When driving through the suburban areas of Philadelphia’s historic Main Line, one might not realize that a world-class garden lies just around the bend. Turning down Church Street and under the trolley bridge, we discovered this renowned garden and were eager to hear its story and explore its paths. Chanticleer is tucked away in Wayne, Pennsylvania, a suburb fifteen miles west of Philadelphia. The garden’s location represents what the Rosengarten family wanted to preserve – the suburban life and lifestyle of the mid 20th century.
Upon entering the parking area, it was easy to see that there is a vision and intention for each space at Chanticleer. The burgundy colored pavement and cobblestone curbing sets off the plantings that welcome each guest. Adjacent to the parking area, the Teacup Garden exemplifies and showcases what the garden has come to be remembered for by visitors. Containers full of unique mixtures of foliage and flowers abound, and the flowerbeds overflowing with plants cause one to ask, "How do they all fit?" The nearby stately building welcomes all who enter. In its tranquil outer courtyard, the First Year Fellows met our host for the day, Executive Director Bill Thomas.
Bill greeted us with his Corgi companion Jesse. The pleasant morning air and mild temperatures made it a great day to wander in the gardens. Bill asked us to explore on our own for over an hour before we met again at the House Garden. This was the best way to experience a "pleasure garden," to allow it to speak for itself. Bill is only the second director of Chanticleer, starting his tenure in January 2003. He left Longwood Gardens after a twenty-six year career in which he served in a variety of positions in the Education Department and as Head of the Research and Production Department. Chanticleer’s first director, Chris Woods, had worked for the Rosengarten family as gardener, head gardener, and then ultimately as director. In leading the garden through the early stages of growth and development, Chris not only helped Chanticleer get its start, but also helped define Chanticleer’s mission and set the direction that has caused many in the garden community to notice. This direction serves as the vision on which Bill has continued to develop and lead the gardens during his four years as director.
As I began my personal tour of the grounds, I came upon the Ruin Garden, a place deliberately created to produce a sense of questioning and wonder where unique garden art and water features contribute to a mystical feeling. Life seemed slower and at peace while I explored the Minder Woods. Walking down to the Pond Garden, I found myself standing in awe of a heron only a few yards away. I did not want to move for fear of ending this chance encounter. As I wandered through the other areas of the grounds, I couldn’t help but wonder, "Who had envisioned this place? Who had laid these plans? Whose dream had created this garden in which I found my spirit refreshed?" As my personal time of exploration came to a close, I enjoyed my stroll through this pleasure garden and looked forward to what the remainder of the day had to offer.
After meeting together as a group again at the Chanticleer House Garden, Bill began sharing the story of those who had envisioned Chanticleer and how it had become what it is today. We began with a tour of the main house that Adolf and Christine Rosengarten purchased with the property in 1912 and used as a summer retreat to escape the bustle of Center City, Philadelphia. Originally a seven acre farm, it soon became the family’s permanent home after a renovation and expansion in the early 1920’s. Chanticleer served the Rosengartens well as a great place to raise their two children. Ultimately, Adolf, Jr. placed the estate in a trust so it could serve as a garden and place of education for years to come. The trust was established in 1976, but did not go into effect until Adolph, Jr. died in 1990. The garden eventually opened to the public in 1993. Funded by an endowed trust, the garden’s mission is to preserve the house as a museum and showcase of Main Line suburban life in the mid 20th century, display plants, and educate those with an interest in horticulture as an avocation or profession. From the beginning, the family foresaw the gardens developing over time, stipulating only that plants "be displayed." To them we are grateful.
Over lunch and throughout the afternoon, Bill shared how the staff works together to maintain the gardens. With only seven gardeners, each is actively involved in the creative design of the particular areas in which they work. The garden is open from April through October, Wednesday through Sunday. This allows the staff to have the time to experiment artistically with not only plants, but with metal and woodworking, as well. Working on projects out of view of the public eye not only enhances their creativity in the garden, but also within the artistic realms of sculpture, metal work, and carpentry.
As our day came to a close and we said goodbye to our excellent host, I reflected on the history and story of this place. The talent, vision, and gratitude could be seen from the beginning of the story to the day of my visit. For a relatively young garden to have such an impact is a testament to everyone involved in its development over the years. As we were leaving, I remembered Bill’s answer to the question asked during lunch, "What is a pleasure garden?" He wanted everyone to leave feeling better…and we did.