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The Funny Thing about Follies


August 03, 2022

From The Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens

The Archives of American Gardens is a wealth of information for researchers and garden enthusiasts looking to understand trends in gardening history. Over 10,000 gardens and landscapes are documented in the archives; they illustrate the work of hundreds of landscape architects and garden designers. One unique gardening trend is the folly, constructed primarily for decoration, but whose appearance suggests some other purpose.

Many people hold the opinion that a ‘folly’ should be avoided – the word derives from the Old French ‘folie,’ the same one that gave us ‘fool’ and ‘foolish,’ and is commonly applied to errors in judgment – however, some follies fall into a different category. A folly, in gardens, is a structure that puts its form (often frivolous) above its function. The most readily identified example is probably the artificial ruin – a structure often modeled after Greek or Roman artifacts, sometimes crafted with deliberate signs of “decay.”

Folly production began in Europe and peaked in the late 1800s. Marie Antoinette commissioned a grand example which still stands at Versailles. Supported by Corinthian columns and crafted of pure marble, the Temple of Love is Marie’s extravagant tribute to Cupid. Fans of Downton Abbey may recognize the follies from the grounds of Highclere Castle, a setting for the show. Among them is the celestial Heaven’s Gate, built high on a hill so that a hiker peering through it receives a phenomenal view of the estate.

Follies often have intriguing stories behind their playful facades. Eleutherian Mills, the first American home of the du Ponts, featured gardens decorated with “Italian ruins” including reflecting pools, terraces, and classical sculpture. Ironically, in the latter half of the twentieth century the artificial ruins fell into neglect and were in danger of being lost before the site was turned into a museum.

The creation of follies may have slowed since their heyday, but they are far from forgotten. The Folly Fellowship is a group dedicated to folly preservation in the United Kingdom. On Flickr, a folly photo group has uploaded thousands of images (though traditionalists might take issue with some, including gazing balls, gnomes, and pink plastic flamingos). A folly may delight, surprise, confuse, or amuse, but it is certainly a treasure worth documenting for The Garden Club of America Collection at The Archives of American Gardens.

Images from The Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens. By Jessica Hemphill, Archives of American Gardens Intern, August 2013.

Glass lantern slide of Eleutherian Mills. Wilmington, Delaware, c. 1930s. The Garden Club of Wilmington.

A “ruin” in Eleutherian Mills. Wilmington, Delaware, 1970. Richard W. Lighty, photographer



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