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Landscapes of history

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

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.glenfoerd.org 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.

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

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