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What We Learned in the Gardens

Nathalie Miraval Reflects on Programming for Second-Graders and Cultivating a Sense of Wonder

Posted on May 10, 2017 03:05 PM by Nathalie Miraval |
What We Learned in the Gardens

“You know, they aren’t that bad when you look at them up close.”

“They look like gummy worms!”

“I want to take them home, and take care of them as pets.”

To the parents and guardians of second-graders at Hyde-Addison Elementary School: My apologies if maggots crept their way into your living room.

First, a little background: In October 2016, Dumbarton Oaks launched a pilot garden program for Hyde-Addison’s two second-grade classes as part of a growing long-term partnership with the local school. The visits to the gardens were designed to supplement students’ science education with hands-on activities related to concepts they’d engaged with in the classroom.

I had the privilege of designing the programming, with the help of a number of other Dumbarton Oaks staff and fellows, and when it came time to implement the lesson plans, I personally led the sessions, creating a mobile classroom in the gardens. Over the course of six sessions, I watched as students observed, touched, smelled, picked, planted, dug, and drew their way through the gardens’ numerous rooms. Ever curious, the students inquired about Japanese maples (does Dumbarton Oaks have them?), hawks (where do they sleep?), leaf miners (do they only live in boxwood leaves?), rabies (how and why?), and the gift shop (can we visit?). At the same time, their perpetual questioning started to rub off on me; I began to reflect on nature and my relationship to it. I began to wonder when it became a relationship at all—when nature became something, a substance separate from myself.

Our programming was designed with this sense of separation in mind. We wanted students to interact closely and physically with dirt and pollen, leaves and flowers, insects and fungi. During their first visit, students got to uproot whole zinnias and touch their roots, stems, leaves, and flowers. Then, as an experiment in observation, the students drew their own sketches. To learn about pollination in our second session, they watched as bees and butterflies transferred pollen among the asters and dahlias in the Herbaceous Borders. Our final fall visit focused on photosynthesis; with the help of greenhouse specialist Melissa Brizer, students planted zinnia seeds in Dixie cups and took them back to their science classroom to observe as they grew.

Like the bulbs resting beneath the garden, our programming lay dormant during the winter months. Once the gelid air gave way to the warmer breezes of March, however, the students resumed their visits. They sat under the garden’s cherry blossom trees as Tyler Fellow Deirdre Moore and I taught them about producers, consumers, and decomposers. Strangely, I noticed that the students were less excited by the bursts of pink and white petals above them than they were by the more banal producer that surrounded them where they sat—the grass. I was baffled. Over one million visitors descend on the nation’s capital every year to see the blossoms at peak bloom, and these students had some of the best seats in the house. But, I realized, you can’t roll around in a cherry tree, and as their science teacher Adam Severs reminded me, lawns aren’t a given in the District. 

I think it was this moment that led me to reflect on my own childhood, and, by extension, the nature of our mission at Dumbarton Oaks, and the ways in which we’re able to serve our community. I grew up in Colorado, where purple mountain majesties mark the West, and cornfields and cornfields and cornfields stretch away to the East. As humans are wont to do with what they don’t yet recognize as beautiful, I took my exposure to nature—to rivers and reservoirs, to arid summers and their ochre plains filled with coteries of prairie dogs—for granted. Back then, I couldn’t have imagined a home without grass, drives without the front range, summers without fishing or foraging, capturing and climbing.

Moving to the East Coast for college undid my indifference to the mundane beauty that had surrounded me. As I arrived in Cambridge, the thrill of the new consumed me. I ogled the neo-Georgian architecture in awe, and found the green baths of elms, birches, oaks, and maples invigorating. Part of me even thought this new space was better, that between the crenellated red-brick sidewalks and the rich façades of old apartment buildings opportunity happened, developed, thrived. Cambridge had history, intellectualism, character. Colorado had suburban sameness. But, as I came to realize with time, sameness made me different. I began to appreciate the comfort and safety that come with repetition—with the continuous existence of mountains, and the reliable, unending change of plants. 

These were the changes I wanted the children to see. Over the course of their visits, as the gardens underwent alterations both subtle and sweeping, I tried to draw their eyes to the Forsythia Dell, for instance, as it leapt from static brown into vibrant yellow and then calm green; to the tulips rising like wands where zinnias had once been in the Herbaceous Borders; to the wave of blossoming that overtook Crabapple Hill.

Beside these changes, I wanted them to notice small, particular things. When we learned about pests and decomposers and their role in the food chain, Marc Vedder, a pest-control manager at Dumbarton Oaks, helped the children to tear open boxwood leaves, revealing the glowing orange maggots that lived inside. Leaf miner larvae are shut-ins; they feed on the upper and lower surfaces of leaves before pupating and transforming into flies. (I should also point out, for the sake of any concerned parents, that without its snug leafy home the maggot dies.) Enthralled, the students suddenly transformed into proprietors and staked their claims to these pests: “Mine is wiggly!”—“Mine is sleeping!”


