It was perfect timing for an important collaboration.
Marin Cruger Coffin, 1876-1957, one of the first female landscape architects to practice in the United States, was receiving her degree from MIT and learning from the father of America landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmstead. Mr. & Mrs. H. Rodney Sharp had just taken over the Gibraltar (former Brinckle) estate in Wilmington, Delaware and were looking for someone to design their dream landscape, likely following a suggestion from Henry Francis DuPont.
Recalling images from their frequent European travels, the Sharps hired landscape architect Coffin to design Gibraltar's formal gardens. One of the most accomplished female landscape architects in the United States; she designed gardens and landscapes along the East Coast, including Winterthur's formal gardens and the University of Delaware's mall among others.
When Coffin arrived at Gibraltar, she was presented with a "blank slate": a Brandywine Blue Granite blockhouse above a rolling open field. The topography of the site lent itself to the terraced garden she created between 1916 and 1923. Gibraltar's garden consists of a series of garden "rooms," each with a unique character and purpose. Hand-forged iron gates and railings and the Sharp's collection of statuary, urns, and fountains complete the design. I personally enjoy the Bald Cypress Allee that culminates in a simple teahouse structure for the greatest solitude and appreciation of Coffin’s work when visiting the gardens. Often called the “secret garden” in the city, with the accompanying mansion and outbuildings, this landscape is reflective of America's "Country Place Era," which spanned the time between the rise of the Beaux Arts in the late 1800s and the outbreak of World War II.
With threat of demolition, Preservation Delaware, Inc. purchased the Gibraltar site with the assistance of Open Space funding through the State of Delaware. An authentic restoration of the Gibraltar Gardens following Coffin’s design was the first priority and was accomplished. The garden continues to retain its design intent, including its forms and textures, free and open to the public and beautifully maintained by Preservation Delaware’s current Garden Manager Wendy Gentry.
Repairs to the sculptures within the formal Gardens have also benefited from the Save Outdoor Sculpture program and increased awareness through the Landslide program of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. Preservation Delaware is committed to preserving the legacy of Marian Cruger Coffin through its operation of Gibraltar Gardens. For more information or to help in these efforts go to: http://www.preservationde.org/.
Trent Margrif is director of the Wisconsin field office of National Trust for Historic Preservation.