Dumbarton Oaks: That “Chambered Nautilus of Gardens”

Dumbarton Oaks is one of Georgetown’s crown jewels, a grand home, a museum of Pre-Colombian and Byzantine art, and a symphony of gardens perched atop the old neighborhood’s highest point. This spring, I came to see the wisterias.

Dumbarton Oaks wisterias in full bloom

The gardens are spectacular in any season, but mid-spring, I think, is my favorite. The aromas are tantalizing, but not yet overpowering. On a warm, sunny day, a stroll through Dumbarton’s outdoor chambers is a balm to the soul. Quiet stone walkways, crooked stairs, winding paths lead you on, gently, unobtrusively, each  turn promising another winsome terrace, another surprise vista, another inviting nook.

Pebble Garden from above, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC

As you enter the grounds, a series of enclosed gardens open up before you: Here is our first glimpse of the Pebble Garden, lined with wisterias

To the Rose Garden, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC

To the Rose Garden

Dumbarton Oaks, Rose garden in April

The Rose Garden, the largest of the terraces, awakening from slumber

Dumbarton Oaks gardens, stairs to the Lovers' Lane Pool, Washington DC

To the Lovers’ Lane Pool, the wildest, most informal part of the gardens (my favorite, of course! I wish there were ferns–imagine Ostrich ferns!–instead of all the grass)

Mélisande's Allée, Dumbarton Oaks, April

Along the Mélisande’s Allée, a reference to the sylvan beginning of a Debussy’s opera

Dogwoods and the Prunus Walk, Dumbarton Oaks gardens, Washington DC

Dogwoods and the Prunus Walk in a distance

One of the many inviting benches at the Dumbarton Oaks gardens, Washington DC

Won’t you please linger?

The Prunus Walk, Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, Washington DC

The Prunus Walk, lined with plums, by late April no longer in bloom

Cutting Garden in Dumbarton Oaks (April)

One of the ogee-domed pavilions (sporting handmade Italian tiles) in the Cutting Garden

For the past several years, Dumbarton has engaged in a series of modern art installations that pop up here and there, spicing up the historic landscape. This season’s star is The Cloud Terrace by Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot, a billow of wire-mesh and water-drop crystals suspended over the reflecting pool of the Arbor Terrace, an apt companion to the lush puff of wisteria nearby.

Wisteria in April, Dumbarton Oaks, Arbor Terrace

Under the fragrant roof of wisteria blossoms, with The Cloud Terrace at the edges

I must admit, I wasn’t taken with the installation at first.

The Cloud Terrace installation, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC

The Arbor Terrace with its “new look”

But do let it soak in (go on, take a seat). On a sunny, breezy afternoon, the crystals are a playful, joyful chorus of colors, an at once striking and organic part of their surroundings.

The Cloud Terrace installation at Dumbarton Oaks

Crystals, dancing in the light

Oh, and don’t miss the remnants of the gardens’ 2011 installation, Patrick Dougherty’s Easy Rider at The Ellipse:

Easy Rider, Ellipse, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC

The last survivor of Patrick Dougherty’s Easy Rider

A couple of ladies behind me positively choked on the view, but I loved it and only wished I could see this in its full glory (look here): A whirlwind of saplings either escaping from or being sucked into the neatly pruned, silent row of American hornbeams–what’s NOT to love?  I wish more of Dougherty’s works were nearby. 

At the end of our stroll, we paused at the Pebble Garden, one of the newest additions to the landscape. Later in the season, the pebbles will be gracefully under water.

Bliss motto at the Pebble Garden, Dumbarton Oaks

The Pebble Garden, anchored by the Bliss motto, Quod Severis Metes (“As you sow, so shall you reap”), and the sheaf of wheat, a recurring image throughout the property

Pebble Garden wtih blooming wisterias, Dumbarton Oaks

Imagine all this as a shallow pool

A sprinkling of history as you wind down by the main house: This place first came into being as a royal gift to Colonel Ninian Beall inBoy in the Bird Bath Garden, Dumbarton Oaks 1702. He named it “the Rock of Dumbarton” after the famed fortress in his native Scotland and left it to his son, George, one of the three Georges who may have been thought of in the naming of Georgetown. The property was rechristened “The Oaks” in the mid-19 century, when a successful merchant, Edward Linthicum, turned this into “the showplace of the District.”

Old Beech tree, Dumbarton OaksMany of the trees that inspired that name are still standing, and it was these aged groves that half a century later attracted Robert Woods Bliss, an American diplomat in search for a home base and “a country place in the city.” Robert and his wife Mildred gave a new life to their Dumbarton Oaks, chiseled over the course of nearly three decades with the help of Beatrix Farrand, a  pioneering landscape architect (and niece of Edith Wharton).

In 1944, it was here that  the delegations of the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and the United Kingdom met to deliberate the establishment of what later became the United Nations. Think of this image as you finish  your garden tour at the North Vista, one of the estate’s farewell grand chambers:

Delegates assembling for a group photograph on the North Vista, April 21, 1944 (photo: Stettinius Papers [2723], Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library)

Delegates assembling for a group photograph on the North Vista (Photo credit: Stettinius Papers [2723], Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library)

“‘Peace’ is the watchword of the conference, and if the delegates are influenced by their environment it should be a success,” proclaimed The Washington Star at the time, “No more peaceful atmosphere than the walled-in acres of the estate, with its giant oaks, sloping lawns, formal gardens and tiled swimming pool, around the banks of which cushioned lounge chairs recline in the shade of a vine-covered wall…” 

Dumbarton Oaks, Swimming Pool and Loggia

The Swimming Pool and Loggia (this replaced a manure pit)

The Blisses eventually modeled the estate as “the home of the Humanities” and a sanctuary for scholars in Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape Studies, now operated by the Trustees of Harvard University. The library and the museum are both breathtaking.

At the Dumbarton Oaks museum

A rare garden book at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum

But all that is a story for another time. I will come back soon. Perhaps when the roses are blooming.

(Until then, see more pictures from this visit at https://www.facebook.com/TransplantedTatar)

Dumbarton Oaks gate

11 thoughts on “Dumbarton Oaks: That “Chambered Nautilus of Gardens”

    • November is a bit unpredictable here–could be bright and crisp (the leaves may still be interesting in early November), could be grey and rainy. The gardens of Dumbarton Oaks will still have their bone structure to recommend them.

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