Longwood Gardens planners kicked around the idea of a retro Christmas display for years before debuting it this holiday season.
“I think everybody’s nostalgic around the holiday season,” said Jim Sutton, Longwood’s display designer. “Christmas is one of those times where it’s sort of a melding between what’s old and what’s new. A lot of people pull things out and they pass them down through the family, so I think it’s one of those things that just resonates with everybody.”
The delay for Longwood came about because planners couldn’t agree on a decade to focus on.
“So we kind of picked the 40s, 50s and 60s and made it in that time range without trying to get too specific as far as one decade versus another,” Sutton said.
As with all Longwood Christmas displays, the themes from the decades show up in big and little ways, and Longwood used area artisans to provide some of the details.
Visitors can see the 40s in the massive tinsel garlands hanging from lamp posts in the conservatory’s show-stopping fern floor display, meant to evoke a small town street scene from the 1940s.
Remaking retro tinsel
The swags were made from vintage patterns.
“The lending company we work with bought a company in China that used to produce it,” Sutton said. “They had the original plans for it, and they had beautiful vintage catalogs. They’re 40-feet long. We had them make six of them to go across the fern floor.”
Guests can also see the 40s in the plastic building blocks used to make bird feeders on the wildlife tree near the lake. The blocks are meant to be reminiscent of Legos, without mentioning them by name. The Danish toys came out in the 30s but were becoming popular in the 40s.
The 50s are reflected in bubble lights and ornaments on the trees.
“Lots of ornaments,” Sutton said.
Many are vintage, but Longwood staff made a lot of them, too. Some are the ornaments boomers may remember making as kids by attaching crystals, sequins and beads to a styrofoam ball. One gardener made stained glass ornaments and another used pipe cleaners.
One item from the 1960s syncs with a popular trend from today.
Longwood’s retro truck
Longwood’s facilities department restored a 1969 International Roadster 1800 pickup truck, including making a new bumper for it. It’s painted a custom paint color called Red Line Red, meant to evoke the red line on a car speedometer when the driver is going too fast.
The bed was loaded with wood and a tree and parked outside the Peirce-du Pont House, a prime site for photo ops.
A red pickup carrying a green tree has been popular on all kinds of holiday wares for the last few years.
“If you go to any store now you can see the truck on handbags, towels, pillows and ornaments,” Sutton said. “So we’re right in keeping with the market on that one. ”
The hand lettering on the driver’s door that says Longwood Gardens was done by Hot Rod Jen, a Pennsylvania woman who specializes in vintage lettering.
She said it was a joy to be part of that project.
“Having a well known garden such as Longwood reach out to me for hand lettering was wonderful,” she said via email. “The team at Longwood Gardens understand details, and reaching out to a sign painter to help with a classic truck restoration was a detail that not everyone would think about, but they did.
“A lot of people are now unaware that trucks from that time period wouldn’t have been done in vinyl, but instead done in the traditional way of hand lettering.”
Area artisans chip in
“We haven’t even talked about the music room,” Sutton said. “The music room is set up like a retro holiday party, and it’s very mid-century modern with pink and mint green furniture.”
Decor includes a tinsel tree and octagonal bar made by Longwood carpenters.
Custom glassware for the rooms was made by area artists.
GoogleWorks Center for the Arts in Reading, Pennsylvania, housed in an old wartime goggle factory, has a glass blowing studio, and students there made a punchbowl with Longwood’s logo, Tom Collins glasses and glass olives.
Burning Branch Studio in Kirkwood, Pennsylvania, also provided glassware, including candy dishes, fruitcake and a Jello mold. The studio was started by glass blower and recovering addict Rachel Calderin, who wanted to create a safe space to create, connect and heal.
The studios’ work helps bring the room to life, Sutton said.
Instagrammable before Instagram
Even before Instagrammable locations was a thing, Longwood provided perfect holiday shots, particularly in its conservatory.
This year is no exception, Sutton said.
“It’s always, always been the thing about guests,” Sutton said. “They love to have their picture taken, and they also love to have the picture taken with something that says Longwood. That’s why the truck is just a beautiful photo op.”
RELATED STORY: Longwood goes retro for Christmas 2023
It’s one reason that Longwood is spelled out in super-sized children’s alphabet blocks at the base of the gardeners tree, which is also also decorated in the small blocks treasured by generations of kids.
Pictures from it have been popping up in social media all over the place in the last week.
Sutton also recommends the small town display on the fern floor, the super-sized stars rolling down the land toward the small and large lake, the tangle of Christmas bulbs floating on the lake, and the 2,000 ornament balls hanging from the ceiling of the Acacia passage in the conservatory.
Where does it all go?
Longwood will store all the ornaments, glassware and props made for the retro theme will be stored around the property.
Much of it is in the Calf Barn, but each of the 23 project leaders has their own nooks and crannies to store items, Sutton said. The project leaders include gardeners and frontline staff who take on a project like painting the murals at the Welcome Center or creating the gardeners’ or the wildlife tree, in addition to their gardening duties.
“Every gardener participates in Christmas and a lot of them are leads on projects,” Sutton said. “It taps their creativity. They really enjoy it, and they’re a very creative bunch so they manage to juggle their gardening responsibilities and their Christmas project.”
Longwood now has about 67,00o ornaments in 600 styles.
This year’s will be inventoried, cataloged and added to the collection. The glassware will go into props and be saved for the future.
“A lot of this stuff will get repurposed and reused,” Sutton said.
RELATED STORY: Longwood goes retro for Christmas 2023
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience.
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