Chanticleer: A Botanical Distraction From Daily Life

Jun 17, 2012
Originally published on April 5, 2013 3:19 pm

Ever wanted to just disappear into a secret garden of earthly delights, of twists and turns of evocative ruin, exuberant tropics, the Zen of a Japanese teahouse?

Consider Chanticleer, in Wayne, Pa. It's part of the old Main Line ring of estates around Philadelphia. In fact, right across the street from the garden is the former home of Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, the heiress portrayed by Katherine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story.

Chanticleer is, quite simply, one of the most delightful gardens in the world. In Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden, Washington Post garden critic Adrian Higgins writes that one of the things he likes best is that "it doesn't have an agenda. It isn't, for example, only native plants. It doesn't label everything, like an arboretum. It's about plants; plants on their stage."

"It's music, it's ballet, it's cinema, the garden as an art form," he writes.

More directly: It is 37 enchanting acres open to the public, meant to distract us from the care of our daily lives.

Adolph Rosengarten Sr. and his wife, Christine, bought the property that would become Chanticleer in 1912. Rosengarten headed a Philadelphia pharmaceutical company, Rosengarten and Sons, which would eventually merge with Merck. He expanded the property, but it wasn't until Adolph Rosengarten Jr. came home from World War II that the garden really began. During his time stationed at Bletchley Park in London, Rosengarten Jr. fell in love with English manor gardens.

Over the decades, "Dolf Jr.," alarmed by development in the area, saved the land he loved by creating a foundation and trust for Chanticleer. Chanticleer opened to the public in 1993. The name? Maybe for the "rooster" emblem of France. When he died in 1990, he left Chanticleer as a bequest that all could enjoy.

The bequest was a selfless act. He could have done anything with the property; what he wanted was for visitors to wander the grounds and recover from the woes of the world. In his days, it was lawns and trees. Today, the gardeners wonder what he would think. First, they say, he would be shocked; it's so colorful. They hope he would approve.

Chanticleer's two executive directors, Bill Thomas and Chris Woods before him, added color, hot plants, artistry, wit and savvy. They have sent gardeners all the way to Japan to figure out how to build a teahouse.

For 10 bucks, a visitor can roll down a hill below the vistas of a 1920's great house. You can stop at the Teacup Garden in the entryway, then sit on a bench and read a book beneath towering banana plants that seem like Doric columns. From the minute you arrive, your eye is entranced by the Parking Lot Garden, meant to whisk your eye into the grounds.

But the favorite, for many visitors, is the Ruin Garden. Built to resemble the house where the younger Rosengarten lived, the Ruin looks like a Tim Burton set, the "ruin" of a roofless mansion. A 24-foot-long sarcophagus-like table of polished black granite holds a burbling pool beneath a towering fireplace "chimney." Sedums ring a mantelpiece "mirror." Weeping cypresses appear to be ghosts. Stone furniture is set nearby, outside, as if the "family" living in the Ruin had to flee. It's all a botanical stage set.

If you are a plant geek, fine. Whimsical "plant list" boxes built by the staff give you access to what's growing on the estate. Otherwise, you are allowed to wander, as Alice once did in Wonderland.

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Not far from Philadelphia, along the Main Line railroad is an enchanting garden called Chanticleer. It spans nearly 40 acres. Thousands of people from around the world visit each year, especially on holidays like today, Father's Day. Adrian Higgins wrote a book about it called "Chanticleer: A Pleasure Garden."

ADRIAN HIGGINS: The directives of the gardeners, spoken and implicit, that underlie the essence of Chanticleer, be brilliant, be inventive and do something fresh each year.

LYDEN: As a garden writer for The Washington Post, born in Ireland, raised in England, Adrian Higgins has seen some of the world's best gardens, including Prince Charles' private garden. At Chanticleer in Pennsylvania, he says Americans have an opportunity to visit a garden on that level.

HIGGINS: If you want to get back to a garden at its purest and highest level, this is what Chanticleer is.

LYDEN: The Chanticleer estate was created as a Main Line retreat by the pharmaceutical magnate Adolph Rosengarten Sr. in 1906. It was the family's escape then, it's yours now. Rosengarten's son, Adolph Jr., expanded it, inspired by the manor house he'd seen while stationed at Bletchley Park in England during World War II. His vision, and the endowment that went with it, was to create a garden for all to share.

BILL THOMAS: Good morning, everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good morning, Bill.

THOMAS: Everybody have your radio faces on?

LYDEN: Every garden needs its garden elves. Chanticleer's gather weekly with Executive Director Bill Thomas. They're going around the table reporting on the work for the week.

DOUG KROFT: Doug Kroft. I'm responsible for the vegetable garden, the cut flower garden, and the long border. I'm working in the propagation house.

JOE HENDERSON: Joe Henderson, horticulturist. I take care of the ponds, gardens and the little creek garden.

LUCY DIMSMORE: My name is Lucy Dimsmore, and I'll be in the Ruin this week and working on Cyclops Creek on Wednesday.

