Not all historic gardens are as fortunate as Meadowburn Farm to have careful stewardship and preservation, as well as talent to safeguard against inexorable decline. Gibraltar, named after the rocky outcrop on which the house rests, came into being from the local businessman John Rodney Brinckle during the 1840s. It was not until 1909 when Hugh Rodney Sharp, a keen preservationist and horticulturist, and his wife Isabella Mathieu du Pont Sharp purchased the property did the existing buildings and grounds were expanded considerably. Furthermore Gibraltar gained horticultural attention after the Sharps engaged Marian Coffin to design the estate’s gardens. Coffin’s connection with the Sharps certainly came through her association with Sharp’s brother-in-law Henry Francis DuPont whose estate Winterhur Coffin had designed its formal gardens.
Coffin partitioned the garden into two parts: the first being an English-style landscape park; the second a Beaux Arts garden realized as a series of elegant terraces sweeping down to a formal flower garden with roses, statuary, and a temple. In latter do we see the influence of the landscape architect and MIT professor Guy Lowell’s teachings on Coffin – the straight strong axes and lines and the use of statuary to create focal points and truncate long views. Lowell wrote in American Gardens (1902): “One of [design] principles, as we saw in the case of the gardens of the Renaissance, was to continue the lines of the house out into the grounds and thus to make the garden an outdoor room, bounded by hedge and wall in such a way as to make its proportions pleasing, and decorated not only with trees, shrubs and flowers, but with fountains, statues and vases, which offer a pleasing contrast to the vegetation.” Although the garden was somewhat unkempt on the edges, the structural beauty of Coffin’s design still shone and reinforced the overarching principle that “simplicity is beauty’s prime ingredient.” Unlike other estates that sometimes rest awkwardly with their gardens, the garden at Gibraltar runs parallel with the now-dilapidated mansion in a harmonious linear arrangement. Not surprisingly, Lowell stressed the importance of relating the garden’s direction with the house: “The direction of the garden with reference to the house is also important. The view as seen from the house should, generally speaking, follow the direction of the garden, that is to say, should be parallel to the long axis rather than at right angles to it.” What Coffin took from Lowell’s design principles was to refine them specifically for the sites she was tasked to survey and design, and using her horticultural training at the Arnold Arboretum fleshed out the structural features with rich plantings. Coffin was the rare landscape architect who both possessed the draftsmanship and site engineering and the horticultural knowledge, and Gibraltar, like her other gardens, was no exception.
Unlike Winterthur and Longwood Gardens, Gibraltar never became a wealthy beneficiary of the family’s financial legacy. In fact it was nearly demolished had not Preservation Delaware valiantly led efforts to restore and open the garden to the public. Unfortunately the initial phase of restoration and planting appeared to have exhausted the funding with no foresight for subsequent maintenance. The mansion, somewhat vandalized and currently boarded up, awaits the developers’ original plan to turn it into a cafe or a place for social events. Despite the estate’s precarious status, the garden itself is worth the glimpse of Coffin’s trademark style and the Country Place Era. ~Eric