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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Dumbarton Oaks - A Lesson on Garden Rooms

As part of a recent Colonial Garden Tour, one of the Washington DC area gardens we visited was Dumbarton Oaks.

It is a huge estate garden in Georgetown, one of historic significance as it once was the home of Robert Woods Bliss, a US Diplomat, and host to a "pre" meeting of what was to become the United Nations.  The Bliss' purchased the home in 1920 and did extensive remodeling of both house and gardens.  Bliss was also an avid collector of pre-columbian art, many of the pieces which still reside in the home.    It is now the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, administered by the Trustees for Harvard University.

The gardens were designed by Beatrix Ferrand who was inspired by the great European gardens.  She was one of the founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects and had her hand in several prominent gardens, one of which was the National Cathedral.
Dumbarton Oaks is stunning and huge.  It is about 50 acres and it comprises a series of terraces that step down the steep hill.  Within each terrace are several gardens, and for the first time I really started to understand the design concept of "Garden Rooms."  I know now that my idea of garden rooms was really "garden alcove".  Walking through this estate garden was a revelation - as only these big manicured places can be.  It was quite overwhelming at first because I can not even fathom the cost of such an undertaking.  This is truly how the .000001% lived.  We were there for several hours but still were only able to see glimpses as we hurried through the grounds.  I could have lingered in each garden room for an hour or more.

The design is artful.  Each of the rooms is separated visually by a gate, wall, or walkway.  You truly discover each one because your view is blocked until you enter it.  And once there, it as if nothing else exists.  It's an outdoor mansion so vast that one could forget that some of the gardens exist - like a room you haven't been inside of for ages.

Some of the gardens feature a partial overlook into the other,
but for the most part, each must be entered to be viewed.  One that particularly caught my imagination was this fanciful chicken wire "cloud" with chandelier crystals hanging from it. I'm going to try to reproduce this in my yard - on a MUCH smaller  - more alcove style - scale.

Another amazing garden was the old tennis court.  It is now a gigantic pebble garden featuring the Bliss family crest.  Our docent didn't have any details on how many workers or how long it took to complete this. I imagined myself going shopping for the rock.

 "The Orangery" is an enclosure off the main house that is covered within by a huge creeping fig (Ficus pumila).  The fig is impressive - even more so when you discover that it was planted in 1860.    One of my relatives was just establishing the homestead in Talent, Oregon about the same time.  I thought about Frank Kerby out there clearing trees in the wilderness while someone in Georgetown planted this ficus.

Certainly a lot to think about and some good inspiration to take home.  While building separate rooms in my garden is completely impractical - I can still use some of the visual cues to give my visitors a sense of discovery.  A well placed arbor, shrub or fence can suffice.  I'd really like to do a pebble garden but I just don't think I have the patience - and I fear I'd have to resort to chemicals to kill the tree seedlings that will invariably bully their way into it.  That chicken wire cloud is definitely a go though, as long as I can find a cheap source for the crystals.  Might be fun with plastic tear-drops in all sorts of wild colors.  Anyone have an old beaded curtain they want to get rid of?

That's interesting.  I swear I just heard Beatrix Ferrand gasp and Frank Kerby laughing "that's my girl."


  1. Gardens like this are truly amazing, and even more so, when you are a hands-on garden that knows how much work in involved. It's really more like a garden museum. My kind of museum to be sure!

    1. Ally you are so right. It WAS a museum. Beautiful, artful, perfect but also without soul because the artist and the people who keep it up are completely hidden away. There also wasn't anyone from the family to stroll down the pathways or wonder at the plants. The docent was so fussy and so adamant that we know how IMPORTANT everything was. Wish I could have just wandered through on my own and enjoyed it for what it was. Note to self!