Saturday, August 11, 2007

Dumbarton Oaks


My main reason for visiting Washington D.C. was not to see the White House or the Lincoln Memorial or any of the other monuments - I wanted to see Dumbarton Oaks, a garden that I've studied and revered for years. I reviewed a book about the creation and history of this fabulous garden - Dumbarton Oaks: Garden Into Art - and I highly recommend it. From the photos I'd seen and what I'd read, it was my ideal garden. It has inspired me in my own garden and I couldn't wait to see it with my own eyes. Granted, August was not the ideal time to visit but the opportunity was there and I took it. I was not disappointed in the least - this is a garden known as much for its brilliant architecture and tactile elements than for the plants that adorn it. I do want to go back and see it again, both in the fall and spring, so I hope this won't be my first and final visit.

I was disappointed that no one seemed familiar with Dumbarton Oaks. The concierge at our hotel gave us a blank stare when we asked about it and the cab driver told us he'd never heard of it. I suppose a garden is not the first thing that comes to most people's minds on a visit to Washington D.C. Oh well, I've always marched to a different drummer!





My friend Rebecca and I toured the garden on a blazing hot Tuesday afternoon (it is open from 2-6pm only) and we practically had the garden to ourselves until a group of design students showed up toward the end. Despite the heat, I thought I had found heaven. I took over 200 photos - here is a small sample.

Rebecca enjoying one of the views

The Orangery
A section of the front lawn
Close to the entrance to the property is this magnificient spreading katsura tree (in the background), one of the oldest trees on the property. It was planted in the 19th century. Next to it is an ancient Japanese maple (in the foreground) with a spread of over 70 feet.
The front of the house
The back of the house is also restrained with plantings. The elaborate gardens (below) are to the left of the house on a sloping hillside.
Detail of the grass steps on the back lawn.

This is the Urn Terrace which overlooks the rose garden and the lower gardens. Notice the exquisite brick work - although brick is used extensively throughout the gardens, other types of stone (slate, concrete, pebbles, etc.) are used as well. One of the things I learned from this garden is that it is okay to mix materials.


The Rose Garden lies just below the Urn Terrace and above the Fountain Terrace. The roses here are hybrid teas and there were not too many blooming. The tomb of Robert and Mildred Bliss can be seen at the center of the wall.

The walls of the Rose Garden (the Urn Terrace sits right above this area).
A bench in the Rose Garden inscribed with the motto "Quod Severis Metes" ("As you sow, so shall you reap"). The ornament at the top of the bench is actually the top of the ornamental section of the Fountain Terrace (you can see it in the next photo if you look closely). Ingenious!


This was my favorite area of the garden. It is the Fountain Terrace which features two matching lead fountains. The plantings in this area change with the seasons.

Or maybe this was my favorite area - the Arbor Terrace. I believe this was Mrs. Bliss's favorite spot in the garden. The coolest area of the garden was inside this arbor which is covered with a massive wisteria. I would love to see it in bloom! There is a charming wading pool inside and (don't tell anyone), I took a dip! The containers outside were filled with tropical plants like oleander and coleus.

Inside the arbor with the wading pool in the foreground.


This is the famous Ellipse, comprised of a double row of American Hornbeams that have been clipped into an aerial hedge 16 feet high and 15 feet wide. An antique Provencal fountain sits in the center of the circle. Very elegant, very restrained.

The Lovers Lane Pool is a miniature Roman-style amphiteater made of brick rows that overlook a shallow pool.


In the sweltering heat, the pool looked so inviting. It was actually closed off so that you could not walk around it.






Inside the Loggia, artist Allyn Cox, who also painted murals in the rotunda of the US Capitol, developed a series of canvas frescoes for the ceiling and walls, depicting the fable of Diana and Actaeon. When the paintings declined in the 1940s, they were reproduced in three mosaic panels of Portuguese tile.



The Pebble Garden was the last major feature to be added at Dumbarton Oaks. This was a former tennis court that was covered with a huge motif made from pebbles and is usually covered with a shallow sheet of water although when I was there only the fountains at the head of the design were
running. This area lies just beneath the pool area.

In early August, most of the color in the garden was in the Cutting Garden and the Herbaceous Border. They were a riot of color.



A monument commentating the work of Beatrix Farrand, the woman
who created this beautiful garden.


9 comments:

  1. Jean / Kyle, TexasAugust 12, 2007 at 5:12 PM

    Your pictures are wonderful. Thank you for introducing me to this great garden. Now I have to find the book.

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  2. Okay, that was pretty fabulous! I love the intricate pebble work, the tranquil-looking pools, and the amazing overall look of the place. I'd have dipped my toes too, and it's no wonder they had the swimming pool cordoned off. In that sweltering heat I imagine it would be easy to succumb to temptation.

    I would have loved to see the shallow sheet of water over the converted tennis-court garden. Great pictures! Thanks for sharing them.

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  3. What a wondrous place! Thanks so much for sharing your tour with us.

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  4. My favorite part is the tennis court pebble garden. Or maybe the pool on lover's lane. I've never heard of this place either, even after a year or two of reading garden blogs; thanks for calling it out.

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  5. I've been to this garden several times during visits to D.C. Hope anyone interested can visit during the spring when forsythia border a path so expansively that you can barely walk through it. And the lower garden is carpeted with blue and the cherry trees send drifts of pink blossoms through the air. Truly magic.

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  6. I really enjoyed this post.
    good for you for taking a dip!
    Yhis garden is very inspiring. Thank you for sharing this!

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  7. I love your pictures of Dumbarton Oaks. Found your site while looking at pictures of Katsura trees...just want you to know that these gardens are much beloved in DC. It's my hometown, and I've gone there since a child. Always a great place to meet up with a friend. The trees are amazing. And the orangerie is sublime in the winter. And if you go in winter, it is free... Anyways, don't worry about the place being unknown or forgotten, it is a veritable refuge from modern life.

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    1. "...Anyways, don't worry about the place being unknown or forgotten, it is a veritable refuge from modern life." FJ, that is great to know! I have long admired (and studied!) this garden, and hope to travel there some day.
      ~Alyse in Oregon

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  8. Phillip--Found this photo tour from your recent post...so I am very glad you shared that photo of the Terrace Garden again. I studied this garden in Landscape Design school (wrote a whole paper on the design, the different rooms, terraces, and Farrand's life). I have only known it from what others have written. And they have always lovingly. I look forward to the day I can travel there. Your photos make it clear that the garden is as well-cared-for as ever, and it even looks better than what I would have expected. There is still "heart" there even though the original owners and designers have passed. Thank you so much for sharing it!
    Alyse

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