Dancing into the Future: Dumbarton Oaks Park (2012)

The Forsythia Gate

The Forsythia Gate marks the threshold between Farrand’s formal and naturalistic gardens. Photograph by Jim Osen (detail).

Washington, D.C.

“One step back into history, and two steps dancing into the future,” explains an ebullient Rebecca Trafton, president of the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy. Acknowledging the borrowed quote from bluegrass musician Larry Groce, she sees it as a metaphor to illustrate the conservancy’s mission to restore, promote, and main­tain this historic Beatrix Farrand–designed landscape—specifically, the parcel of pub­lic land somewhat sequestered behind the better known and well-groomed gardens sharing the same place name.

Moving this cultural landscape into the future is the focus of the conservancy, a nonprofit preservation advocacy group created in 2010 to rehabilitate Farrand’s naturalistic landscape design, now known as Dumbarton Oaks Park. The rehabilitation of the downtrodden park will be a collaborative effort undertaken by the DOPC and Rock Creek Park, a division of the National Park Service, which manages the landscape. Trafton, who founded the initiative along with Jane MacLeish and Lou Slade, stresses the importance of extending the DOPC’s reach, developing partnerships as well as educat­ing the public about the park’s natural and cultural resources. Recognizing that the finer points of the park’s rehabilitation are years away, she emphasizes more urgent, short-term goals: “We must manage the invasive non-native plants and surface water run-off that wasn’t a problem in Farrand’s day.”

Porcelain berry and other invasive species choke native vegetation

Porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) and other invasive species choke native vegetation in Dumbarton Oaks Park. Photograph by Jim Osen (detail). 

Dumbarton Oaks Park, a 27-acre public park, was donated by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss to the National Park Service in 1940, when the couple also gave their upper grounds, including a Georgian revival mansion and ten acres of formal gardens, to Harvard University to be used as a research institute and museum. The present-day park is a designed, natu­ralistic landscape originally known as the “Informal Garden.” The designer of the ensemble, Beatrix Farrand (1872–1959), is now generally acclaimed as one of the finest landscape architects of her generation. From 1923 to 1933, Farrand entirely recalibrated this portion of the property, marshaling a discordance of thickets, farm­yards, derelict buildings, and dumping grounds to create a bucolic landscape embellished with ponds, bridges, and grottoes, tied together by a system of streams, dams, and bridle and walking trails. The informal garden served as a counterpoint to the classicism of the formal gardens, providing a buffer from development and a sense of country expanse. Historian Georgina Masson noted that Farrand’s stylized wilderness “formed an integral part of the estate.” It was an essential adjunct—creating an illusory pastoral setting in the Olmstedian tradition.

After their gift, the Blisses retained a stewardship role, advocating for an advisory board to manage the park. Farrand, for her part, provided the National Park Service with professional advice until her retirement in 1947. Decades later, the once bucolic landscape had deteriorated as a result of regressive funding, lack of oversight, and a misunderstanding of its design signifi­cance. Reaching its nadir in the 1970s, Dumbarton Oaks Park saw a resurgence of interest by the 1980s. The Park Service conducted a Historic American Buildings Survey report (1988), which generated renewed appreciation for the site’s design and its historic built features. During this period, the Friends of Montrose and Dumbarton Oaks Park did much to rehabilitate the park and raise community support for improvements. In 2000 the Park Service compiled a cultural landscape report, and in 2004 the park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. A Historic American Landscapes Survey report followed in 2008, and further rehabilitation rec­ommendations will be made in the forthcoming Part II of the cultural landscape report.

The Streamside Arbor originally featured a rustic pergola.

The Streamside Arbor originally featured a rustic pergola. Photograph by Jim Osen (detail).

Recently, the DOPC’s efforts have produced tangible results and recognition. The organization received a grant from the National Parks Foundation’s Park Partners Project. The Conservancy has just announced its “Signature Project,” which will focus landscape rehabili­tation efforts on the two-acre beech grove—significant because Farrand incorporated these native tree spe­cies into her design for the park. A report by the HALS Witness Tree Protection Program noted, “Today the grove ranks amongst the most celebrated components of her design scheme.” The site was also chosen because it features the essential elements of this cultural landscape: woodlands, riparian zones, and historic built features.

Like the DOPC, the National Park Service remains focused on the long-term rehabilitation and sustainable maintenance of the park. According to Nick Bartolomeo, chief ranger of Rock Creek Park, the completed two-part cultural landscape report “will form the basis for any formal work we undertake with the park’s adjoin­ing landowners and managers.” He concurs that one of the most critical issues facing the park is stormwater management. A recently completed hydrology report will help determine whether low-impact development technologies can be used as part of best management practices. Examples include upstream stormwater storage and bank-to-bank dredging of the ponds. These measures would improve flood control, water quality, and habitat.

In October 2011, many of the park’s thirteen abutters, which include foreign embassies, schools, and private property owners, participated in a public forum dedicated to conservation issues. Bartolomeo noted that the DOPC has “been instrumental in reaching out to park neighbors.” He—along with many others—believes that community relations hold “the key to a successful and sustainable rehabilitation of Dumbarton Oaks Park.”

—James O’Day

James O’Day, ASLA, is a historical landscape architect. He recently completed a three-month heritage landscape practicum at Great Dixter, East Sussex, UK.


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