The more closely you look at things, the more familiar they become. Yet every now and then, you’ll find a secret strangeness in a thing’s details. Inside the Gardeners’ Lodge, the second-graders examined their new orange friends under a microscope. One student exclaimed that the magnified pests didn’t look so much like nauseating vermin anymore—instead they resembled confectionery treats, bright and bulbous. The students also confronted one of their greatest fears: the bumblebee. Beneath the enlarging gaze of the microscope, the pollen hidden in a bumblebee’s fur suddenly becomes visible—when you look at them up close, they really aren’t that bad.

Being close to nature should involve learning how to care for it, and also recognizing our own impact, known or not, on the world around us. Our last session focused on composting, learning how good soil takes care of plants, their insect helpers, and gardens in general. Students learned what can and cannot go into a compost pile. Cardboard, yes; pizza, no—because, as one astute student observed, “pizza is junk food, and we want to give our plants healthy food, just like we need.”

Using compost from our Kitchen Gardens, the students planted their own sunflowers. Horticulturalist Luis Marmol and I showed the students a print by Basilius Besler and asked them to look closer and closer at the helianthus (that is, the sunflower) until they noticed that the center, surrounded by bright yellow petals, consisted of hundreds of florets. Sunflowers, we explained to little sounds of wonder, are actually clusters of flowers.

Luis Marmol teaching with sunflower

All gardens take work to maintain, but Dumbarton Oaks’ gardeners work harder than most to protect the historical fabric of the landscape, while also adapting to climatic and technological changes. I wanted the students to see how much care the gardeners put into making the garden beautiful, and how beautiful it is to take care of a garden, of a sunflower. It’s valuable for the students to understand how photosynthesis and good soil help a sunflower grow. But I secretly hope that having one of their own might help them understand the values of responsibility that underlie our interactions with the natural world.

Environmental issues can sometimes be tricky to grasp, because they’re so large, because they’re everywhere, because they always appear to be happening elsewhere. I want to believe that the earth isn’t meant to die, ever. But I recently visited Colorado and saw, with quivering concern, that the reservoirs were smaller, the rivers thinner, the prairie dogs fewer. When you’re literally grounded in the study of gardens, and the earth, and the actual soil, I like to think that these issues become a little more real and maybe a little more personal.

I know these are issues that are important to me. As someone absorbed in the humanities, I think a lot about big concepts like Truth and Reality and Meaning. For instance: I cannot say if the world is for us. I have trouble seeing it as an object of consumption, even though I engage in, and benefit from, its objectification and consumption. At the same time, I believe in our responsibility to care for our surroundings, if only because our survival is deeply connected to the space in which we live. We are not apart from the world, but a part of it. We depend on pollination, decomposition, and photosynthesis for the food we eat and the air we breathe. But beyond this, beyond the tangible things that insects and plants do for us, I believe we should respect all the members of our lived community, no matter how small or different, invisible or inane their presence. Maybe that’s an obvious truth, but that just means it’s more easily forgotten.

What will these eight-year olds remember of the gardens when they are twenty-five?  I hope that fond memories—or even just their remnants—of learning among the chrysanthemums and wisteria, alongside worms and not-so-scary-after-all bees, linger throughout their lives. Above all, I hope they retain their sense of wonder. Because, in my mind, wonder, knowledge, and action are inextricably linked, and though it’s true that wonder can come from the grand, sweeping beauty of a lovely view, I know that often the sharpest sense of awe, the memory that sticks with us, comes from discovering the particular—touching the worm, seeing the roots, planting the flower.

I find myself wondering about my wonder: When did worms stop being interesting? When did insects become scary? When did I forget that I was made of the sun?

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Renovation of the Gardens

Dumbarton Oaks Gardens Closed to the Public from July 10, 2017, to March 15, 2018

Posted on Feb 13, 2017 11:00 AM by Press |

At Dumbarton Oaks, we are committed to preserving and maintaining our historic gardens and collections to the highest standards, while incorporating technological improvements that will ensure their good repair and longevity. We are just finishing a yearlong renovation of the museum, which will reopen in late April.

The time has now come to undertake large-scale improvements to the gardens’ water-supply network, which dates to the gardens’ original creation in the 1920s. We are therefore obliged to close the gardens to the public from July 10, 2017, to March 15, 2018. We will take this opportunity to enhance storm-water management throughout the property, in keeping with our commitment to sustainability and the environment. We invite you to enjoy the gardens before their temporary closure on July 10; you can purchase a reduced season pass here. (Admission is free until the beginning of our regular season on March 15.)

These are the prorated rates for unlimited reduced season access with a Season Pass:

    • $40 Single Season Pass
    • $50 Double Season Pass
    • $60 Family Pass

For further inquiries, please write to We would be happy to put local media in touch with garden staff who can speak about the upcoming work in the gardens in greater detail.

We invite you to use any images from our online press kit, with credit to “Dumbarton Oaks.”

