Georgetown gardens are numerous but there is a century-old specimen that outshines all its competitors. Dumbarton Oaks is a country estate built in a city. Located on R Street NW in Washington DC, it nestles between Rock Creek Park and Georgetown homes. Cars race by on R Street. Visitors who want to explore Georgetown gardens will discover an island of tranquility.
Imagine veering off the streets of crowded Georgetown. As I walk through the gates, I look up at a brick mansion. A sweeping green lawn beckons me to climb up the hill. Huge trees stretch their branches out in an arboreal embrace. The sounds of the automobiles and car horns slip away. Washington DC is beginning to wake up after the pandemic quiet. But I find it still solitary at Dumbarton Oaks. All I need is an advance reservation for a timed entry ticket.
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This idyllic estate didn’t always look this way among Georgetown gardens. When Robert and Mildred Bliss bought the home in 1920, they acquired a house with 53 acres, including a stable yard and barn. The property stood at the highest point in Georgetown.
“The grounds [were] unkempt and in places overgrown but the beautiful trees gave promise of possibilities to a gardener.”Robert Bliss
The South Lawn was thickly wooded by oaks and elms, both regal trees. (The oak is also associated with mythological figures such as Zeus. An oak can live up to 1,000 years.)
The estate offered promise but much work lay ahead. It was an empty canvas awaiting an artist’s brushstrokes.
The Blisses hired Beatrix Farrand in 1921 to design their garden. Already accomplished for her work at Princeton University and New York Botanical Garden, she was a brilliant choice. She is considered America’s first female landscape designer. In fact, Farrand was named one of the charter members of the American Society of Landscape Architects. She was 27 years old.
Farrand was an artist who used plants instead of oils or acrylics to “paint” her picture as a landscape designer.
“Should it not be remembered that in setting a garden we are painting a picture?”Beatrix Farrand
She advocated the use of plants native to the region. While she traveled early in her career to observe the most famous gardens on the continent, including Versailles in France, Farrand chose to create uniquely American gardens.
While a member of a wealthy New York family, Farrand had no reservations about tromping around a worksite in boots or getting on her knees to weed.
“Born in 1872 into a privileged world of East Coast society—Edith Wharton was her aunt, Henry James called her Trix—she had an elegant reserve, a perfectionism that suffered no fools.”New York Times
Dumbarton Oaks and the adjoining Dumbarton Oaks Park are the only Farrand-designed Georgetown gardens. (You can see another project, Green Spring Gardens, in Alexandria, Virginia.)
Mildred Bliss and Beatrix Farrand were perfectly matched with a keen eye for detail. They worked nearly 30 years together designing the grounds, orchard, kitchen garden, and borders as well as the outdoor artwork, urns, benches, gates, and finials. Farrand designed vertical gardens, training plants, and vines to climb walls and fences.
I feel as though I am sauntering through a house without walls as I meander across the Dumbarton Oaks estate. The stormy pale blue sky is the ceiling. Farrand’s design features terraced gardens and “untamed” wilderness. I skirt past a fence that separates the palatial grounds from the adjacent Dumbarton Oaks Park. (The latter is free for anyone to explore.)
The forest grove could hide elves and sprites. The wooded pathways take me in and out of the afternoon light. At times I feel lost in the country yet this Georgetown garden is only 2.1 miles from the White House. The magnificent primeval grounds thrills me.
This effect is intentional. After first touring Dumbarton Oaks, Farrand wrote to Mildred Bliss that the property reminded her of “large, ample, old, half-city, half country houses, which one associates with certain districts in England and France and to a certain extent in our own south.”
With great care, Farrand created distant sight lines so you can peek into the room ahead of you while standing in place. My favorite is looking through the door of the conservatory to the rolling lawn and gardens beyond.
While I am not permitted to explore the mansion due to Covid restrictions, I do spend 90 minutes roaming the property. Among Georgetown gardens, Dumbarton Oaks is exemplary as an institution of learning. “Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection supports research and learning internationally in Byzantine, Garden and Landscape, and Pre-Columbian studies through fellowships and internships, meetings, and exhibitions,” according to its website. But DC residents, as well as visitors, can also enjoy this spectacular venue.
“It opens its doors to the public to visit its historic garden, designed by Beatrix Farrand; its museum, with world-class collections of art; and its Music Room, for lectures and concerts.”Dumbarton Oaks
Awe awaits me. Lush bushes line paths. Trees lean in, creating arboreal doorways. Tendrils of vine wrap around gates. The scent of tea perfumes the rose room.
The owners of Dumbarton Oaks committed in stone that the relationship with their landscape designer never be forgotten. Their affection never wavered.
There is a prominent plaque at Dumbarton Oaks. The Latin is translated as “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.”
The Bliss family also celebrated the relationship with their longtime Irish gardener. I discover a plaque dedicated to Matthew Kearney. He worked on the estate as its gardener from 1930 to 1973. The sign reads: “These gardens bear witness to his knowledge and devotion.”
Dumbarton Oaks Park
The Bliss family chose to give away part of their estate. In 1940, they transferred 16 acres comprising the upper formal gardens to Harvard University. They also gave 27 acres to the U.S. government.
Dumbarton Oaks Park sits next to the mansion and gardens but entry is free. It is considered part of Rock Creek Park, a sprawling 1,754-acre national park located in the heart of the nation’s capital.
“Dumbarton Oaks Park is an exceptionally significant historic landscape, where the naturalistic gardens and built features offer a very special experience to those who visit.”National Park Service
There is a fence separating Dumbarton Oaks grounds from the public park. I walk along the border of the two venues.
The Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy is a charitable nonprofit established in 2010. Its mission is to restore the Park as one of the 10 greatest garden landscape designs. “The estate is a milestone in the history of American landscape architecture and a landmark in our social history, as it represents the finest work of Beatrix Farrand,” according to the Conservancy.
Visitors must purchase a timed ticket ($7) in order to tour the Dumbarton Oaks gardens. The mansion is not currently open due to covid. Visitors (age 2+) must wear a mask. There are many special areas of the garden, including the Kitchen Garden, Cutting Garden, Prunus Walk and Cherry Hill.
You can download a map in advance to study the different sections of the gardens. Farrand’s design features a Star Garden, Green Garden, Beech Terrace, Urn Terrace, Rose Garden, Fountain Terrace, Arbor Terrace, Box Walk, Pebble Garden, and Ellipse. You should also roam Fairview Hill, Cherry Hill, and Forsythia Dell. On the left side of the museum entrance, there is a Ribbon Walk nestled next to the South Lawn.
Beatrix Farrand Gardens
There are numerous gardens designed by Beatrix Farrand in California, Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey, New York and Washington DC as well as England.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, Seal Harbor, Maine
Ambler College, Temple University (Formal Perennial Garden), Ambler, Penna.
Beatrix Farrand Garden at Bellefield, Hyde Park, New York
College of the Atlantic Bar Harbor, Maine
Dartington Hall, Totnes, Devon, England
Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C.
Dumbarton Oaks Park, Washington D.C.
Glenmere, Chester, New York
Green Spring Gardens & Historic Site, Alexandria, Virginia
Friends of Harkness Memorial State Park, Waterford, Connecticut
Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, Conn.
New York Botanical Garden (Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden), Bronx, New York.
Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey
Promisek, Bridgewater, Conn.
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Santa Barbara, California