and began exercising the freedom granted by Rosengarten’s will. He worked to instill the garden with a sense of humor and drama, seeing the property as a stage set and the staff as the backstage crew, with all their work geared for the pleasure of the visitor. “Chris used to walk around on opening day and announce to us, ‘Two hours to showtime!”’ recalls gardener Dan Benarcik. “It was a little annoying, when we were racing to get all the last-minute things done, but that’s really what it is—we throw back the curtain and let people in.”

UNLEASHING THE CREATIVE URGE

Besides dreaming up some unusual projects of his own, Woods hired a talented staff of gardeners who, more than just implementing the director’s ideas, have been encouraged to act as the de facto curators and designers of their assigned garden sections. “With the freedom we’re given in our own areas,” says gardener Przemyslaw Wal-czak, “you can actually leave your mark on it and develop it over the years.” Another advantage the staff enjoys is that the garden is open only from the end of March to the end of October. “When we’re not worried about looking good for the public,” says gardener Laurel Voran, “we have time to do creative things.” Besides designing next year’s new beds and ordering new plants, in this extended off-season the gardeners can undertake major construction projects without having to worry about inconveniencing the visiting public.

Chanticleer calls itself a “pleasure garden” and has therefore taken a more aesthetic, rather than scientific, approach to horticulture. While a map is provided at the entrance, there is almost a complete lack of the signage that clutters up so many other gardens. Very few of the plants are labeled, which, since so many of them are new and unusual, some visitors find frustrating. “We’re asking people to pay attention in a different way, letting it be delightful to the senses rather than hitting you over the head with information,” says Voran. “And since at least two members of the horticultural staff are in the garden whenever we’re open, the information is still there, if you ask for it.”

A TOUR OF THE GROUNDS

I usually begin my tour of the garden at the Tropical Teacup, a pair of connected sunken courtyards behind the house that is now the garden’s administration building. Since these beds are almost wholly planted with tropical specimens trucked north from nurseries in Florida, it tends to be the most variable section of the garden. In past years the Teacup, which is not fully planted until the warm weather of May, has featured both lush, colorful plants with bold foliage, and a sparer look using hundreds of bromeliads.

The nearby Tennis Court garden, as its name suggests, is a former court dug up and transformed into a four-square garden, backed by a rose- and vine-covered pergola, with colorful mixed plantings of shrubs, grasses, and various perennial and tender herbaceous plants. Across an open lawn below the Tennis Court is a cutting and vegetable garden, and beyond that, a peaceful stream-side garden, a new section of which is now under development. This area peaks in the spring, but all year it provides a cool respite from the horticultural extravagance of the rest of the property.

A series of gravel beds, with a beautiful collection of herbs, succulents, and other dry-loving plants, covers a wide slope that overlooks a series of artificial ponds, each encircled with a colorful border. The largest pond is home to a variety of aquatic plants, including the fast-spreading lotus ‘Mrs. Perry Slocum’, which needs to be whacked back two or three times a year to keep it from taking over the entire pond. The Asian Woods, adjoining the ponds, features a collection of mostly Asian plants beneath a canopy of mostly native trees, including tulip tree and beech. Past the woods, back out in the sun, is a nod to the garden’s agricultural past—a swirling, decorative bed of agricultural grains that looks beautiful at every stage of growth.

From there, up a steep, wide expanse of lawn, at the property’s highest point, sits the main house, Chanticleer. In the front courtyard, a circular driveway, no longer used, is now paved with red gravel, carefully raked, Japanese-style, in patterns that change from day to day. Around the back is a sunny terrace that, in past years, has been home to hundreds of planted containers. At the far end of the terrace, water pours out of a lion-head fountain, into a soothing rill that mimics, in Moorish style, Bell’s Run, the real stream that runs along one edge of the property. A nearby swimming pool, frustratingly inviting on a midsummer day, is not open to the public, but a comfortably furnished covered porch at the end of the house is. Visitors can often be found lounging there in the shade, perhaps pretending, as I sometimes do, that they are guests of the Rosengartens, waiting for the butler to appear with their drinks.

Page 44: The Tropical Tea Cup. Page 45: The creative energy of Chanticleer’s gifted staff turns common plants like purple barberry and orange marigolds into a coloristic tour de force. Opposite (clockwise from upper left): Sedum morganianum climbs an old waterwheel chain in the Ruin Garden; a container on the Chanticleer Terrace; the Tea Cup fountain; an example of creative paving, using roofing tiles set on edge; a collage of tropical foliage; a “Christmas tree” made of succulents.

Visible from this porch, partly hidden behind a border of shrubs and trees, is what could be considered the most extravagant part of Chris Woods’s legacy to the garden: the Minder Ruin. From a designer’s standpoint, Woods had practical reasons to want to tear down Minder House, which had been the home of Adolph Jr. and his wife until the latter moved off the property in the mid-1990s. The stone house stood on a prominent knoll and, being off limits to visitors, created a dead spot at the center of the evolving garden. Woods first planned to “ruin” the stone house, but when that proved impractical, he convinced the board to let him tear it down completely and build a new ruin on its footprint.

Completed in 2000, the ruin provides the garden with its central feature, “a hub for the wheel,” as Walczak calls it. In its several walled spaces are a dining room with a sarcophagus-like water-filled table made of black marble; a library littered with slate books titled with silly puns; and a bathlike fountain with eerie, thick-lipped marble faces, submerged underwater, carved by Berkeley, California, artist Marcia Donahue.

Made of shiny local stone called Wissahickon schist, this massive garden ornament seems, from several viewpoints, a bit too spanking new for something supposed to be ruined. But Woods never cared if other people failed to appreciate this part, or any other part of the garden, because he was creating it mainly to please himself. Maybe that is his most important legacy: not the ruin, or even his overall scheme for the garden, but the freethinking spirit he cultivated in his board and his staff. Woods instilled a brashness, a confidence, that has freed the new director and gardeners to take risks, to challenge visitors to appreciate more than just the pretty plants, to push past conventional taste even at the risk of falling flat.

“Whether what I do here delights or disturbs, I don’t really care,” says Benarcik. “I just want to instill that emotion.” H

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