Dumbarton Oaks--The Actual Gardens


Urn and benches on Forsythia Hill
Urn and benches on Forsythia Hill at Dumbarton Oaks

The Historic References of the Gardens at Dumbarton Oaks

The actual estate of Dumbarton Oaks is a private estate in Washington, D.C.,purchased in 1920 by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. The actual house on the estate was architecturally updated by Lawrence White, Stanford White's son. Beatrix Jones Farrand(1872-1959) was the landscape architect for this estate who collaborated with Lawrence White on the "melding" of house and gardens. Farrand's worked on Dumbarton Oaks starting in 1927 and finished in 1947.

To a modern eye, the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks just look beautiful. But if you stop and understand how they were created, there is a far deeper significance to them. Historic references substantially influenced the work of several nineteenth and twentieth century landscape architects. Dumbarton Oaks stands as one such work that was largely influenced by European historic references. However, in Dumbarton Oaks, a wide range of references can be found.

Many European designers had come to America and brought an influx of new and different ideas with them. There was a shift in the actual design vocabulary of landscape architecture. Beatrix Farrand actually designed outdoor garden "rooms" and the whole idea of "space" changed the way that landscape architects worked. Each "garden room" at Dumbarton Oaks is not visible from one another. Farrand designed a variety of "barriers" between these garden "rooms" including: thresholds, corridors, walls, and gates.

Dumbarton Oaks, as a cultural American expression, is meant to be read. A private estate, like Dumbarton Oaks, was designed for the elite classes and had references that only the elite would understand. In order to be "literate" in comprehending these gardens, a person would have to be well-traveled. If you were not a cultivated person, the underlying meaning of the garden's expression would not be available to you.

First, it is important to consider the overall plan of Dumbarton Oaks. The central and maintained part that was given to Harvard University (some 16 acres including the redesigned house by Lawrence White) demonstrates the axiality of French and Italian works of landscape architecture. But Dumbarton Oaks is also "grafted" onto an English landscape garden that has not been maintained in its original condition. (Dumbarton Oaks, Site Plans, no.3). This area, also referred to as the "Lower Garden", denoted a fifty-three acre parcel that the Bliss' gave to the National Park Service. It is located on the bottom of this map.

Site Plan of Dumbarton Oaks

The park that is "grafted" onto the Villa Lante is slightly less "imposed upon" by design as the central garden areas. However, this comparison only goes so far. Rock Creek Park, which is the aforementioned "Lower Garden" section connected to Dumbarton Oaks. It has grown much wilder,due to a lack of correct maintenance, and now is more similar to an overgrown English country landscape.
Villa Lante Site Map

This melding of French and Italian traditions with that of the English seems quite similar to the site plan of the Villa Lante in Bagnaia, Italy (Villa Lante, Early Plans and Views, Engraved drawing by Giacomo Lauro). The gardens that are closer to the house are certainly more formal than the English gardenscapes , which are located as you move further away.

Both French and Italian precedents mainly of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have influenced many portions of Dumbarton Oaks. For example, the imposed structure of axiality found in the Rose Garden (Dumbarton Oaks, Virtual Tour, Herbaceous Border, Lover's Lane Pool, and East Terraces, Slide no. 7) may be traced to the parterres at Versailles in France or in the plans for fountains at the Villa d'Este in Italy.

Another French and Italian historic precedent can be found to have influenced the Ellipse with antique French fountain. The Boxwood walk provides the axial entrance leading to the Ellipse. The drawing of the fountain of Bacchus for the Villa Lante is somewhat similar to the Ellipse and its fountain. Remember, Beatrix Farrand was original and her planting design speaks to this. The use of broadleaf evergreens in the box walk gives additional texture to this entrance.
Dumbarton Oaks' Ellipse
Ellipse at Dumbarton Oaks
Bacchus Fountain at the Villa Lante
Bacchus Fountain, Villa Lante

The design of Dumbarton Oaks can be considered a "hybrid" of a sort because Beatrix Farrand was influenced by English, Italian, and French traditions. Instead, she emulated certain elements by incorporating them into her own original plan. Diana Balmori comments on Farrand's dynamism:

Farrand's Dumbarton Oaks garden merits attention because it is art, not just horticulture or landscape design. Its art does not lie in its English garden details or in its Italian Renaissance layout. The garden is neither English nor Italian. If looked at only from a stylistic point of view it is derivative. (Balmori 2, p. 122)The "spirit" of the Italian garden can be found at Dumbarton Oaks in the way that it "fits" the existing natural landscape. This correct "blending" is what Edith Wharton attempted to convey in her Italian Villas and Their Gardens.

