Last year, weeks before the decorations for the French-inspired holiday display were taken down, members of the Longwood Gardens team wandered among the crowds. Their mission: to identify the things they wanted to replicate and what they’d like to tweak for the following year.
Among the wanderers was Jim Sutton, who’s certainly no stranger to the process. For the past 20 years, he’s served as Longwood’s display designer. He’s the one responsible for creating the theme for A Longwood Christmas and making sure it comes to fruition. This year’s display, “Trees Reimagined,” runs from Nov. 22 to Jan. 6.
“I like to think of [myself] as an aesthetic gatekeeper,” says Sutton. “We want to have this look of one hand designing everything. That’s impossible because of the scale of Longwood, but we need to have one person that kind of keeps an eye on all of it.”
For Sutton, theme concepts are always percolating. He knows what he’d like to do for the next two years, though you’d be hard-pressed to get him to share—for obvious reasons. Ideas come from everywhere, including a brainstorming session that’s held annually with various project leaders (many from the horticulture department), gardeners and the perimeter crew. At the session, Sutton presents the year’s theme, along with a barrage of photos with ideas to riff on. He always retains his notes from each meeting, in case they might be useful in the future.
While the themes at Longwood Gardens are always evocative, Sutton admits that they aren’t always original. “There are very few totally new ideas in the world,” he says. “You may not have a brand-new idea, but you have a twist on that idea—or the way you interpret it may be something new or creative or different.”
A binder in Sutton’s office contains themes from the past 30 years, so themes aren’t repeated. A kernel of inspiration for this year’s theme came from seeing intricate tree displays online. “We’ve done other themes focusing on trees, but not the way we’re doing it this year,” says Sutton. “I wanted the team to think of the traditional Christmas tree shape. But maybe the tree is made out of different material, or maybe there’s not really a cut tree at all—or maybe there is, and the way we’re decorating it is different.”
Even with so many ideas floating around, Sutton is always conscious of Longwood’s rich history and its dedication to tradition. Part of the 1,077 acres it now encompasses was once an arboretum created by Quaker farmer George Peirce.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the arboretum tradition continued. But as the 20th century approached, Peirce family interest waned. Not wanting to see the collection of trees disappear, a 36-year-old Pierre du Pont purchased the farm in 1906. Slowly, he began developing the footprint of a modern Longwood Gardens, starting with the Flower Garden Walk. Other early additions included a conservatory in the middle of the original Peirce house, now known as the Peirce-du Pont House. In 1921, du Pont debuted the modern four-acre conservatory, complete with a 3,650-pipe Aeolian organ.
Further additions—many with nods to French and Italian styles—included the Water Garden, Open Air Theatre, the Main Fountain Garden, the Chimes Tower and the Topiary Garden. Before his death in 1954, du Pont had made plans to open his Kennett Square oasis to the public. Classes, lectures and live performances were soon introduced.
A Longwood Christmas began on a much smaller scale in the 1960s, when guests experienced a comparatively modest Christmas Tree Lane and 1,000 poinsettias. Two decades later, the display had grown to a size and scope today’s visitors would recognize.
A Longwood Christmas continues to pay homage to its founders, especially in the Music Room and the Peirce-du Pont House. “We want the house decorated like it would be for the season so people feel very comfortable walking around, imagining what it was like when [Pierre du Pont] was there,” says Sutton. “We also have a Christmas book that goes all the way back to [du Pont’s] time, showing the way the conservatories were decorated for the holiday season—and how important it was to Mr. and Mrs. du Pont.”
The Longwood Gardens team does venture into modern realms when appropriate—especially when it comes to the lighting outdoors. “Some years, we set a color palette,” says Sutton. “This year, because the theme was so open-ended, you’ll see a wide variety of color.”
Final decisions are made by March, and the lights arrive in July. Volunteers stretch out the strands and place them in numbered bins that correspond with the trees, preparing them for the team of six to seven arborists responsible for wrapping the trees. “Each tree is numbered, and that’s how we track it—how many lights it takes to do it,” says Troy Sellers, Longwood’s outdoor landscape manager.
Lights slowly start going up two weeks before Labor Day. A late-August visitor with a keen eye might even see a few strands hanging. “We don’t want it to look like Christmas in the gardens too early, so [the arborists] do all the trees on the perimeter and slowly work their way in,” says Sellers.
Befitting the more abstract theme this year, there will be “a series of balls hanging across [Flower Garden Drive] the whole way down toward the lakes,” Sellers adds.
In recent years, cone trees floated on the large lake. This year, there will be a programmed light display reminiscent of the nightscape installation several years ago. “We’re always shooting for understated elegance, but we’re starting to push the limits,” says Sellers, noting that movement in the light displays is one of the more modern aspects.
Another change involves the recently renovated Main Fountain Garden. “We’re going to have cones in some of the basins and canals where the fountains are,” Sellers says. “And there will be uplighting like last year.”
While perimeter decorating starts early, certain parts of the display must wait until the week of Thanksgiving for setup, leaving the crew just three days to bring it all to life. Arborists and other team members will string some 500,000 lights in total. In the weeks leading up to A Longwood Christmas, they’ll test the outdoor displays early in the morning, when it’s still dark enough for viewing.
Inside the Longwood conservatory, the holiday display team includes carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters, masons—and even engineers if things get tricky. Sutton uses digital photo software to create a representation of the displays. “Sometimes we do a scaled-down version, or sometimes we do a full-scale version,” says Sutton.
The latter was the case this year. “When you see the fern floor, you’ll go, ‘Wow. This took some planning,’” he adds.
Sutton shows his mockups to the carpenters, plumbers, etc., who help determine how many plants are needed. It also allows the team months to build whatever is necessary for each display.
No matter what the theme, certain things are a given. “You can’t have a Christmas display without poinsettias,” says Sutton, who changes the number of plants and the placement from year to year. “You have to had red in their somewhere.”
Sutton relies on Longwood’s crop-inventory specialist to determine the precise numbers, who will grow them and where they’ll come from. Due to the enormity of the display, Longwood Gardens can’t supply everything that fills the four-acre conservatory, sourcing cut trees from growers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. All the poinsettias, however, are grown on site.
Sparkle comes in the form of lights, ornaments and other adornments. Longwood has amassed an impressive inventory of 55,000 ornaments over the years, all catalogued by color. Sutton also makes an effort to bring in local talent whenever possible. This year, a paper artist is creating the unconventional trees on display in the Music Room. Her name remains a secret until the big reveal.
On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the conservatory is closed, the fall Chrysanthemum Festival displays are broken down, and Christmas preparations begin. “It’s the calm before the storm,” says Sutton.
For those few days leading up to Thanksgiving, the conservatory is buzzing with 150-165 Longwood team members. Duties are laid out on spreadsheets. “Because we’ve done this so many times, it’s a well-oiled machine,” says Sutton. “To watch it happen, I’m always still amazed come Wednesday that we got it done.”
The following day, after Thanksgiving dinner, Sutton and his family head to Longwood Gardens, where Sutton’s mom worked as a guide for 30 years. “My mother won’t rest until she sees Christmas,” he says. “That’s our family tradition.”