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Dumbarton Oaks in Winter


My first visit to Washington's Dumbarton Oaks gardens was an early March stroll through the lavishly-landscaped grounds with unexpectedly sweeping views largely due to the denuded winter state of the plantings.

I say 'first visit' even though it's also the only, because even in its off-season dress I could imagine what it will be like when I visit again—which I definitely will.


Although it's a grand garden estate, complete with stately mansion and an important museum, I suspect that for most of us the name draws up "Dumbarton Oaks Conference," World War II and a not very clear idea of what happened there.


Fair enough; so much has happened since, but in early 1944, at a series of meetings lasting over months, representatives of the main Allied nations met and worked out a plan for a new international organization to replace the failed League of Nations. Thus, this is the true birthplace of the United Nations.


These days, the main grounds, house and museum belong to Harvard University, and hosts research programs into Byzantine culture, Pre-Columbian studies, and not very surprisingly, in Garden and Landscape Studies.


All three of those were intense interests for the original owners, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, who donated it to Harvard in 1940, barely twenty years after they bought the land, built the house and created the gardens.


The Blisses, who in their teens became step-siblings and in their 20s husband and wife, both came from money, especially on her father's side. Her father, a member of Congress was the owner of Fletcher's Castoria, probably the best-known patent medicine of its time. She inherited first from him, and then from her mother, and then from her sisters.


Bliss was a career diplomat, serving in Venice, St Petersburg, Brussels, Buenos Aires and finally from 1912-1919 in Paris, where they mixed with the rich and talented and began collecting art. When they returned to Washington, they needed a place to live and a place for their collections.


Dumbarton was the answer: 53 wooded acres on the highest point in Washington's Georgetown. Mrs. Bliss immediately hired Beatrix Farrand, a well-known landscape architect and one of the few women in the field. Farrand's plan divided the land into two sections: the 16 acres of formal gardens at the top, sloping down into a curated woodland meant to be viewed from the gardens.


The woodland area, which was separated when the estate was given to Harvard, is now Dumbarton Oaks Park, administered by the National Park Service. In recent years the two have been working together to keep Farrand's design, which was supposed to create an illusion of 'country life in a city.'


Of course, mid-March is not December, and signs of spring had begun to appear, if timidly...


The museum, while it sits in the gardens, has its own entrance, around the corner, almost two blocks from the garden entrance (it IS a large estate). We only stopped for a taste of it because we'd used up our time wandering the gardens. But it, too, calls for another visit.


In particular, the Pre-Columbian collections await another day. But our brief stop included not only some unusual art from the Byzantine Empire, but an exhibit of seals used to authenticate documents, with examples from Roman times into the late Middle Ages.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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