Dumbarton Oaks: Not your garden-variety garden


April 25, 1993|By Judith Bell | Judith Bell,Contributing Writer

"Quod Severis Metes" read the wrought-iron gates to Washington's Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, the Latin words arching gracefully over two gilded sheaths of symbolic wheat: "As you sow, so shall you reap."

I first stumbled upon this intriguing entrance in 1977. Then a graduate student in art history at American University, I held a part-time job in Georgetown and often trekked through the neighborhoods that were on either side of the commercial bustle of Wisconsin Avenue, admiring the riches in Federal architecture.

I wandered in, paid a modest admission fee and began a quiet adventure. From that spring afternoon when I first roamed without glancing at the detailed map that came with my admission fee, I have returned each season, giving myself the gift of one perfect, unhurried afternoon inside its sheltering walls.

I go to see the riot of tulips and the wisteria in heady bloom in April, the perennial borders in June, the chrysanthemums in October; but mostly I go to be lulled into reverie by the tinkling of water in the pebble garden, to lie on my back on a bench under the hornbeams clipped into an aerial hedge rimming the ellipse, to marvel at the swath of blue cut by their interwoven branches, and, on the best of days, to discover some new small wonder -- a bench hidden behind a row of boxwood, an overlooked urn carved with an embarrassment of lush fruit.

The Dumbarton Oaks Gardens offer a wonderful retreat from the urban bustle. They provide a generous measure of calm, a hiatus from the barrage of museums and monuments that are the usual destinations of sightseers.

Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss acquired the property that would become Dumbarton Oaks in 1920, inspired by what Mr. Bliss, a career diplomat, called "a dream during 20 years of professional nomadism of having a country house in the city." That country house turned out to be a Federalist mansion obscured by 19th-century renovations and additions located on 53 acres of steeply sloping land between Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues in Georgetown.

The couple set about restoring the house and, working with their friend, renowned landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, transforming the grounds into a series of gardens.

When Farrand began to study the site, she had behind her 40 years of experience in garden design. Consulting landscape gardener at Princeton, Yale and Oberlin universities, her commissions included gardens for the residence of J. Pierpont Morgan (later the Pierpont Morgan Library) and the White House.

Farrand's style emphasized heavy walls, asymmetry and winding paths with progressively decreasing formality as the gardens extended outward from the house. Like her British contemporary, garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, Farrand favored native plants -- oak, hemlock, holly, box, yew and silver maple -- over the exotic plantings that had been popular in the late 19th century.

At Dumbarton Oaks, as in all her designs, Farrand tried to make the plan fit the ground, not twist the ground to fit the plan. She also studied the tastes of the owner.

"Never did Beatrix Farrand impose on the land an arbitrary concept," Mildred Bliss observed. "She listened to the light and wind and grade of each area under study." Bliss worked with Farrand on the design through the mails from diplomatic posts in Sweden, then Argentina from 1923 to 1933.

Trees and shrubs were to form a frame for flowers but the view and the sweep of sky were also to be emphasized. Decorative architectural details and ornaments -- benches, arbors, urns -- were to be included. But it was the land, with its series of slopes and sharply differing grades, that would ultimately direct these gardens toward their unique character. When the Blisses hTC returned to live at Dumbarton Oaks in 1933 they found the country estate they had dreamed of.

In 1940, knowing that gardens often have a limited life span, the Blisses made a decision that would secure the future of Dumbarton Oaks. They conveyed 16 acres of the property, including the house, gardens and their collections of Byzantine and pre-Columbian art, to Harvard University, Mr. Bliss' alma mater. They bought a house in Georgetown, and Harvard agreed, gladly, to let the Blisses administer Dumbarton Oaks.

These 16 acres form what is today known as Dumbarton Oaks Gardens. The remaining acres went to the National Park Service and the Danish government, which purchased 10 acres for its embassy complex.

The Blisses wanted Dumbarton Oaks to live on, not as the showplace of a former residence, but as a scholarly institution encouraging study in their areas of interest: Byzantine and pre-Columbian art, and garden history. They established endowments not only for the art collections but also expressly for maintaining the gardens and for supporting a program of research in landscape architecture.

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