Exploring the Grounds at Dumbarton Oaks
Perched at the highest point of Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood, Dumbarton Oaks Garden is a green escape from the bustling commercial streets that lie just blocks below it. The terraced garden sits on a hill behind a grand family estate that is packed with ornately-designed terraces, ornamental vases, and stone fountains that were all crafted to enhance the beauty of the surrounding oak trees from which the property gets its name.
If visiting Georgetown for the day, it’s worth trekking up the historic streets to explore the garden’s many chambers, one of which hosted the international delegation that met to discuss the founding of the United Nations in 1944– a statistic that the property can boast alongside lovely rose gardens that would impress regardless of Dumbarton Oak’s role in charting the course of history. With its sprawling green lawns and giant oaks, Dumbarton is a country place in the city. After a long search for the perfect home, Robert Woods Bliss, an American diplomat, purchased the brick mansion in 1921 along with his wife, Mildred. Focusing her efforts on refurbishing the unkempt grounds, Mrs. Bliss hired pioneering landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, niece of author Edith Wharton, to work closely with her to design every inch of the garden–a collaboration that spanned a lengthy thirty years.
Following the advice of her mentor Charles Sargent, Farrand designed the garden so as to “…make the plan fit the ground and not twist the ground to fit a plan.” Walking through the garden, it’s clear that each section was planned with the topography in mind. Farrand chose a mix of flora to accent each terrace–evergreens and deciduous trees, native and exotic plants, hanging wisterias and crawling vines.
To enter the gardens, one passes through the Orangery, a picturesque, high-ceiling conservatory that was built in the early 19th century. Its inside walls are covered by an impressively-large fig tree that snakes through the room and is sculpted into ribbons that hang in the building’s large windows. Known as an espalier, the 150 year-old fig tree has been diligently trained to grow across the walls since it was first planted. With lush green walls and soft lighting that filters through the slated roof, it’s a popular space for wedding ceremonies and other events that are made more commodious by the green surrounds.
Blossoming flowers abound just down the hill from the Orangery in the Rose garden. To keep things aesthetically interesting in the barren winter, Farrand designed the flowerboxes in jutting, geometrical shapes. Underscoring the central role that gardens played in their lives, the Bliss family motto is inscribed on a bench in the Rose garden: “Quod Severis Metes: As you sow, so shall you reap.”
Pebble Garden, an impressive pattern of colored Mexican pebbles that lines the ground of one of the garden chambers and bears the same motto, is just one example of the stunning stone craftsmanship at the estate.
Soundscapes and landscapes blend within the garden to make playful art. In Lover’s Lane Pool below a brick, Greek amphitheater, visitors will find a contemporary sound installation that looks like 12 organ pipes thrusting out of the water. Titled The Pool of ‘Bamboo Counterpoint’, artist Hugh Livingston designed the piece to play recordings of the garden’s noises, ranging from bamboo flutes to rustling wind. Perplexed by the garden designer Farrand’s choice to put a pool below the seating instead of a stage, Livingston sought to create the performance space he thought was missing.
Apart from its aesthetic value, the estate also serves recreational and educational purposes. The land that now forms neighboring Dumbarton Oaks Park was gifted to the U.S. government in the 1940’s (it was assigned to public use,) and the upper 16 acres of the property are now home to the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Serving as a research institute for Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and the history of gardens studies, the library is a good place to read worn, rare books in a beautiful setting. Today, the estate is a “home for the humanities,” as well as a place to explore and appreciate a garden that was carefully designed to merge art, architecture, and nature all while highlighting its own endlessly-compelling surroundings.