Gardens, Landscape History

The Gardens of Dumbarton Oaks

March 6, 2017

On a recent visit to Washington, DC I visited the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, an institute administered by the Trustees for Harvard University supporting research and learning in Byzantine, Garden and Landscape, and Pre-Columbian studies.

The garden opened at 2 p.m. and there was intermittent sunshine.  However, these imperfect conditions for photography were offset by the flowering of early spring bulbs, shrubs and the occasional tree, far ahead of our stubborn New England winter. The forsythia dell at the foot of the north Vista was in full bloom.

Located in Georgetown, Dumbarton Oaks was the home of American diplomat Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss.  Ardent art collectors they were involved in a wide array of cultural and civic organizations.  At Dumbarton Oaks they created a perfect synthesis of art, culture and nature that served as an important center for international diplomacy.

Courtesy of Dumbarton Oaks (

Like many notable gardens, Dumbarton Oaks was conceived as a collaboration between two passionate individuals with a deep love of history and horticulture.  For more than twenty years Mildred Bliss worked closely with landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand to transform the landscape into a series of formal and informal terraced gardens on the property’s steeply graded site.

Designed by Beatrix Farrand to be lived in as much as the house the gardens are composed of a series of enclosed areas or “garden rooms” of varying scale.  Suitable for both family use and entertaining, they included contemporary amenities such as a swimming pool and tennis court (later removed) as well as design features influenced by seventeenth and eighteenth century European gardens.

At Dumbarton Oaks, no garden element is unconsidered and each architectural feature, including walls, balustrades, steps, gates, pavements, pergolas and furniture is carefully designed for its unique location and use.

Many garden features were crafted by artists working directly with Mildred Bliss.   According to garden historian Georgina Masson in a 1968 guide to the gardens, the architectural features were considered equally with the planting plan.  At Dumbarton Oaks Farrand relied on evergreens to add texture and interest as structural components, as seen in the Box Walk below.

As a landscape Dumbarton Oaks is magnificent with views to Washington to the south and over the wooded Rock Creek ravine to the North.  The intricate design of the gardens interweaves American Arts and Crafts sensibility with Italian and English garden precedents.

One of the few extant private gardens designed by Farrand, Dumbarton Oaks is considered to be her most “complex and complete” garden.  In her later years, Farrand described her work at Dumbarton Oaks as the most deeply felt and the best of her fifty years’ practice.

Beatrix Farrand, 1943. Courtesy of the Beatrix Farrand Society.

To preserve Farrand’s vision for the gardens and serve as a resource to her successors, including Robert Patterson and Ruth Harvey, Farrand wrote “The Plant Book for Dumbarton Oaks in the mid-1940s. A remarkable resource, it clearly outlines the structure of the garden (so visible in a February visit).

Built In 1810, an Orangery is sited on the eastern side of the main house.  A ficus pumila, believed to be planted in the 1860s, adorns its inside walls.  During the winter, the Orangery is used as a greenhouse and holds a collection of gardenias, oleander, and citrus.

Limited to trees, grass and ivy ground cover, the Green Garden was used as an extension of the house as an out-of-doors drawing-room.  Within its balustrade is a plaque dedicated to the friendship between the Blisses and Beatrix Farrand whose inscription (translated to English) reads “May they see dreams springing from the spreading bough; may fortunate stars always bring them good omens. Witness to the friend of Beatrix Farrand, not unmindful of those who in a later age shall have spent their lives bringing forth the truth. This tablet has been placed by Robert Woods Bliss and his wife Mildred.”

Designed by Farrand to be one of the most peaceful parts of the garden, the Ellipse was originally enclosed with a high wall of American Boxwood which was replaced in 1958 with a double row of American Hornbeam forming an aerial hedge sixteen feet high and fifteen feet wide.

Originally the tennis court and the pebble garden were designed by Ruth Harvey and Mildred Bliss beginning in 1959.  At the northern end of the garden is a pool containing eighteenth century French sculptures while at the southern end of the garden is a decorative engraving of the Bliss family motto “Quod Severis Metes” (As ye sow, so shall ye reap).

Enclosed by a combination of walls, hedges and a grape arbor, the Kitchen Gardens were designed by Farrand in 1927 as three outdoor rooms containing three tools sheds with distinctive terracotta-tile roofs.  Not surprisingly, the use of these gardens has changed over time with the evolution of the property.

Designed by Farrand, two parallel hundred foot long herbaceous borders contain mixed annual and perennials.  Enclosed by hedges of Taxus bachata ‘Hicksii’ the Herbaceous Border is accented by two fastigiate Irish yews, affectionately named Mr. and Mrs. Yew.

Serving as “an introduction to the Rose Garden rather than a garden of importance on its own account,” the Urn Terrace was designed by Farrand and significantly modified by Ruth Havey in the 1950s.

The ashes of the Bilisses lie in the Rose Garden, their favorite.   Their names are engraved on a limestone slab set beneath a lead canopy made in a style reminiscent of those found above the pulpits of some American churches. Designed by Farrand to be “much seen in winter” the Rose Garden is defined by boxwoods and ornately detailed.

Described as a traditional flower garden blending English Cottage and Arts and Crafts style, the Fountain Terrace was designed by Farrand with a combination of plantings in shades of yellow, bronze, blue and primrose. Its two limestone pools contain lead sculptures of a putto holding a fish in its mouth while a commemorative plaques celebrates Matthew Kearney, garden superintendent from 1949-1973.

Perhaps my favorite spot in the entire garden, the Lover’s Lane Pool was modeled after the theater at the Roman home of the literary society of the Arcadians. Surrounded by an amphitheater containing fifty seats it is enclosed by columns and trellis covered with deciduous and evergreen vines and screened by two species of bamboo.

 At the top of the theater is a statue of Pan, god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, nature of mountain wilds and rustic music, and companion of the nymphs.

Visiting Dumbarton Oaks in February I couldn’t help but focus on the materiality of the garden and the juxtaposition of its built and natural forms.  Each detail within the garden is carefully executed and as Georgina Masson concludes in her guide, Dumbarton Oaks is indeed an enduring inspiration that, in the words of the founders’ dedicatory inscription “inform the future with wisdom.”    

 Copyright © 2017 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

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  • Reply Pierre March 6, 2017 at 6:37 pm

    Great Pix Patrice. Looks like a great time to visit so we don’t get distracted by greenery and flowers.

  • Reply Patrice March 6, 2017 at 7:41 pm

    Indeed. During the winter the garden’s structure is visible and one can experience the landscape in a completely different manner. Not that I wouldn’t want to return when everything is in full bloom.

  • Reply Pat Webster March 7, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    A wonderfully informative post with terrific photos. I’ve visited Dumbarton Oaks only once, about half a dozen years ago, in the summer. Seeing it in February through your eyes, I liked it even more.

  • Reply Patrice March 8, 2017 at 11:10 pm

    Thank you. It’s anyones best guess when the optimal time of the year is to visit a deeply nuanced garden with intricate details, such as Dumbarton Oaks. I’d love to go back seasonally to experience the complexity of the layout and planting plan.

  • Reply Amy MURPHY March 13, 2017 at 10:30 pm

    Love the blog’s new look!

  • Reply Patrice March 14, 2017 at 2:54 pm

    Thanks, I am glad you like it. The design of Landscape Notes is an evolutionary creative process for me which I entirely enjoy.

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