About the Ellipse

Drawings Historic Photographs

The plans for the Ellipse were the result of close collaboration between Beatrix Farrand and Mildred Bliss. The basic outline of the design first occurred to Mildred Bliss as a child, and she consulted on the original design and all subsequent changes. The Ellipse began as a loose oval hedge of tall, rumpled boxwoods about fifteen to twenty feet high. The hedge followed the slope of the ground rather than a perfectly geometric shape. At the center of the Ellipse, Farrand and Bliss placed a simple jet of water ringed by an island of ivy, which was surrounded by a moat.  Farrand planted grass as groundcover, keeping the overall color palette simple and deeply green.

The finished Ellipse, as pictured in Ernest Clegg’s 1935 topographical map, formed the northernmost end of a greater boxwood-lined enclosure that included the Box Walk. Both Box Walk and Ellipse were planted in the mid-1920s, and remained unchanged until a short while after Dumbarton Oaks transitioned to Harvard. In 1944, Beatrix Farrand and Mildred Bliss began discussing the need to replace the boxwood hedges, which were showing signs of age. In order to reduce the amount of garden maintenance required, Farrand suggested in the Plant Book that the hedge be replaced with a high stone wall “of a somewhat cream-colored cast, designed with restraint and simplicity,” with columns at the east and west and a colonnade on the north overlooking the Clifton hillside. Ruth Havey even drew plans for the proposed wall and Mildred Bliss considered them, but the construction never took place.

The Ellipse finally underwent transformation in 1958 under the guidance of Alden Hopkins, consulting landscape architect from 1956 to 1959. Hopkins replaced the struggling boxwood with a double row of formal clipped hornbeams, which formed an aerial hedge 16 feet tall and 15 feet across. The trunks of the hornbeams were visible under the classically trimmed aerial hedge, in the French style. In the center of the Ellipse, Hopkins retained Farrand’s original fountain. He replaced the walkways with a paving of Pennsylvania bluestone and gravel panels.

More change with Hopkins’ successor, Ralph Griswold. In 1960, Griswold tore out the old fountain and replaced it with a fish-scale metal fountain in a very modern design, not quite in keeping with the atmosphere of the overall garden. That same year he supplemented Hopkins’ circle of hornbeams with two low interior perimeter walls. The walls were decorated with carved stone finials and lead fountain masks designed and cast by Don Turano. Dissatisfied with the walls, Mildred Bliss ordered them torn out in 1966. She turned the Ellipse over to Ruth Havey for revision. Havey submitted new plans for the Ellipse, turning it into a “Jardin Delectable.” The design called for the Provençal Fountain to replace Griswold’s modern fountain. Azaleas and magnolias dotted the interior of the Ellipse, transforming it from open grass to a lush and romantic enclosure. The planting suggestions never took place, but in 1967 the Provençal Fountain moved from the Bosque to the center of the Ellipse.

Since the days of Havey’s final redesign, the Ellipse has lost a few of the hornbeams, but the space retains its sense of seclusion. In 2010–12, the Ellipse hosted “Easy Rider,” a contemporary art project by land artist Patrick Dougherty.

Box Garden at Design drawing of the Box Garden at "The Oaks" for the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, Ellipse, Washington, D.C.

Ellipse with Provençal fountain, wide view Ellipse with Provençal fountain, wide view in the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, Washington, D.C.