Uncovering a Wild Garden's Past
Unlike the 16 acres of formal gardens at Washington, D.C.’s Dumbarton Oaks, there are no remaining plans for Dumbarton Oaks Park, the wild garden that is its complement. Perhaps Beatrix Farrand, one of the most prominent landscape architects of the 20th century, laid out most of the design in response to the larger scale of the landscape and wilder conditions of the lower 27-acre parcel? But how does one know? And how does one restore and rehabilitate a landscape without the plan of the original designer?
One must read the traces that remain. As the cultural landscape report written by the National Park Service in 1999 describes, what remains at Dumbarton Oaks Park is rich enough to suggest the journey Farrand created.
There is a manipulated watercourse with 18 weirs, which harness the water flow through the park as well as create a rich sensory experience.
There is a path system that meanders the visitor though forest, stream, and meadow, creating a circuit of experience.
There are the remains of stone-garden follies, which once provided shade and a moment to reflect on the land, the past, and the future.
In one circuit through the park, a visitor can experience all of these landscape moments. It’s a living work of art that provides a different journey for each visitor. Dumbarton Oaks Park is a living canvas upon which the light can change many times in one day.
Farrand designed landscapes and gardens with the deep understanding that they were not static but living, breathing, changing environments. She was capable of reading a site and creating a design that evolved from that understanding.
She was a self-taught master of proportion, texture, and horticultural form. At Princeton University, where she worked for 28 years, she mastered the simple elegance of a quadrangle with the use of vertical plant material, and panels of grass to keep the space open and defined by the edges of the buildings meeting the ground plane.
Dumbarton Oaks Park is a treasure because of this landscape architect’s vision. Farrand, though she was a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), was overlooked for many of the public park commissions in the first part of the century because she was a woman. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Jens Jensen, and others were selected instead. But it is our great fortune that her only remaining wild garden now belongs to us all.
And so it is with great respect of Farrand’s mastery that we work to reveal the design of this urban wilderness garden. We work within a framework of design that exists, while balancing the current site conditions, such as soil erosion and compaction and invasive plants.
In our signature project area, the removals of invasive trees, shrubs, and vines has opened up the sweeping views a visitor now experiences once he or she walks through the entrance gates. Here we see the beech grove stone wall after we enter…
…and, then, through the American Beech Grove…
…and up to the Northern Woodland in the distance.
From bridge to bridge, one can now see the stream course running towards its wild neighbor, Rock Creek. The breathtaking scale of this silver-trunked grove of trees is made evident.
Our efforts on a small scale are no less important. The recent replanting of a Black Gum tree in an existing tree pit notched into the Dumbarton Oaks wall will once again mark the entrance with its commanding trunk.
Farrand’s use of human-scale landscape markers to suggest a path, an intersection, or a view was highly attuned. They are still in evidence. From the human-scaled path — edged with stone and drifts of herbaceous planting or from under the cover of a wood arbor — Farrand developed views out to the larger landscapes beyond, such as the meadow and woods. Farrand carefully orchestrated the experience as one moved through the park.
To be successful in the restoration of this wild garden we must keep in the forefront of our minds the landscape scale and the human scale simultaneously. Farrand left us this legacy as a guide.
This guest post is by Liza Gilbert, ASLA, chair of the Signature Committee, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy.
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