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.
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.
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.
I must admit, I wasn’t taken with the installation at first.
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.
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.
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 in 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.”
Many 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:“‘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…”
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.
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)