Dumbarton Oaks is one of my favorite spots in DC, a beautiful old estate perched on the hill of upper Georgetown that feels quite removed but still very much a part of the city. The garden is extravagant with grand stone staircases leading to terrace after terrace decked with flowers and flowering trees. This gradually stepped garden feels like the set of a classic movie or romantic novel where young lovers would meet beneath the wisteria or stroll through the rose garden, tossing plucked petals into fountains.
The garden was once the private residence of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss who worked with notable landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand to design an Italian Renaissance-inspired terraced garden around their estate. The overall concept behind the layout was to have a transition from formal gardens around the house that gradually become more integrated into the natural surroundings where the woods begin below. There is even a path outside the property where you can walk along a stream though a “wilderness” of stone-lined paths, benches, and bridges also designed by Farrand.
And while the terraced gardens with grand vistas immediately surrounding the house are quite impressive, there are so many quiet corners and interesting hidden nooks to be found around the property. There are numerous winding paths that weave around the sloping grounds, underneath massive old trees and in-between bulging boxwood bushes. Areas like the Lover’s Lane Pool and Ellipse Fountain seem are so peaceful and removed, you almost feel like you’ve left the city. One of my favorite parts of Dumbarton is the Herbaceous Border, a long narrow stretch of gardens planted thick with colorful annuals and perennials bordered with tall shaped hedges. In the circular “room” at the end of the garden you can find an ornate bench, one of the many that were specially designed and placed throughout the garden boasting carefully orchestrated views.
I have also come across several memorable art installations at Dumbarton over the years. Cloud Terrace, by landscape artists Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot, was an installation of wire mesh hung with thousands of Swarovski crystals which hung above a pool on a middle terrace to enchanting effect. Patrick Dougherty’s Easy Rider surrounded the Ellipse Fountain with sculptures made out of tree saplings woven into nest-like enclosures. There was even a fascinating sound installation where clear plastic pipes rose out of the Lover’s Lane Pool playing sounds recorded from the gardens in The Pool of ‘Bamboo Counterpoint’ by composer Hugh Livingston. It is exciting when a historic organization is willing to take chances with these on-site art projects.
Final Rating: Dumbarton Oaks is everything you could ask for in a wealthy old estate, which still captures that elegance of yesteryear. No expense was spared in the creation of this magnificent location, and it shows in every well manicured garden “room.” I like that Dumbarton eschews specifically themed gardens in favor of creating truly unique areas that stand out as grand examples of garden design. Farrand was able to beautifully blend orderly formal gardens with the sloping natural landscape to create a garden masterpiece that never feels forced. FIVE BLOOM RATING