Washington DC is filled with many hidden gems, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Gardens is one of them. With 10 acres of carefully landscaped gardens, the lush property is an unexpected find located in the middle of Washington DC.
Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss purchased the 54 acre Dumbarton Oaks estate in 1920. As collectors of art with a keen interest in the humanities, they established the museum which now houses world-class collections of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art. Adjacent to the museum is the
historic garden which was created in collaboration with the renowned landscape designer Beatrix Farrand.
In 1940, a portion of the estate and collection was gifted to Harvard University, Robert Bliss’s Alma Mater, as a center for research and learning. Students and scholars come from all parts of the world to study Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, as well as garden and landscape studies. The remaining 27 acres was given to the National Park Service to establish the Dumbarton Oaks Park.
The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection:
The research institute and museum is housed within the original mansion where the Bliss family resided. Walking through the halls, we explored the well-curated exhibits of coins and seals, textiles, mosaics, sculptures, and ceramics.
The House Collection leads into the Pre-Columbian Pavilion, added in 1959. Architect Philip Johnson designed this portion of the museum as eight domed circular galleries with curved glass walls to blend the landscape with the building itself. The garden serves as a backdrop to each exhibit almost as if to amplify the aspects of nature which were often personified into the symbols and other artifacts which are on display in the pavilion.
In addition to the collection is a rare book gallery as well as an impressive music room with vaulted ceilings, European paintings, tapestries, and antique furnishings. The room is exhibited today very much how it was when it was originally built and designed in 1928. The room is also still used as intended by the Bliss family, as a venue for scholarly lectures and musical performances.
The Dumbarton Oaks Garden:
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the garden is its design. Beatrix Farrand desired to “make the plan fit the ground and not twist the ground to fit the plan.” The result is a series of elaborate spaces and terraced gardens descending down the hillsides to fit the unique topography of the property. Many of the terraces provided overlooking views of the gardens below to enhance the sense of flow and anticipation.
As Scott and I walked through the gardens we were filled with a certain sense of magic, transporting us to another place in time. We agreed that it felt like a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Pride and Prejudice, with just a touch of Mid-Summer Night’s Dream all thrown into 17th century Europe. Large creeping fig envelops the interior of an 1860’s greenhouse, while vibrant purple wisteria blossoms cascade across the exterior. A rose garden displays over 50 varieties of nearly 1,000 colorful roses. Weathered brick paths and iron gates are covered with vines and dark green ivy. Long allées of boxwood and Irish yew create a natural border between the individual gardens. A brick pathway winds between two rows of silver maples toward a Roman-style amphitheater and the Lovers’ Lane pool. Eclectic ornaments consisting of urns, vases, benches, and even a pipe-playing Pan are interwoven seamlessly throughout the estate.
As it exists now, the entire garden signifies a form of artistic neglect. While the property is obviously well cared for, we noticed that delicate moss now grows between the gaps in the walkways. The vines of the creeping fig have begun to chip the paint as they overtake walls and the greenhouse. These small details serve as a reminder of the time that has passed since the Bliss family originally resided there in the 1920s.
Dumbarton Oaks is a Harvard University research institute, library, museum, and garden located in Washington, DC. In 2014, National Geographic identified the estate as one of the ten best gardens in the world.
Location: 1703 32nd Street, NW Washington, DC 20007
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