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History of the Garden Archives Project

“a formidable collection…it is rare that a continuous history of a place covering more than 20 years is to be found.  Therefore, the papers have considerable professional value… You will of course want to make this material … available and useful to students of Landscape Architecture …” (B: BF 1950.04.11)

In April 1950, Beatrix Farrand wrote to Mildred Bliss recommending that extra staff be assigned to properly archive and catalog the collection of drawings, photographs, and letters that she was about to ship to Dumbarton Oaks. No longer designing landscapes, Farrand felt that her personal archive of Dumbarton Oaks design documentation was “of real value as few places have so long a carefully-kept record of attempts, accomplishments and failures. For the art of landscape these records are worthwhile and they should be kept safely, catalogued and protected” (B:BF 1950.04.06). Farrand soon wrote to the director, John Thacher, warning him that she would be sending “a formidable collection . . . it is rare that a continuous history of a place covering more than 20 years is to be found. Therefore, the papers have considerable professional value. . . . You will of course want to make this material . . . available and useful to students of Landscape Architecture” (B:BF 1950.04.11).

Although the archive was accepted and properly stored in the Research Library, resources to catalog it proved insufficient. For six decades researchers struggled with the documentation for the design and construction of the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. It is voluminous and much of the material is fragile. Many drawings are large; they are unwieldy to use in tandem with related photos or letters. None of the documentation was cataloged or indexed. 

In 2009 Sheila Klos, the library director, decided the correspondence related to the gardens should be digitized, eliminating use of inferior microfilm copies of letters while still limiting the handling of originals. A professional indexer with a horticultural background was hired and a project was begun to enable easy computerized searching of the correspondence. In pursuing this goal the potential of online access to digital surrogates of the entire collection was recognized and the project expanded to include original drawings and historic photographs. Thus was born the Garden Archives project.

The Garden Archives found here offer the full complement of historical documentation held in the Research Library’s Rare Book Collection and selected documents from other collections.  The archives also include more recent photographs, including documentation of contemporary art installations in the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens since 2010. 

The earliest piece of correspondence dates to June 24-25, 1922 in which Beatrix Farrand laid out for Robert and Mildred Bliss her preliminary ideas for plantings on the R Street side of the house.  In 1923, Robert Bliss was posted to Stockholm as U.S. Minister to Sweden, just one of many diplomatic postings that took the Blisses away from Washington for long periods of time while the gardens were being designed and constructed.   In fact, given their residency in several foreign countries from 1923 through 1933, most of the consultation with architects and landscape gardeners regarding alterations and improvements to the property was carried out through letters and telegrams. 

Astute users will discover that there is a lamentable gap in the correspondence for the years 1925-1933.  It is certain that Beatrix Farrand and Mildred Bliss wrote to each other about the gardens during that period, but those letters are lost.  Our archive is built from Mrs. Farrand’s archive; the disposition of Mrs. Bliss’s copies of their correspondence is unknown.  Fortunately, many hundreds of drawings and photographs help to piece together the ideas they shared as the landscape was designed, revised, and constructed to meet Mildred Bliss’s changing ideas.

Over 7000 drawings, historic photographs, letters, plant lists, invoices, and receipts are being entered into this digital Garden Archives.  When reviewing the content, one may sometimes find index entries that are not yet active links, but they are a clear indication of forthcoming content. Please visit often to see the progress and make use of the materials that have been added.

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