Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ode to Dumbarton Oaks

In the last few weeks temperatures have been bouncing up and down here in the metro-Washington D.C. region.  When last Saturday reached the balmy low 70's, I took advantage of the weather and spent a few hours wandering around Dumbarton Oaks in upper Georgetown, a garden I never tire of visiting.

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 Georgetown.

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. 
Apparently, Farrand's original design of the Urn Terrace was simpler with no curved lines and no Urn; it had been called the Box Terrace and was intended as staging for the larger Rose Terrace below, rather than as a stand-alone "room."
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
I love this space and its quiet simplicity.  As the Dumbarton Oaks website mentions, Farrand intended for the Ellipse to be one of the most peaceful areas of the garden and, to my mind, it is. The native Hornbeams (Carpinus caroliniana) are a post-Farrand addition and a positive one, I think.  (Previously the boxwood hedge was the only encircling greenery.) The regularly spaced, statuesque trunks add depth and a modern geometry to the garden.  They remind me of pictures I've seen of some Dan Kiley designs, where he placed trees on a grid pattern to great effect.

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
Another favorite feature are these garden buildings with "ogee-style" tiled roofs.  They sit at the edge of the cutting and vegetable garden.  Farrand intended them as tool sheds.  Who wouldn't want one of these in their garden?

This area is filled with flowers and vegetables during the growing season.
One of the most highly decorative areas at Dumbarton Oaks was originally a tennis court.  Now an Italianate-style pebble garden, this enclosed space is described in  Landscapes in History "as visually part of the formal gardens, but not part of the spatial sequence [of the east side terraces] intended by Farrand."   But it works as a visual surprise when visitors in the overhead terrace, flanking the house, discover it as, invariably, they look out over the landscape below.

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. 

Crabapple Hill
Crab Apple Hill 
There are more areas to discover at Dumbarton Oaks not pictured here. And many visitors will find the garden more interesting when flowers are blooming and the trees are leafed out.  I consider it a place to visit in all seasons to discover all its facets and aspects, and, indeed, it is now open year-round. Come between November 1st and March 14th and admission is free!

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.  


  1. Every time I visit D.O. I'm more impressed by Farrand's treatment of the topography and the paths, walls, and ornaments. And those old bare wisteria vines without leaves are beautiful!

    1. Hi Cindy, Yes, this garden holds up over time. Mildred Bliss was especially interested in the ornaments, or so I've read, but Farrand did design some of them. Sarah