Reprint: Mrs. Lloyd and Her Fairy Amphitheatre

Anner Whitehead

Mary Helen Wingate Lloyd enjoyed her gardens at Allgates, her estate near Philadelphia, and well she might, for it was a lovely place indeed, with the Rose Garden bordered with apricot violas, the sunken Blue Garden with its narrow rill of water, the Frog Terrace with oversized bronze frog sculptures flanking an oblong pool, the Primrose Path leading toward the greenhouse, a sheep meadow in the middle distance through which one walked to the rustic Quarry Garden, fine stone steps and balustrades, and, immense in the landscape, the Iris Bowl, arguably the most famous private American iris garden of its time.

Unlike many gardens of the wealthy in the ‘twenties in which the hands of professionals and underlings created venues for al fresco social activities and conspicuous consumption, the formal gardens at Allgates were clearly Mrs. Lloyd’s, and, although she certainly employed assistance, her vision of horticultural beauty infused them, and her own hands, holding her own tools with the handles specially painted blue, cultivated her plants. Let us meet her.

In the Bulletin of the Garden Club of America for February, 1936, a special memorial edition devoted to Mrs. Lloyd, we learn that before her marriage to Horatio Gates Lloyd, a financier who would become President of the Commercial Trust Company of Philadelphia, and later a partner in J. P. Morgan and Co., she was Miss Wingate of Brooklyn, a “cosmopolitan” young woman, “active in many organizations allied with painting and horticulture.” She “took an active part in the campaign for woman’s suffrage and was also interested in the cause of birth control.” As a mature woman she was loved for her vitality and charm and respected for her “intellectual curiosity,” her “independent spirit,” and her love of beautiful things. She collected rare antique horticultural books and studied art. Gardens, books, and painting were her abiding joys.

Mrs. Lloyd’s horticultural affiliations were many. Her own garden club was among the founding clubs of the Garden Club of America, an organization created in 1913 to encourage horticultural education and preservation of the nation’s natural beauty. This mission she explained eloquently in a 1925 article in Good Housekeeping in which she reminded the reader that “the great wild garden … our fields and roadsides” must be cherished, for it is “Everybody’s Garden.” In recognition of her exceptional knowledge of the subject, she served for many years as editor of the Plant Material department of the GCA Bulletin and wrote insightful articles on a variety of genera, including the Iris. She served as a Director of GCA from 1928 to 1933, and rose to First Vice-President, the position she held at her death on September 23, 1934. She was also active in other plant societies, including the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the American Iris Society. An organizer and charter member of AIS, Mrs. Lloyd served as a Director from 1921 to 1930.

Allgates itself, located in Haverford, is an estate which in the Lloyd’s time extended to approximately seventy-five acres, including a one room schoolhouse and the Frog Tavern, both survivors from the eighteenth century. The house was designed by Wilson Eyre, a noted Philadelphia architect, and was completed in 1912. It is an irregular gabled structure of stucco over stone ranging from one to three stories with sunny gardens descending in generous terraces from the rear. The gardens were redesigned in 1919-20 with the assistance of Horace Wells Sellers, architect, but the planting schemes then, and later, were conceived by Mrs. Lloyd. The several garden areas were exceptionally successfully orchestrated. Formal yet intimate, they were united by a common major axis, repetition of color, water features, and the use of modern figurative sculptures of children at play. Today, Allgates is on the National Register of Historic Places and the estate has recently returned to private ownership after having served as an educational institution for some years.

Now let us visit Mrs. Lloyd’s lovely iris garden. Standing on the grassy top terrace, which is dominated by an ancient cherry tree, and facing the setting sun, the Iris Bowl is to one’s right. Diagonally across the Bowl stands an elevated Gazebo from which to view the irises in their glory. And glory it must have been, for the Bowl, as I said, is immense, contained within a square space 107.5 by 101 feet, with triangular beds in the four corners of the upper level.

