The Dumbarton Oaks Gardens

Dumbarton Oaks Gardens: The Ellipse

Dumbarton Oaks Gardens: The Ellipse with Easy Rider (2010) by Patrick Dougherty. Image courtesy of Andy Lynch. 

Maybe it was because it was dusk that I found myself feeling lost, even though I wasn’t lost at all. Gray powdery light silvered, softly, everything it touched, not to pacify it, but as if, with gentle correction, to rout matter altogether—trees, shrubs, and closing flowers, like so many eyelids nestled in sleep’s calyx, the stonework in its obscure liquidity, and, always above, the great terraces and the great house—all into the shadow of itself. Like the supernatural residue of some dread and beautiful witch’s dematerialization into night, fireflies pulsated upward as if perpetually, the humorous issue from some wound in nature, invisible, comic, itself most natural; they pulsated upward toward the skyey dusklight, which summarized them and abstracted them. Seen against that impossible void, the fireflies, in their spindrift erraticism, became hilariously alive. There is no love in a garden: only harsh reconciliation.


Mildred Bliss loved her gardens. They “were her real passion” at Dumbarton Oaks, Margaret Dawson recalls, who helped to organize Bliss documents in 1956. The profusion of correspondence between Mrs. Bliss and her garden designer Beatrix Farrand testifies to this, as does Mrs. Bliss’s Garden Library, wherein are housed leaves on leaves, all on leaves. The gardens themselves are Ms. Farrand’s best known, counterpointing as they do Michelangelesque marmoreal structures and brushy, uncommitted flowers, whose surfaces seem unwilling to contain their colors, which leap, dive, frisk, as though color itself were, at its very essence, the finest child’s play under the sun.

Former D.O. Junior Fellow and current Manager of the House Collection and Archivist James Carder reminds us that, in the early days of Dumbarton Oaks as a home for the humanities, “the garden was for the Fellows. Yes, they eventually were opened to the greater and broader public, but that isn’t the Blisses’ initial interest. The uniqueness that we talked about earlier in the Blisses’ vision was that this was for scholarship and fellowship enrichment.” And, indeed, it would seem that, at least for Pre-Columbian Fellow Ricardo Agurcia Fasquelle, the gardens have abundantly provided just the sort of enrichment to which Mr. Carder refers. Mr. Fasquelle rhapsodizes:

Dumbarton Oaks Gardens: The Fountain Terrace

Dumbarton Oaks Gardens: The Fountain Terrace

You go out in those gardens and sit or just walk around, and they are inspiring; they’re just beautiful, and I think that—and that’s Landscape Architecture—but that beauty helps to establish that atmosphere that is conducive to good thought and work. And, in my case, it was clearly something that changed my career, changed my life, even my outlook on my profession.

In addition to serving as a haven of repose for the spirits and intelligence of Byzantinists and Pre-Columbianists, the gardens are also a hub of vibrant activity for garden-related scholarship. Indeed, the garden design historian William Howard Adams affirms that, when “garden history itself was parvenu” in the academy, Dumbarton Oaks “was really the only center” for such scholarship. Former D.O. Fellow Susan Toby Evans recalls how her Pre-Columbian research was filtered and fibered by the proximity of the Dumbarton Oaks gardens and the knowledgeable staff superintending them:

Dumbarton Oaks Gardens: The Pebble Garden

Dumbarton Oaks Gardens: The Pebble Garden

Research into Aztec palaces led inevitably to research into Aztec monumental gardens (e.g. Chapultepec Park, first developed as a monumental garden in the 1420s, and Texcotzingo, possibly the world’s first botanical garden), and this led to informal conversations about garden design matters with John Dixon Hunt, Joaquim Wolschke-Bulmahn, and Michel Conan. These conversations led to publications about monumental gardens, and participation in a Landscape Studies symposium and volume. These days I enjoy conversations with John Beardsley as we compare and contrast ancient and modern solutions to the challenge of the twenty-first century’s “new oil”: water.

And, as scholars foray into the gardens, so too does the garden foray back, in an ecological dance as intricate as the shadows cast by the ornamental fig vine in the Orangery, whose leaves congregate at the windowpanes like the faces of children looking out into the awful imminence of their own bedtime; or planets unfurling, as smoke unfurls, but ever so slowly, across the congenial Panes of Being, before unfurling into nothing once again. In this vein, former Director of Pre-Columbian Studies Elizabeth Benson has an exemplary anecdote (see also Garden and Landscape Studies Intern Matthew O’Donnell blog post, in part on his ecological work in the gardens):

The first day I was in my office: there are these deep window wells, and there was a bird—I think it was a mocking bird—who got down in there, and who could not fly straight enough, long enough, to get out. So, I called for help, and the gardeners came and put a ladder down in there, and the mocking bird simply flew up to one rung of the ladder and then flew off into the sky. So, they put little ladders in there; they were probably there when you were there.


One room in the gardens, the so-called Lovers’ Lane Pool, I can only describe as savage. Many years ago, I’ve heard, a woman drowned there, a gardener’s wife. One of my colleagues told me that my knowledge of the incident must have shaped my apprehension of the room, a room that he himself finds to be dramatically gay, refreshingly green as it is, and presided over by a silence-piping satyr. As you descendingly approach this room from the north, you see amphitheatric seating ahead, crude stone terraces overrun with grass; and to the east, great ruinous pillars, each shackled to its aloof neighbor, which like a careless chorus looks down on the pool itself, at the center of all, shallow jade, with mossy and unyielding impenetrability enshrining it. So, one thinks, this pool is the stage played out, in the cosmic theater of loss, the pit into which the players have fallen; this is where the earth has devoured Oedipus, not in Colonus but here, and without tomb. And on that stage we are not watching a performance but its loss, our consciousness of which is the performance itself, the unwise fool. As Director of Gardens and Grounds Gail Griffin eloqeuntly puts it:

Everything in a garden is ephemeral…I think this garden represents something that transcends trauma to a lot of people, and so in that transcendence they resent it [the garden] itself changing in a noticeable way, even though of course it’s changing all the time.

And the great pillars look on, and fireflies, with a dying fall, flicker over the waters.

Dumbarton Oaks Gardens: Lovers' Lane Pool

Dumbarton Oaks Gardens: Lovers’ Lane Pool

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