Mildred Bliss Beatrix Farrand


Thus, we have seen as Levine pointed out in Highbrow/Lowbrow , the upper classes did "retreat" into their private spaces as a way to identify themselves as part of the elite and as a way to differentiate themselves from the middle classes. The Bliss' Dumbarton Oaks stands as a significant American cultural expression of this private space "retreat", as well as an expression of irony.

Part of the irony has to do with the time during which it was built.

Although Dumbarton Oaks was philosophically a part of the Country Place Era, the Country Place Era had ended. And in a way, Dumbarton Oaks was the last of a "kind"-- a kind of "belated gesture." Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss commissioned Beatrix Farrand to be the landscape architect for Dumbarton Oaks in the late 1920s and Farrand did not complete her work there until 1947. While the rest of the nation collapsed economically, The Bliss' had no financial difficulties in building Dumbarton Oaks. A grand "shift" occurred in American construction and design from private estates between 1890 and 1920 to public projects of the 1930s. However, Dumbarton Oaks was not affected by this shift.

The Bliss' uttered this "last gasp" of a notion of culture and patronage. All of the works of art that Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss collected-- Pre-Columbian, Byzantine, Medieval, and Garden History were preserved for later generations. Whether or not the Bliss' saw themselves as "guardians" of culture for Americans is unclear.

In the end, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss have provided this culture for the public. In 1940, the Bliss' decided to donate Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University. This included the house, the twenty acres of formal gardens encircling the house and all of their art collections. Also, the Bliss' gave the fifty-four acres surrounding the estate, what was termed as the "lower garden", to the National Park Service.

The irony is that Dumbarton Oaks was strictly a private space, originally designed to celebrate the "elite" ideals. Through this donation, Dumbarton Oaks became a place that any American could visit. It too, like the park and the parkway, became a "democratized" space. Furthermore, Dumbarton Oaks has shown the ability to endure. It is a space that can still be learned about because it remains to be a living garden. Before the Bliss' gave Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University, Mildred Bliss made sure that Beatrix coordinated the way in which the gardens had to be maintained. And so, although it used to be a private space that only the elite would be invited to , now any person can go there and have a "view" on the interior of a country estate from the Gilded Age.

Not all of the great estates of the Gilded Age were designed in line with the elegance of Dumbarton Oaks. Although there might have been money to spend, discriminating taste was not always present. Make your own conclusions concerning this by visiting a place like the Hearst Castle site.
Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle

Today, Dumbarton Oaks is a place where the public can visit and also where scholars can not only study the great collections of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, but also where the gardens of Beatrix Farrand's are immortalized in living color. People can visit the Dumbarton Oaks in person or in cyberspace:Dumbarton Oaks.

Works Cited

Balmori, Diana. "Beatrix Jones Farrand at Dumbarton Oaks, "The Design Process of A Garden," in Beatrix Jones Farrand (1872-1959), Fifty Years of American Landscape Architecture. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Trustees for Harvard University, 1982.

Balmori, Diana, Diane Kostial McGuire and Eleanor M. McPeck. Beatrix Farrand's American Landscapes, Her Gardens and Campuses. Sagaponack, New York: Saga Press, 1985.

Beatty, Noelle Blackmer. The Dumbarton Oaks Gardens : Their History, Design, and Ornaments. Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D. C. The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1978.

Brown, Jane. Beatrix: The Gardening Life of Beatrix Jones Farrand 1872-1959.. New York, NY: Viking Press, Inc., 1995.

Cutler, Phoebe.The Public Landscape of the New Deal.New Haven, Conn.:Yale University Press, 1985.

Griswold, Mac and Eleanor Weller. The Golden Age of American Gardens: Proud Owners-Private Estates- 1890-1940.New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1991.

McGuire, Diane Kostial. "The Gardens". Apollo Magazine edited by Denys Sutton. pp. 38-43.

McGuire, Diane Kostial. Editor. Beatrix Farrand's Plant Book for Dumbarton Oaks. Trustees for Harvard University Washington, District of Columbia, 1980.

Newton, Norman T. Design on the Land: The Development of Landscape Architecture.Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Norwood, Vera. Made From This Earth : American Women and Nature.Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Patterson, Robert W. Beatrix Jones Farrand : An Appreciation of a Great Landscape Gardener. (Landscape Architect and Architect,Bar Harbor, Maine Member: American Society of Landscape Architect).

Van Rennselaer, Mariana Griswold. Accents As Well As Broad Effects: Writings on Architecture, Landscape, and the Environment, 1876-1925.Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1996.

Wharton, Edith. Italian Villas and Their Gardens. New York: The Century Co, 1910.


A Thesis presented to the Graduate Faculty
of the University of Virginia
for a Candidacy for the
Degree of Master of Arts Department of English
Concentration in American Studies.

Many thanks go to Professor Elizabeth Meyer and Professor Reuben Rainey in the Landscape Architecture Department, as well as Professor Alan Howard and my fellow students in the American Studies program.

This site was created in July 1999 by Maureen P. Hall for AS@UVA. Please send comments to