Mrs. Lloyds fairy amphitheatre
Composite of two views of Mrs. Lloyds iris bowl. From Bulletin No. 50 of the American Iris Society, January 1934.

Some minor discrepancies exist in the records of the dimensions of the Bowl, but we know that it consists of four concentric circular terraces descending to a grass plot centered by a blue tiled circular pool which is itself six feet across. In 1932 the British garden writer Mrs. Marion Cran observed the pool was “like the lees of the sky” and noted “water is used very prettily everywhere in this garden.” Each circular terrace is about ten feet wide and contains two broad iris beds separated by a grass path. The terraces are quartered by four sets of stone steps which decrease in width as they descend. These, like the dry stone retaining walls, are heavily planted with rock plants. The total change in elevation of the surrounding garden and the Bowl is about four feet, although it appears greater because the taller varieties of irises are planted at the top, with shorter ones on the interior beds of each terrace, and on the lowest level. When the irises were not in bloom the pleasing geometry of the rock work and a few seasonal bulbs enhanced the area, but, because the Bowl was recessed into the surrounding landscape, it quietly assumed a subordinate role in the garden during its less attractive seasons. Thus the design of the Bowl ingeniously combined several elements characteristic of the period: a sunken garden, a series of concentric geometric flower beds, axial symmetry, and a central water feature. Furthermore, it shared an axis with the pool in the Frog Terrace, the rill in the Blue Garden, and the vista toward a secluded swimming pool.

We have contemporary descriptions of the Bowl dating from 1921 through 1934, which, coupled with Mrs. Lloyd’s own writings on irises in the GCA Bulletin, enable us to visualize her irises within the Bowl. Writing in 1921, Elizabeth D. Williams recorded that the Bowl contained two hundred and fifty varieties of irises, and that the enclosing square was also lined with long narrow iris beds. We learn that Iris pallida DALMATICA, and Japanese and Siberian irises, combined with plants such as primulas, lobelias, sedums, creeping phlox and candytuft, filled the four triangular beds on the upper level, and the quadrants of the bowl itself were planted according to carefully considered color schemes with all cultivars labeled and separated by wire barriers. The color groups were: lavenders with purples, blues with whites, yellows with “smoky shades,” and pinks. Among the irises on the terraces in 1921 were such well known names as, PERFECTION, MONSIGNOR, AMAS, SOUV. DE MME. GAUDICHAU, B.Y. MORRISON, ALCAZAR, MA MIE, LENT A. WILLIAMSON, CAPRICE, SEMINOLE, SHERWIN-WRIGHT and FLAVESCENS, accompanied by ARCHEVEQUE, STAMBOUL, CAMELEON, BLUE JAY, DALMARIUS, DUCHESS OF WELLINGTON, NINE WELLS, POCAHONTAS, CYPRIANA, SYPHAX, HIAWATHA, E. L. CRANDALL, WHITE KNIGHT, DARIUS, VICTORINE, SHREWESBURY, CELESTE, MT. PENN, NAVAJO, MAORI KING, AUREA, PRINZESS VIKTORIA LUISE, MINNEHAHA, and RACHEL FOX. On the lowest level were ZUA, the reblooming MRS. ALAN GRAY and the arilbred DILKASH, with “pumilas” and Iris cristata planted in front of them. Around the blue reflecting pool grew Iris gracilipes. “Ring upon ring of Irises, like lovely ladies” enthused Ms. Williams, “Truly a fairy amphitheatre.” In full bloom it must have been splendid.

