Georgetown’s Dumbarton Oaks

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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

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.

Green Garden

Image result for dumbarton oaks Green Garden

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.”

Beech Terrace

Beech Terrace, facing north

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.

Beech Terrace, Bench


Urn Terrace

Urn Terrace

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.

Rose Garden

Rose Garden

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.

Vegetable Garden
Kitchen Gardens
My own favorite, next to the Blisses’ Rose Garden, is this working vegetable and herb garden. Enclosed by brick garden walls, it reminds me of Mount Vernon’s upper garden. It became during World War II a Victory Garden where gardeners gave demonstration to the leaders of the American Women’s Voluntary Services. Eventually it evolved into a cutting garden, providing fresh flowers for arrangements in the main house.
Prunus Walk
Prunus Walk
Near the vegetable and herb garden is the Prunus Walk and a small orchard. The prunus x blireana replaced an earlier allee of yew. A cypress garden bench sits alongside the path.
Prunus Walk, Bench
Lilac Circle
Lilac Circle
A mix of lilacs, spring bulbs, annuals, and perennials surrounds this roundel to offer a space of seclusion for rest and contemplation.
Box Walk
Box Walk
Inspired by Barrington Court in Somerset, England, this terraced brick walk descends the steep hill’s forty-foot drop from the Urn Terrace to the Ellipse. English boxwood, Buxus sempervirens, ‘Suffruticosa’ lines the walkway.
Pebble Garden
Pebble Garden
A terrace of pebbles imported from Mexico and set into “distinct patterns and colors in the Italian manner” replaced what was originally a tennis court. Three lead 18th-century French sculptures stand in the pool at the northern end.
And there is more to explore . . .

Regular Season (March 15–October 31)

2:00–6:00 p.m.

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)

2:00–5:00 p.m.

Admission to the garden in the Winter Season is free.


Green Garden, inscription


Dumbarton Oaks
Research Library and Collection
1703 32nd Street, NW
Washington, DC 20007






Just short of fifty years of holy matrimony, I am blessed to be a mother of two and grandmother of seven. Much of my writing speaks to the culture and tradition of the Deep South, where I spent the first thirty-five years of my life before relocating to the Pacific Northwest. As a poet and essayist, I’ve published both online and in print media. In mid-February 2019, I launched Roses in the Rain: A Daughter's Story, following a successful couple years of Invitation to the Garden, both on Watch for upcoming installments to the memoir blog every Tuesday. The garden posts follow on Friday/Saturday. I look forward to hearing from you all!

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