Faerie Cottage with a thatched roof in the Enchanted Woods.

Image Caption: The Faerie Cottage is a magical play space where kids can make believe their own way.

For 20 years, Winterthur’s Enchanted Woods have provided a magical place for kids to be kids—while captivating grownups, too.

The creation myth says that the fairies and sprites who live in what is now Winterthur’s children’s garden missed the laughter of the two girls who once played on the swings and jungle gym there. To hear that laughter again, they gathered artifacts from across the estate and built a magical place that other kids would love.

At the time it was created, not many visitors brought their children to Winterthur, so the garden staff set out to create a place especially for them. This was no easy task. The space would need to fit the history of the estate while meeting the high standards of Winterthur founder Henry Francis du Pont, whose garden designs are among the finest in the world.

Twenty years since it opened—and now hosting a second generation of visitors—Enchanted Woods stands as a masterwork of design and intent, a place where kids can be kids, but also a place where they and their grownups find great beauty.

“There are people there every day,” says Suzanne French, an interpretive horticulturist who manages Enchanted Woods.

When Enchanted Woods was conceived in the late 1990s, most children’s gardens were gardens in name only. They were essentially playgrounds, purpose-built places full of features decorated in primary colors.

The designers of Enchanted Woods wanted to create a true garden, a place that would delight and inspire, and they paid close attention to what children wanted: high spaces that offered a view, nooks to hide in, and water, water everywhere.

The designers identified a site: three acres on Oak Hill that were flat and undeveloped, full of mature trees, an understory, azaleas, and some footpaths. The Quarry and Sundial gardens were near enough to encourage further exploration. There were restrooms in the vicinity, the area was served by the tram, and there was a tie to estate history: du Pont’s daughters played there as girls. Most important, French says, “We wouldn’t have been undoing any historical design that would have been important to H. F.”

The designers were also fortunate to have a store of objects and artifacts collected by four generations of preservationists. Old hairpin fencing and feed trough from the Winterthur farm, columns from a long-gone rose garden, stone benches, unused sculptures, urns, millstones, fenceposts, and stones from the original port cochere were all incorporated. “We had all these cool artifacts to use, and they tell a story,” French says.

As does the work and craftsmanship of Winterthur’s skilled arborists, carpenters, and painters, who maintain features such as a giant Robin’s Nest of large woven branches, which offers an elevated view of the garden and a labyrinth; the Tulip Tree House, fashioned from an upright  hollow poplar trunk where kids can hide and seek; and the Faerie Cottage, a fantastical playhouse built with large wooden beams, a hearth and walls of stone, and a roof thatched in the traditional manner.

A small grove of tree stumps encourages athletic footwork. The mushrooms of the Forbidden Fairy Ring spray cool vapor on hot days. Hidden among the azaleas, the giant face of the Green Man emerges from the earth. Story Stones, a fascinating assortment of stone architectural fragments, mimics nature with its’ spiral arrangement. A circle of columns forms the Acorn Tea Room, in keeping with the tradition of hospitality and entertaining at Winterthur. A small pond and footbridge hide dozens of green frogs, and the area teems with other small animals such as chipmunks and squirrels.

Free of references such to popular tales such as Snow White or Peter Rabbit, the garden feels timeless, a blank slate that children could paint with the full power of their imaginations. “We haven’t done the thinking for the kids,” French says. “They do all the make-believing on their own.”

“There is no other Enchanted Woods in the world,” French adds. “I visit children’s gardens everywhere. Ours is truly unique. It’s tied to the history of the estate, so it can’t be replicated. It is one of the best things we have done in the modern history of Winterthur.”

Visits the sprites and fairies on Enchanted Summer Day, which celebrates the 20th birthday of Enchanted Woods this year on June 19. For more, click here.