LYDEN: That's right, Cyclops Creek, the Ruin. It's like you're walking through Homer's Odyssey. So get your boots on this rainy day and come with us. We're starting near the entrance of the Teacup Garden. The teacup refers to an old stone fountain. Bill Thomas and Adrian Higgins are our guides.


THOMAS: The fountain was originally over at the Chanticleer house, which is the next house that we'll come to. And it was in a lawn area there, and it got a little bit lost in this big lawn. And so by bringing it over to this space in the entrance area, it's in a more intimate space and the fountain seems to be right in scale.

HIGGINS: And also, the courtyard causes the sound of the water to be amplified, and it gives a very sort of cooling effect in summer, doesn't it Bill?


LYDEN: And I love the whole sense I'm getting, Adrian and Bill, of being in a banana forest. I mean, these - OK, I'm five feet, these are well, well taller than I. And it's just enchanting, really. And I would think I love the name Teacup Garden because, I'm sorry, I'm looking around for the hatter, the door mouse and Alice, you know? I mean why not? Why wouldn't I look for them, right?

Banana plants ring the fountain, but even more charmingly, really huge ones resemble Doric columns against a stucco house. Nearby is a breathtaking vista. Bill Thomas leads us to the overlook.

THOMAS: Standing in the hill here at the Chanticleer house, looking down in what we call the great lawn, you can see why the Rosengartens fell in love with the site and decided to move here, to build their house here. And many of the main line houses, the estate houses in this area, were built on the top of the hill for the good views, which most people want?

LYDEN: A big, purple copper beech tree in the distance anchors the scene. I saw kids rolling down this hill on an earlier, sunny visit. And there's texture. Let's take a walk in the gravel garden.

THOMAS: And do you smell the thyme when you - when we walk through?

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

HIGGINS: Mm. Oh my word. That's amazing.

LYDEN: It's a sign of the inventiveness here at Chanticleer they replaced the formal rose garden with a gravel garden. It's the hottest, driest site on the place, a rocky hillside.

HIGGINS: And we have things like lavender, the thyme, the amsonia. We have the steeper grass, we have the (unintelligible). What's amazing in bloom at the moment is this purple mallow poppy. What's it called?

A cup flower.

Works beautifully with the orange Asclepius, the red cone flower...

LYDEN: But a visitor needn't worry about names. Plants aren't labeled at Chanticleer. It's entertainment. There's what I call the Tim Burton area, the Ruin. It uses an old foundation to create a charming, roofless stone mansion.

HIGGINS: It's macabre, but in a very sort of entertaining and eye-winking sort of way. There's a table there that sort of - I think it has a sheen of water on it, and it looks a bit like a sarcophagus, you know. It is rather grim and sort of beautifully dark.

THOMAS: And a garden actually is about life and death. A plant lives, it dies, it becomes compost and fertilizes the next crop of plants. The house in this case gave up its life so the garden could live. The sarcophagus table, it could be a dining table symbolic of life, it could be a sarcophagus symbolic of death.

LYDEN: And you can actually take your hand and play in this water. And I set close and doing exactly that.

THOMAS: And it's especially good if you splash your brother or your sister while you're here, or your parents.


LYDEN: Nature calls in many ways at Chanticleer. At the farthest edge of the property, the Asian Woods, a cooling combination of bamboo forest and stream. It was missing just one thing that visitors always inquire about, the restroom.

THOMAS: Since there's this Asian Woods, I felt that we wanted something inspired by Asia. And so we actually sent two of our staff members to Japan for a week, and they studied architecture and gardens. I did not want them to study the toilets of Japan. But they...


THOMAS: And then they came - head back and helped us design the structure, which looks very much like a Japanese teahouse.

LYDEN: Ah. Privately, they call it the Japanese pee house. You get it. It's made of cypress, and it's gorgeous. Then, we encounter a rippling pond.

HIGGINS: When Chanticleer became this great garden, it sort of looked lonely at the bottom of this hill. So the solution, I think quite clever, was to build a series of terraced ponds above it so that you then have this sort of coherent necklace of water that is surrounded by these incredible herbaceous beds.

LYDEN: There are six ponds at Chanticleer now, and pink and white water lilies span their surfaces like floating polka dots. Adrian Higgins says it's drama, it's ballet, it's plants on their stage.

HIGGINS: It is the alliance of science and art. The science of raising hundreds, thousands of different plants and giving them each their own need. And then there's the art of assembling them in a way that is visually and sensuously beautiful. There are very few places that do it very well, and Chanticleer is one of them.

LYDEN: Find out for yourself on rainy days when things look especially good. Chanticleer is open Wednesdays through Sundays, April through October. And you can see pictures of it on our website, Our visit to Chanticleer was produced by Lauren Silverman.


LYDEN: A moist and lovely day.


LYDEN: Very moist. (Unintelligible). Hmm.


LYDEN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.