Clearly Mrs. Lloyd was growing a wide variety of irises. Not surprisingly given her position in AIS, she was very interested in recent developments and this interest continued throughout her life. In 1923 she wrote an article discussing “Some of the Newer Irises.” Here, as in subsequent articles, she provided detailed descriptions of growth habits and form, as well as color nuances and textual effects including iridescence and velvet. Considerable attention was accorded to American irises, especially those of Miss Sturtevant and Bertrand Farr, and later, the Sasses. She also offered occasional suggestions for incorporating irises into the garden, noting, for instance, that many of the newer irises were sturdy enough to be included in a mixed shrubbery, especially with white flowering shrubs, while some smaller and more delicate irises had proved especially useful for cutting and were “charming” in areas where “less vigorous results are required.” Mrs. Lloyd’s ability to identify the positive potential of an iris, whether early or late, thuggish or “dainty”, reflects her affection for the Genus, her creativity, and her practical experience as a gardener. So do her brief cultural asides, including the suggestion that the more expensive irises be potted upon arrival and carried over the winter in a cold frame, then moved to the iris beds in early spring. She was succeeding with some of the problematic tender varieties and this procedure may have been one of the reasons. Writing again in 1925, she offered the useful and suggestive information that “transplanting is possible at almost any time of year” provided one always remembered that “Taking liberties implies taking care subsequently.”

Displaying her irises to advantage individually and refining the mass color effects was of great interest to Mrs. Lloyd, who was, after all, an artist. Thus the Bowl apparently underwent several transformations over the years. In 1929 Louise and James Bush-Brown described Allgates in detail in their Portraits of Philadelphia Gardens, for which Mrs. Lloyd wrote the forward. They noted that at that time blue was “the dominant note of color in the iris planting,” which cannot have been coincidental. Among the irises the Bush-Browns tell us were being grown are the “blues” BALLERINE, PRINCESS BEATRICE, and MOTHER OF PEARL, enlivened by STEEPWAY, MME. CHERI, and the very popular MORNING SPLENDOR which Mrs. Lloyd thought was a better iris than LENT A. WILLIAMSON but “not as fine a color as AMBASSADEUR.” Along the outer rim of the Bowl bloomed a “broad band of yellow,” a color which was of enormous interest in the iris world of the day, and which Mrs. Lloyd had discussed in some detail in her 1925 article, “The Newer Yellow Iris.”

Another interesting article called “Iris Blends” followed in 1932 in which Mrs. Lloyd discussed the challenges of working with complex colors in the garden. She observed that “The coloring of an iris is often a matter of reflections from one petal to another as well as its placing in regard to the light. Planted where the lowering sun rays will strike through the heart, a dullish variety will glow with color. Delicate colors are better placed in shade where they will not fade….Iris coloring must be determined out-of-doors, on both gray and sunny day, for ‘mass’ coloring is entirely different from that of the individual flower.” Clearly she enjoyed blends, and her subtle descriptions bring such elusive irises as CAMELIARD, PHRYNE, MME. DURAND, ROSE ASH, MYSTERY, LONA, OPHELIA, SONATA, and STAR SONG into bloom for us again.

In 1921, John Wister, President of AIS, published a small appreciation of the Iris Bowl in the AIS Bulletin in which he noted that it contained “all the modern varieties in masses so that they are very effective,”and declared that it was “by far the finest” of the larger private iris gardens of the time. For the January 1934 Bulletin, he wrote a longer article on the Bowl and described what was almost certainly the last color scheme which bloomed in Mrs. Lloyd’s life. We learn that in 1934 the circle was still quartered, as one might expect considering the quartered stonework, and on one side the colors ran from white down through lavenders, rising on the facing terraces with deep blue purples, and on to pink. On the other, yellows still occupied the top level, running down into the tans and browns, and rising again from pink through the deep bronzes. Among the more “modern” irises were DREAM, SUSAN BLISS, SHEKINAH, PRIMROSE, TRUE CHARM, TRUE DELIGHT, and “many of the Dominion race in the deep reds and purples.” Also, SAN FRANCISCO, LOS ANGELES, DAUNTLESS, RAMESES, and PLUIE D’OR. The large triangular corner beds on the upper level contained Japanese irises, lavender bearded irises, and “a great mass of Sibericas Perry’s Blue.”

