A Carmine-Coated Lizard Created A Dandy Habitat With His Felco Pruners

Voted Philadelphia’s best-dressed man of 1954, J. Liddon Pennock had a penchant for bow ties, patchwork vests, yellow shoelaces, a brass rhinoceros belt buckle and his signature luscious red sportcoat.

Mr. Pennock had an eye for design. Known to his friends as “Lizard,” he curated a vast collection of lizard figurines, even incorporating a lizard into a needlepoint rug that he and his wife, Alice, created for their living room, with help from some of their friends.

The most lasting example of Pennock’s talent is at Meadowbrook Farm, his 25-acre estate in Huntingdon Valley suburb of northwest Philadephia. Here, he transformed a hillside of “nothingness” into an extraordinary series of terraced garden “rooms” filled with surprises at every turn.

Born in 1913 to a family of florists who had been gardening in Philadelphia since the late 17th century, Pennock studied at Cornell University’s agricultural college, but returned home when the Great Depression threatened the existence of his father’s flower shop. He saved the business, eventually becoming one of the East Coast’s finest florists. As florist to the White House during the Nixon administration, Pennock created the floral arrangements for Tricia Nixon Cox’s wedding.

Back home in Philadelphia, Pennock was best known as “Mr. Flower Show.” For many years, he ran the Philadelphia Flower Show, the pre-eminent flower show in the United States. Organized by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society since 1829, the eight-day spring show now encompasses six acres and hundreds of indoor displays celebrating new floral varieties and innovations in floral design. Some fixtures and plantings from previous flower shows found new homes at Meadowbrook Farm.

When Alice Herkness married Pennock in 1936, her parents gave the couple a parcel of 150 acres as a wedding present. The newlyweds chose to site their home on the top of the hill, to take advantage of the view.

Enkianthus perulatus “J.L. Pennock”

The driveway winding from the entrance to Meadowbrook Farm passes flourishing magnolias, dogwoods, Carolina silverbells, longstalk holly trees and Japanese umbrella pines.  Jenny Rose Carey, director of Meadowbrook Farm and author of a new book called Glorious Shade: Dazzling Plants, Design Ideas, and Proven Techniques for Your Shady Garden, pointed out massive examples of Enkianthus perulatus “J.L. Pennock,” an ornamental shrub. In spring, it is adorned with clusters of dainty white, urn-shaped, honey-scented flowers; in the fall, it is transformed from bright green through burgundy to brilliant red or glowing orange foliage.

The driveway ends at a cobblestoned courtyard with a central fountain, bordered by a Franklinia tree and heirloom “Thalia” daffodils expressing Pennock’s love of the color white. From there, guests enter the Pennocks’ home, built from local Wissahickon schist stone in the English Cotswolds style.

The foyer, with its handpainted floor and walls and a collection of Pennock’s hats and walking sticks, leads to a reception room with smoked-glass mirrors on the ceiling and hearty Peperomia plants thriving in the corner.  A faux-marble painted hallway door leads to a swanky powder room with an apple-green Chinese Chippendale wallcovering.

Turn left and admire the Pennocks’ collection of pink lustreware in the dining room. Or, better yet, turn right and enter the Pennocks’ living room.  Featured in magazines like Better Homes and Gardens and Town and Country, the living room is a showplace of the Pennocks’ interests.

Terrariums and souvenirs from the Pennocks’ travels rest on tables. Needlepoint throw pillows on sofas and chairs complement the needlepoint rug before the fireplace. The Pennocks changed the living room’s pictures, draperies and even the wall sconces with the seasons.  Antique lithographs of bird-themed paintings by Philadelphia artist Carroll Sargent Tyson, Jr. (1877-1956) adorn the walls.

Next comes the card room, where the Pennocks worked on jigsaw puzzles while sitting on more needlepoint-pillow-covered chairs.

The conservatory, constructed in the 1960s, shelters hanging ferns, begonias and ficus trees.

Armed with his trusty Felco pruners and shears, Pennock created 11 exterior garden “rooms” surrounding his home, using low hedges and natural corridors to connect and flow just like interior rooms.  Fountains and faux bois concrete planters and seats provide interesting places to pause.

He trained the branches of copper beech trees over an iron fence standing beside a fish pond called Lock Pennock.  He coaxed English ivy to stand upright and grow into a small tree.

He trimmed hemlocks into the shapes of clouds, pruned viburnums into the shapes of topiaries, and espaliered magnolia trees. A round garden was added in the 1940s, followed by an herb garden and a swimming pool in the 1950s.

Gazebos from past flower shows and a glass house were added in the 1960s. A statue of an eagle is another garden room’s feature. An herb garden features a pomegranate tree and topiary-trimmed bay laurels.

Pennock designed his garden rooms to lead to surprises at every turn. I found mine in the osteospermum, or daisybush, a purple annual with spoon-shaped petals.After retiring from the florist business in the early 1970s, Pennock created a retail nursery and greenhouse at Meadowbrook Farm. When he passed away in 2003, he bequested his property to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

For more on Meadowbrook Farm, see Gardens of Philadelphia & the Delaware Valley, by William M. Klein, Jr. Thomas Church’s classic 1955 book, Gardens Are For People, introduced the concept of the “outdoor room.”

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