Through the creation of the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, Beatrix Farrand exhibited a distinctive American adaptation of a Mediterranean garden form(McGuire, p. xi). Again, it is important to note that Beatrix Farrand did not copy ideas; she made them her own. Diane Kostial McGuire emphasizes in her introduction to Beatrix Farrand's Plant Book for Dumbarton Oaks that Farrand was closely aligned with the English Gardening Movement and Gertrude Jekyll's planting designs(McGuire, p. xii). Furthermore, one of the key points of Farrand's originality was in her use of plants. In part by their providing color, texture, and depth, she specified the actual plants to be strong design elements in and of themselves(McGuire, p. Xi.)

The first actual historic precedent that I will explore has to do with Italian Renaissance traditions. McGuire makes a comparison between the area from the bosco of the Green Garden to the Rose Garden at Dumbarton Oaks to the descent from the bosco to the parterres and water basins at the Villa Lante in Bagnaia, Italy. McGuire explains that it is the water sequence that dominates at the Villa Lante. Conversely, the planting is the central element that distinguishes Dumbarton Oaks from the Villa Lante in this comparison. The design (with plants) of the rose garden does seem similar to the site plan of the water basins at the Villa Lante(McGuire, p.xv).
Lover's Lane Pool

Lover's Lane Pool at Dumbarton Oaks is a garden theater that has been modeled after an open-air theater located in Rome at the Accademia degli Arcadi Bosco Parrasio.

Lover's Lane Pool is also similar to the reflecting pool in the middle of the Orangery at Versailles(Versailles, Virtual Tour of the Garden, Slide no. 7) or for any other use of water expressly meant for its visual style component.
Orangery at Versailles

Other Italian historic precedents include some of the decorative features of the gardens. In particular, an Italian historic precedent influenced vase filials containing black tulips on top of each of the gates in between the Arbor and Fountain Terraces. These tulips are made of wrought iron. Although wrought iron gates are used in many different places in Dumbarton Oaks, a number of different materials such as stone and differing types of wood are utilized to depict plant structure adding to the restrained elegance of Beatrix Farrand's designs(Beatty, p.22).
Gate at Le Notre's Vaux
Entrance gate at Vaux
R Street Gate at Dumbarton Oaks
Dumbarton Oaks' R Street gate

An example of a French historic precedent can be found in the gates at the main entry on "R" street.( see appendix notes labeled Ex. 1) In addition, all throughout Dumbarton Oaks many other wrought iron gates can be located that serve to separate one "garden room" from another. The gates to both Chantilly and Vaux (except for figures involved in the actual gates) are similar to the "R" street gate. They are termed "clairvoyer gates"; implying some sort of "seeing through."

The vista out the back view of the house at Dumbarton Oaks (Dumbarton Oaks, Virtual Tour, Entrance and North Vista, Slides nos. 6 and 7)resembles the long swath of mown grass behind the Chateau at Versailles (Versailles, Virtual Tour of the Garden, no. 2) However, Farrand's planting design is much more picturesque. She designed it so that the trees would encroach in over the open space. Also, Farrand added the "French Stairs" into her design plan here; these steps are unique in that they involve turf for the footing of the actual stair.
Entrance alle at Vaux
Entrance alle at Vaux
Prunus Walk
Dumbarton Oaks' Prunus Walk

Another French historic precedent concerns the Prunus Walk at Dumbarton Oaks, which was made up of some forty plum trees. It creates a walkway that seems similar to the entrance allee at Le Notre's Vaux. Though the allee at Vaux is meant for driving, it still resembles the Prunus Walk in its axial nature. Both of these elements act as an invitation to the visitor to explore further.

Moreover, I should say that not all of Dumbarton Oaks is founded on French and Italian traditions. Though many parts of Farrand's masterpiece are symmetrical, there are just as many elements that are asymmetrical. Many of Dumbarton Oaks' gardens also seem reminiscent of English landscape gardening traditions. Diane McGuire points out that where Farrand's work is symmetrical, "There are sufficient irregularities in the placement of the plants to ensure that there is no sense of monotony. More commonly, her plantings have a well-balanced asymmetry." Farrand used garden rooms. When one was in a particular garden room, it should feel complete in and of itself so that "One comprehends the whole and then examines the detail (McGuire, p.xiii). Farrand used the arrangement of specimen plants to instill a compulsion for the visitor to move to the next space. Again, it seems fitting to refer to Farrand's restrained elegance because she "exercised" plants in such a subtle yet forceful way.