Today we visit Dumbarton Oaks in the Georgetown district of Washington, D.C. This Federal-style house is situated on part of a 1702 land grant to Colonel Ninian Beall as the “Rock of Dumbarton.” One of his descendants built the mansion about a hundred years later and, in 1920, a prominent U.S. diplomat and his wife bought the farmland estate — Robert and Mildred Bliss. Together they worked with landscape designer Beatrix Farrand to transform and expand the grounds to some fifty-four acres. Today, Dumbarton Oaks is one of Georgetown’s most outstanding residences, now owned by Harvard University for a humanities and research library. Its dignified front facade, however, conceals the grandeur of its terraced grounds and various gardens extending beyond.
The South Lawn
This site of the old driveway leads through an expansive lawn up to the house. Screens of trees and shrubbery allow passersby to view glimpses beyond, yet securing privacy.
At the highest elevation stands a grassy terrace called the Green Garden, designed to showcase a panoramic view of the garden terraces below. From here paths lead to each garden “room.”
This terrace was constructed around an existing Fagus sylvatica ‘Riversii’, the darkest of the English beeches. Despite careful planning and preventive measures, however, the original tree declined and had to be removed. In 1948 a green-leaved American beech, Fagus grandifolia, replaced it.
A brick and flagstone wall surrounds this terrace to offer a sense of enclosure, one of several basic principles of garden design.
Its beds covered with English ivy, the Urn Terrace is both transition from the Beech Terrace and introduction to the Rose Garden. The urn itself is a copy of an eighteenth-century terra-cotta urn that Mrs. Bliss had purchased in France.
The largest and flattest terrace in the Dumbarton Oaks series, the Rose Garden was inspired by Italian and 18th-century English design elements. Approximately 900 roses fill this sunny area. Most of the roses are remonstant; that is, they repeat a secondary blooming after the initial spring burst. Others are once-bloomers. Low boxwood edges the beds, and a blend of evergreens provide a seamless transition between seasons.
This terrace became the Blisses’ favorite garden room. In 1932 they placed a Doria stone bench in the eastern wall overlooking the fountain terrace. The Bliss family motto, Quod Severis Metes, (“As ye sow, so shall ye reap”) is carved into the back. Their ashes are interred in the crypt beneath a lead canopy set into the west wall.
Regular Season (March 15–October 31)
Admission to the garden in the Regular Season is:
- $10 Regular
- $8 Military (with valid ID)
- $8 Senior (60+)
- $5 Students and Children (ages 2–12)
- Free for Harvard faculty, students, and staff (with Harvard photo ID)
- Unlimited access with a Season Pass
Winter Season (November 1–March 14)
Admission to the garden in the Winter Season is free.
Research Library and Collection
1703 32nd Street, NW
Washington, DC 20007