It's an expansive (by American and city standards) neoclassical garden known for its discrete garden rooms and terraces. There are lots of wavy box hedges, thick-as-your-thigh wisteria vines, intricate brick and stone work demonstrating craft that's probably extinct, some fine specimen trees, and a planting style that's generally from a bygone era. But it's not just a relic. Dumbarton Oaks, today, still reflects the strength of Beatrix Farrand's original design, which takes advantage of the natural topography and is also site-sensitive with the most formal spaces surrounding the house gradually transitioning to a satisfying wildness as the garden merges into the woodland at its edge.
I can get lost in this place so it's an adventure to visit. Maybe not literally lost, although some of the paths and walks lead to sheltered corners where I can be hidden, but emotionally transported. Dumbarton Oaks is another world and time, a carefully maintained, "grande dame" of a garden, which is rarely crowded and offers a certain serenity, maybe because the formality seems generally unfussy and is balanced with a rustic, romantic quality that grounds it in the landscape.
Here are views of the house:
|The lower section on the right is an Orangery|
In 1921, Beatrix Farrand began designing the garden in close cooperation with owner Mildred Bliss soon after Bliss and her husband Robert bought the property. They kept at it for more than 30 years.
Jane Brown recounts in her book, Beatrix: The Gardening Life of Beartix Jones Farrand, 1872 - 1959, that Farrand strived to give the Blisses the "country garden" they wanted without offending their city neighbors when she screened the R Street boundary with plantings that only allowed for periodic glimpses of the house. Amazingly, the secluded feeling still persists despite being in the middle of
The garden sits on sloping land, which is especially steep at the northern and eastern sides of the property (to the right of and behind the house), where Farrand created a series of interconnected terraces overlooking the neighboring woods and the city skyline in the distance.
|An entrance to the Rose Garden. These finials can be seen in a photo below of the Wisteria on the Urn Terrace. MBR, the owners' initials, are viewed here in reverse at the top of the gate.|
|The Urn Terrace sits below the Beech Terrace and overlooks the Rose Garden|
|Another view of the Urn Terrace with a glimpse of the Rose Garden below it.|
|A close-up of the Wisteria on the wall of the Urn Terrace. The white finials sit atop the gate pictured above.|
|Not an elephant's leg, but the trunk of an American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) that dominates the Beech Terrace. The original Beech, which existed when Farrand began designing the garden, had to be removed in 1948.|
|Gate into the Beech Terrace. The ornamental baskets of flowers were designed by Farrand.|
|Crocus blooming in the grass|
|A distant view of the Hornbeam Ellipse. |
|Inside the Ellipse|
|Floral ironwork at the top of the gate between the Fountain and Arbor Terraces|
|Entering the Arbor Terrace|
|This photo is taken from under the Arbor that gives this terrace its name. |
It's draped with Wisteria and shelters a small a grotto.
Originally designed as an herb garden, the Arbor Terrace became a more elaborate paved terrace in the 1950s. The gravel and reflecting pool are relatively new features left over from a fantastic (in every sense of the word) contemporary sculpture installation of a few years ago, which transformed this space to the "Cloud Terrace." This and other exhibits, introduced, in part, by Gail Griffin, who oversees the garden, have helped to keep the garden exciting and relevant. Thankfully, they kept the pool, which provides a nice mirror of the landscape behind it. Soon this terrace will be filled with pots, spilling with color.
|Galanthus (Snowdrops) bloom in the sloping lawn behind the Arbor Terrace|
|This area is filled with flowers and vegetables during the growing season.|
|The Pebble Garden|
The image below of Crab Apple Hill is copied from the Dumbarton Oaks website, where you can also see views of the other "informal gardens" located at the outermost reaches of the estate. Dumbarton Oaks was once 50 some acres and is now only 10. Much of the extra land was donated by the Blisses and incorporated into the neighboring park, now administered by the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy You can still see structures in the adjacent park that were originally designed by Farrand when it was part of the Bliss estate.
|Crab Apple Hill|
Mr and Mrs. Bliss donated their beloved garden to Harvard University in 1940. The University runs it and other institutions and a museum on the grounds. Visit the website for more details.
A few parting images:
|The perennial border should soon come alive with spring color. |
Branches of a a Magnolia soulangeana, in bud and ready to pop, hang above.
|The sprawling Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) near R Street and the front gate.|