Now, John Wister, who trained as a landscape architect, liked massed plantings in bold color sweeps. He also held very strong opinions about the theoretical superiority of “modern” irises over earlier ones and his writings, which are not lyrical, often served his greater AIS agendas. Thus, Mrs. Lloyd’s use of older irises, whether in 1921 or in 1934, could not escape his attention. In 1921 he wrote that her massed INNOCENZA was very effective, but noted “it is quite disconcerting to come to a garden of this kind where many of the old varieties are so well grown that they seem fully equal to some of the latest novelties.”

Wister was still disconcerted to find her growing what she pleased in 1934. “Having been started in the era before our large flowering irises were available in any quantity, most of the garden has been in older varieties. Of recent years, however, many of the newer kinds have been added for trial…some of the older varieties which no longer seem worthy, have been put in a special garden on another part of the estate. This has been nicknamed ‘the morgue’ and is kept as a horrible example of what the old time irises were. Occasionally, however, some of these horrible examples rise up to confound those who believe only in the newer things by blooming so well that they seem better than many of the latest novelties.”

The biography of Mrs. Lloyd in the GCA Bulletin mentions no “morgue,” but informs us that Mrs. Lloyd moved excess rhizomes to her cutting garden where they provided material for her floral arrangements and became starter collections for friends, just as Mrs. Lloyd’s own collection had started with one rhizome of her heirloom iris, GLORIETTE (Lémon, 1855-58). She called it “1100 Dean St.” and it had grown in her father’s garden in Brooklyn. Its inclusion in the AIS Blacklist notwithstanding, one senses that she herself rarely referred to it, or many of her earlier iris favorites, as “horrible.” Among the older varieties which we know were still growing in the Iris Bowl in 1934, were AUREA, FLAVESCENS, QUEEN OF MAY, JUNIATA, ALCAZAR, LA NEIGE, and QUAKER LADY. Who would question her selection?

Assuredly Mary Helen Wingate Lloyd’s gardens were beautiful, and when the great Iris Bowl was in full bloom many people came daily to enjoy it. What they experienced at Allgates was created by an irisarian with legendary horticultural knowledge and a well-developed personal sense of beauty, a garden designed by a woman who, as Mrs. Cran observed, “loves it and plays with it and pets it and scolds it like a child.” Can you not see Mrs. Lloyd now, blue trowel in hand, leaning out of her gazebo and looking over her irises, thinking that the Bowl was really coming along pretty well, yes, but happily, it could still use a little more fine tuning!


Bulletin, American Iris Society. Golden Anniversary Issue, January, 1970. p.113.

Bulletin, Garden Club of America. Special Commemorative Issue. February, 1936.

Bush-Brown, Louise and James, forward by Mrs. Lloyd. Portraits of Philadelphia Gardens, Philadelphia, 1929, Dorrance and Company, 135ff.

Cran, Marion. Gardens in America, NY, Macmillian Co., 1932, p. 243.

Lloyd, Mary Helen Wingate “Plant Material: Some of the Newer Iris,” Bulletin, GCA, September, 1923, pp.48ff.

“The Newer Yellow Iris,” Bulletin, GCA, May, 1925, pp.6ff.

“Everybody’s Garden,” Good Housekeeping, June, 1925, pp.76ff.

“Iris Blends,”Bulletin, GCA, July, 1932, pp.83ff.

US Department of the Interior, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form Number PH0697346, “Allgates.” National Park Service, 1979.

Williams, Elizabeth D. “An Iris Garden,” Bulletin, GCA, November, 1921, pp. 99ff.

Wister, John. “Private Gardens,” Bulletin, AIS, Number 3. June, 1921, p.25.

“The Iris Bowl,” Bulletin, AIS, January, 1934, p. 18f.

Copyright 1999, Anner M. Whitehead. All Rights Reserved

[Reprinted from ROOTS Vol. 12, Issue 2, Fall 1999]