Tucked into a quiet Georgetown residential neighborhood in Washington DC is Dunbarton Oaks, the home and gardens of the late Robert and Mildred Bliss. It was the gardens that I sought on a visit last week to recharge my batteries after a rather harsh first winter in New Hampshire.
Originally part of a land grant by Queen Anne in 1702, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss, purchased the estate in 1920, remodeled the 1800 era home and called it Dumbarton Oaks from the original Rock of Dumbarton land grant and the mighty oaks on the property.
Begining in 1921, Mildred Bliss began working with noted Landscape Gardener (as she preferred to be called) Beatrix Farrand for over 20 years to design the hillside garden retreat. Both women were well traveled and brought a European flair to the garden ‘rooms’ of Dunbarton Oak.
Strolling along the walks and through the terraced gardens with a sister from California and a brother and wife from Richmond, I felt I could have been touring Italian or English gardens filled with perennials, enclosed by high and low stone or brick walls, spring flowering trees, shrubs, vines and adorned with water features, fountains, seating areas, iron gates, urns, finials and vases.
We began our adventure at the Arbor Terrace where a reflecting pool and an ancient wisteria with purple blooms dripping through a teak pergola framed a billowing cloud of chicken wire holding thousands of lead-crystal pendants. My California sister had expressly chosen this garden because of the “Cloud Terrace” display, the third in a series of temporary art exhibits by environmental artists. I must admit it was alive with movement, color, light, and sound. We sat beneath the wisteria pergola and watched as the sun appeared and disappeared and breezes moved the 10,000 crystals. A variety of colors twinkled and sparkled in the cloud and water. Yes, we were awed by this work of art and were happy to be able to see it as it will be removed soon.
I loved seeing the stone and brick steps and pathways adored with pink from crabapple, cherry, and magnolia tree blossoms. It was as if little flower girls had sprinkled them for a bride who will soon approach her groom in this spiritual place.
Our timing was perfect to witness the splendor of blooming Japanese Wisteria that tumbled over walls throughout the different garden areas. It was breathtaking.
The Pebble Garden, a wonderful pebble mosaic sort of brought out the kid in me, enticed me to explore every curve and design. This was a later garden design, changing Farrand’s original design as the tennis court area.
Pathways ushered us from one garden room to the next. The Prunus Walk overlooked The Kitchen Gardens with attractive garden houses with terracotta tile roofs. Admiring the space, I thought of Thomas Jefferson who would have enjoyed exploring the vegetation in this garden.
The Prunus Walk of flowering plums stretched from the Herbaceous Borders to Cherry Hill. Beneath the trees grew a healthy groundcover of my favorite pink and yellow Epimedium.
Very Virginia, I felt at home on The Box Walk that took us gently down a 40-foot drop.
Walkways made from brick and stone designs continued around the estate leading us to various seemingly secret gardens.
We were happy to see that blooms seemed to be the theme on this warm spring day but I could tell that this was a garden for all seasons.
Just past peak blooms was Forsythia Dell, which must have looked like butter with happy forsythia melting down a acre of a hillside. Pathways led inside and above inviting visitors to discover a small terrace and seating.
Beautiful benches and seating areas were plentiful in almost every garden.
The Ellipse, a more formal garden containing an antique Provençal fountain surrounded by double rows of American Hornbeans, equally spaced and pleached to 16′ tall, invited us to explore.
Sculptor Patrick Dougherty’s “Easy Rider” stick creations gives movement to this peaceful but static garden space. This was fun for my California sister as she had played in one of Dougherty’s sculptures on a visit to Maui.
I love this: A private pool and terrace for employees and volunteers ONLY. How cool.
I hated to leave Dumbarton Oaks but it was approaching closing time. We exited the way we entered, along the drive on the East Lawn with the impressive spreading Katsura tree (Cercidphyllum japonicum), planted in the 1800’s. Batteries recharged, we left with big smiles and appetites.
Any visitor to Washington DC who appreciates garden design is certain to enjoy the exquisite gardens of Dunbarton Oaks. It is 10-acres of pure Bliss.