Dumbarton Oaks Gardens were designed by the noted landscape
after it was purchased in 1920. The
estate at that time consisted of an old-fashioned house
standing in rather neglected grounds, with varied grades and
steep slopes and numerous farm buildings. It required great
vision to see that an enchanting landscape could be created in
place of old barnyards and cow paths.
Mildred Bliss wanted to create a garden in America that would
incorporate elements of the traditional French, English, and
Italian gardens she admired and that would still be
distinctively original. Three principles governed the overall
plan. First, there is a progressive informality in the design,
materials, and plantings as the gardens recede down the slopes
to the north and east. Second, plants were chosen for their
beauty and interest in winter, as well as during the spring
and summer. Third, it was felt that a garden should provide
spaces for living. Enclosed areas, or garden rooms, were
therefore created that would be suitable for family use or for
entertaining. In addition to a swimming pool and tennis court
(which was replaced in the early 1960s by the Pebble Garden),
there is an open air theater, a feature of many great
seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European gardens.
The original property covered 53 acres. In 1940, the Blisses
conveyed 16 acres of the property and buildings to Harvard
University to establish the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library
and Collection. At the same time, 27 acres were given to the
National Park Service, most of which form Dumbarton Oaks Park
(bordering the gardens on the north), and 10 acres were sold
to the Danish government for their embassy complex.
The formal gardens occupy 10 acres. The major work was
completed between 1921 and 1941, although changes, notably the
addition of the Pebble Garden and redesign of the Ellipse,
continued to be made by Mrs. Bliss, working with Ruth Havey.
Endowments were established expressly for the purpose of
maintaining the gardens and for supporting a program of
research in landscape architecture. A full-time crew of a
dozen gardeners maintain the grounds.