Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dumbarton Oaks

Within "America's most civilized square mile" is a distinguished house and garden known as Dumbarton Oaks that should be on your list of places to visit. The story of this remarkable estate began in 1703 when Ninian Beall, Indian fighter and Burgess of Prince Georges County, Maryland, was granted "seven hundred ninety and five acres more or less" by the "Powtomack River side at the mouth of Rock Creek." Beall called it the Rock of Dunbarton after a picturesque formation along the River Clyde in his native Scotland.

By 1798, the estate was reduced to only eighty acres after the establishment of Georgetown and the transfer of the national capital to Washington. The present house and gardens was later carved from that acreage. Ninian Beall's heir, Thomas Beall of George (so called to dignify himself among other Thomas Bealls) sold tracts of Georgetown Heights, a commanding area on the fringe of town which overlooked the Georgetown waterfront.

William Hammond Dorsey bought the Rock of Dunbarton tract. William was the son of John Dorsey, owner of a Baltimore shipping firm. Also known as "Pretty Billy", William was a Montgomery County lawyer probably drawn to Georgetown by speculation in real estate. By 1801 he had completed a new Federal-style home, two stories high with five bays. Through subsequent additions, it was incorporated into the house you see today.

Dorsey made money from his land speculation in Georgetown, but lost that and more during his riskier speculation in Washington. His wife, Anne Brooke, whom he married in 1790, died in 1802. He had to mortgage the Rock of Dunbarton, selling the smaller 22 acre estate to Robert Beverley and turning the mortgage over to General John Van Ness, to whom he was heavily indebted. Dorsey moved to a log and frame house near Brookville, Maryland which he had inherited from his wife. There he died in 1819.

I could readily write more of the history of ownership, which included Calhouns of South Carolina, Mackalls, Linthicums and Blounts. In addition to the interesting residents, the house was always full of fascinating and often famous guests. The register included Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii, historian John Fiske, Alexander Graham Bell, Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Julia Ward Howe, Frederick Douglass, President Taft, Edward Everett Hale and S. P. Langley. But the gardens of the estate will probably interest you most.

During the early years, Mrs. Henry Fitch Blount delighted in landscaping the property with boxwoods which she purchased from nearby homeowners. One particularly large specimen is said to have had a circumference of nearly a hundred feet.

The creation of the gardens began in earnest after Ambassador and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss purchased the estate in 1920. After many years of an important but nomadic existence, the Blisses returned to the United States on assignment to the Department of State as Chief of the Division of Western European Affairs. The estate offered them what they dreamed of - a country manor in the city.

Soon after acquiring the property, Mrs. Bliss called on Beatrix Jones Farrand to assist in the garden's development. Farrand was one of the most notable American Landscape Architects. Her philosophy of landscape design was learned from her teacher Professor Charles Sprague Sargent, founder and director of the Arnold Arboretum. Farrand tried "to make the plan fit the ground and not twist the ground to fit a plan, and furthermore to study the tastes of the owner." She took care "to look at great landscape paintings, to observe and analyze natural beauty, to travel widely...and learn from all the great arts, as all art is akin."

It would be a mistake to attribute the garden entirely to Mrs. Farrand, for both women had definite ideas. Their cooperation in conceiving, adapting, evaluating and learning produced the masterpiece.

Though beyond the scope of this article, it should be noted that the Blisses acquired an extensive collection of Byzantine art, which is every bit as important to scholars, historians and artists as the garden masterpiece is to landscape architects, horticulturists and gardeners. Pre-Columbian art, Western Medieval and Renaissance art was added. Dumbarton Oaks is, indeed, a place to "learn from all the great arts."

Quod Severis Metes ("As ye sow, so shall ye reap") was carved on the dedicatory inscription, and is repeated throughout the garden. Wrought-iron sheaves of wheat symbolize the motto. True to their philosophy of generosity, the Blisses formally donated Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University in November, 1940 as the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

In 1944, informal conferences were held at Dumbarton Oaks to consider the formation of an internation organization to promote peace and security. From those conferences emerged what would become known as the United Nations.

Much of the estate is screened from R Street by a garden wall, hedges and large trees including a massive Japanes maple and impressive Katsura tree. The screen certainly serves to whet the appetite. Upon arriving, garden visitors should obtain a brochure which includes directions for a self-guided tour. Follow me as we take a look at what grows behind that garden wall.

Approaching the estate from R Street, a curving driveway divides broad lawns flanked by majestic trees. Garden visitors should begin their tour at the Orangery, which was built in 1810. The interior of the Orangery is draped with a massive creeping fig (Ficus pumila) that was planted in 1860. The adjacent Green Garden, featuring a plaque honoring Mrs. Farrand, provides winter interest and a place for entertaining.

From The Green Garden, a gate leads to the Beech Terrace surrounds an enormous Fagus grandifolia. From there, steps lead eastward to the modified Urn Terrace.

The impressive Rose Garden, a favorite of the Blisses, is planted with over a thousand roses. Honoring their requests, their ashes were interred in the west wall.

The Fountain Terrace features two lovely lead fountains bordered by seasonal flower color. Just through the north gate, the Arbor Terrace features a wisteria arbor. Retracing your steps through the Fountain Terrace, you'll come upon Pan, with pipes, directing visitors to the Lovers' Lane Pool and Melisande's Allee.

The amphitheater above the pool seats about four dozen people. From there, the path leads through Melisande's Allee lined with silver maples. Herbaceous borders are usually planted with seasonal color.

The nearby Prunus Walk separates the Cutting Garden from the Growing Garden and walled vegetable gardens.

Cherry trees are featured on Cherry Hill, naturalistically underplanted with spring bulbs. Just beyond, an acre of forsythia blankets the slope in spring with a mass of yellow blooms. To the north, Dumbarton Oaks Park (donated to the U.S. government), maintains a sense of privacy in the midst of this very busy city.

As you follow the drive, you'll enjoy a double row of American hornbeams forming an ellipse surrounding a 17th century French fountain.  The Box Walk proceeds southward up the hill. Just to the west of the Box Walk, the Pebble Garden awaits. Though not designed by Farrand or the Blisses, it is sure to please.  It used to be covered with a shallow sheet of water, which served to enhance the color of the Mexican pebbles.

Nearer the house, the Star Garden features astrological symbols and was used for by the Blisses for entertaining and al fresco dining. A stairway leads past the Horsehoe Fountain downward to the Swimming Pool.

As I've noted, the gardens are awash with seasonal flowers, so you should visit during all four seasons to fully enjoy them. I hope this photographic tour has enticed you to visit Dumbarton Oaks. For updated information, visit Dumbarton Oaks web site.

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