Nothing Beats A Spring Day In the Gardens At DC’s Dumbarton Oaks

Spring garden at Dumbarton Oaks

When we locals look to get away from it all, many of us head to a garden property known as Dumbarton Oaks. This spring, I had the pleasure of taking a private tour of the estate. It was an opportune time, not only for appreciating the magnificent spring blooms that Dumbarton Oaks is famous for, but also because starting in July, the gardens will be temporarily closing for renovations.

About

Located high on a hill in Washington, DC on the northern edge of Georgetown, Dumbarton Oaks is an historic property, including a 19th century house, art museum and gardens of world-class distinction. It is the legacy of Ambassador Robert and Mildred Woods Bliss, noted philanthropists and collectors of art, who purchased the property in 1920. At that time, the now 53-acre estate included an 1801 Federal-style home, six acres of steeply graded farmland and a series of sadly neglected gardens.

Entrance to main house at Dumbarton Oaks

The Blisses had just arrived home from two decades abroad and were keen on creating ‘a country estate in the city.’ They fell in love with the sloping terrain of Dumbarton Oaks and spent the next twenty years renovating the house and expanding the gardens. To help her transform the land, Mildred hired renowned landscape designer Beatrix Farrand. The project, which was to end up encompassing both formal and informal designs, is today considered to be Farrand’s most ambitious garden.

A view across today’s many-tiered garden

Beatrix and Mildred worked together to design and build an intricate landscape with a distinctive American flair while incorporating elements of Italian and English garden style (assimilated during the couples’ extensive travels abroad). This allowed the garden to remain flexible and over time, it has evolved to include new designs, plantings and ornamentation. Some say that the women created one of the “greatest garden ensembles in American landscape history.”

Mildred Bliss/Photo: Dumbarton Oaks

To preserve her vision, Farrand documented all her plants and the reasons for their selection in The Plant Book for Dumbarton Oaks. Completed in the 1940s, it remains the key resource for maintaining the gardens in the style Beatrix and Mildred intended them to be.

In 1940, the Blisses cofounded the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection to display their collect of rare books, documents, art and other objects accumulated during their years abroad. They also donated the mansion, outbuildings and formal gardens to Harvard University (Robert’s alma mater).

An unusual azalea variety at Dumbarton Oaks

In 1963, a Garden Library was added to the house to display Mrs. Bliss’s collection of rare and modern garden books. And today, the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection is a Washington, DC institute administered by the Trustees of Harvard University. In addition to offering fellowships, internships and exhibitions in Byzantine, Garden and Landscape studies, Dumbarton Oaks includes a Museum of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art and a Music room that provides a venue for concerts and lectures.

In a 1940 letter to his wife Mildred, Robert wrote,

‘At Dumbarton Oaks you have created something very beautiful, very special both in the garden and inside the house. It will remain a monument to your taste, knowledge and understanding – a delight to all who visit it and a great resource to those who are fortunate enough to work there. ‘

 

THE GARDENS

Farrand’s 1921 design was built around a phased transition from formal to informal spaces, ending in a woodland landscape (also designed) in the valley below the mansion. The design included numerous ponds, streams and garden ornaments all of which provided focal points in the gardens.

Today, the garden staff continue to evolve the gardens, creating one magical space after another.

The Tour

A visit to the gardens begins behind the main house on the Arbor Terrace, a broad swath of lawn overlooking the lower gardens.

The terrace is bordered by stone walls and an arbor that, at the time of my visit, was covered in wisteria.

Descending a staircase flanked by boxwood hedges (the garden’s central axis), we passed a hillside of cherry trees (no longer blooming) followed by Crabapple Hill.

A pebble and flagstone path bordered by peonies and other spring perennials led us deeper into the lower gardens.

The Pebble Garden features elaborate stonework laid in the shape of a wheat shaft. It is surrounded by trellises of wisteria and low flowerbeds. Pairs of stone columns lend a sense of enclosure to the dramatic space.

The Pebble Garden

Here is another view of the top of the Pebble Garden from the house terrace. (The students get to use the pool after-hours.)

Everywhere on the property are small niches complemented with interesting architectural elements. We passed by this one on the way to the Rose Garden. The Urn Terrace functions as the transition from the Boxwood Walk to the Rose Garden.

The Urn Terrace

The Rose Garden follows classical lines. Groups of same-species roses are laid out in geometrical grids accented by large and small orbs of loosely-clipped boxwood.

The garden is complemented by an antique stone bench.

Antique stone bench in the Rose Garden

Descending further down the slope, we arrived at the Fountain Terrace, a traditional flower garden.

The Fountain Terrace flower garden 

Close-up of the bright-colored flower borders on the Fountain Terrace

Close by the Fountain Terrace, is the English-style Herbaceous Border, which stretches back up the hill, provides an expansive view of all its riotous spring flowers.

Herbaceous Border

Lovers’ Lane Pool offers a quiet respite from all the color. The medium-sized garden features a shallow pool at the base of a small brick amphitheater bordered by bamboo.

Lovers Lane Pool

This small garden was designed by one of the interns at Dumbarton Oaks.

Small garden

The Plum Walk, with its identical rows of purple-toned trees, guides visitors further down the slope to the vegetable and cutting gardens.

Prunus Walk

A view of one of the vegetable gardens through the plum tree canopy

Lower vegetable and cutting garden

Old espaliered fruit trees underplanted with spring perennials border the gardens.

Aside from the Arbor Terrace with its magnificent wisteria, the Ellipse is a standout with its double row of formally-clipped hornbeams at the center of which is a simple fountain surrounded by a moat. The fountain is original to Farrand’s design, although the hornbeams are not. They replaced a boxwood-lined enclosure planted in the 1920s.

Hornbeam Ellipse

Located at the base of the gardens, the mostly-green space is peaceful and serene with its geometric shapes and quiet reflecting pool. Dumbarton Oaks is famous for this aerial hedge of pleached hornbeams, which provide a sense of enclosure while offering tantalizing glimpses of other gardens beyond. A great way to finish off a tour of these lovely gardens.

For more about Dumbarton Oaks, its history and hours of operation, click here for the official website.