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Azalea Inscription

Posted on Feb 07, 2017 02:40 PM by James N. Carder |
Azalea Inscription
James N. Carder (February 2017)

In 2016, the Dumbarton Oaks swimming pool, bathhouse loggia, and the surrounding pavements and walls were completely renovated. As part of this project, the 1935 “Azalea Inscription” on the northwest enclosure wall was reproduced to replicate the original. Because the stucco background of the inscription was badly cracked and spalled, the inscription could not be restored but had to be replaced. To insure an accurate replacement, photographs and measurements were taken and drawings made. Also, the original 1935 Beatrix Farrand workshop drawing for the inscription was consulted to insure that the lettering would not have a mechanical, typographical appearance.

Azalea Inscription (Model for the Full Scale Drawing), Garden Archives, GD I-2-15. Azalea Inscription (Model for the Full Scale Drawing). Garden Archives, Rare Book Collection, GD I-2-15, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Fragments of the original inscription were salvaged and are now housed in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives.

The inscription was located next to a white azalea in the pool area:

Like the flash of a wing

I came upon

The loveliest thing

Since Avalon

White Blossoming

Azaleas wan

As a wounded king

As a dying swan


The verse is the fourth stanza of the poem Reprieve by Joseph Auslander (1897–1965). Auslander, a graduate of Harvard College, was a good friend of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss and would become the first Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress between 1937 and 1941.

Azalea Inscription, Reconstruction, 2016 Azalea Inscription, Reconstruction, 2016

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Artful Mapping of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens

Posted on Jan 23, 2017 03:55 PM by James N. Carder |
Artful Mapping of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens
James N. Carder (January 2017)

Over the years, many maps and plans have been made of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens. Some of these have artistic embellishments that attempt to capture something of the gardens’ character rather than merely outline the garden spaces. The latest of these is a watercolor rendering prepared for the Dumbarton Oaks website by Spencer Lenfield, Postgraduate Media Research Fellow. The map captures the colors seen in the gardens throughout the seasons: the hot pink of Plumb Walk, the yellow of Forsythia Dell, and the reds and oranges of autumn foliage. The map serves to help web visitors virtually explore the gardens:

Discover more about the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, including details on trees and plants, inscriptions, furniture, and ornaments. Click anywhere on the map below to find out more about a garden section.

The original watercolor is now part of the Dumbarton Oaks Archives (AR.AP.GG.SP.051).

In 1935, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, the founders of Dumbarton Oaks, also sponsored artful renderings of the gardens. They commissioned the Czech-American artist, Rudolph Ruzicka (1883–1978), to make the first map of the gardens. Ruzicka included vignettes of plant materials within the map and framed the map with thirty-eight depictions of garden spaces, hardscape elements, and furniture, as they existed at the time. He labeled the garden areas and depictions, providing the canonical names that continue to be employed.

Rudolph Ruzicka plan and vignettes of the Gardens of Dumbarton Oaks, 1935. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, AR.AP.GG.SP.015. Rudolph Ruzicka plan and vignettes of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, 1935. Archives, AR.AP.GG.SP.015, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Also in 1935, the Blisses commissioned the cartographer, Ernest Clegg (1876–1954), to paint a bird’s-eye view of the house and garden to be installed in the overmantel frame of the Renaissance fireplace in their music room. Clegg worked in ink, watercolor, and gouache and employed aerial photographs of the gardens that the Blisses had had made for this project. A digital reproduction of this map now hangs in the overmantel in order to help preserve the original artwork from further fading and deterioration.

Ernest Clegg, Map of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, 1935. Dumbarton Oaks House Collection, HC.P.1935.01.(I). Ernest Clegg, Map of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, 1935. House Collection, HC.P.1935.01.(I), Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

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Learning among the Plants

Second-Grade Classes from the Hyde-Addison School Visit the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens

Posted on Nov 30, 2016 04:40 PM by Spencer Lenfield |
Learning among the Plants

Children gaze at the banks of asters and sunflowers that tower above them. “There’s a bird!” one shouts. “I see bees!” chime others. The eyes of a girl in a red coat follow a monarch butterfly as it floats from bloom to bloom among the crimson and gold chrysanthemums. This late October morning, the Herbaceous Border in the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens has become that most beautiful of spaces: a classroom.

Two classes of twenty-three second-grade students from the Hyde-Addison School, a public elementary school a short walk away from Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, visited the gardens three times each in the fall in order to supplement their science curriculum. Accompanied by science teacher Adam Severs, parent chaperones, and members of Dumbarton Oaks’ staff, the young students engaged with the basics of plant biology, approaching questions such as: What is a plant? How are they made? How do they grow?

“We created the program so that the second-graders could see things happening in action,” says Nathalie Miraval, public programming and outreach fellow, who designed and taught the curriculum for the new collaboration. While many students may learn about plant science in the abstract from a textbook, “it’s another thing to actually see roots, to water and plant a seed, to see bees on a flower sucking up nectar. It excites the kids, because it exists first in their mind, but then it’s right there in front of them.” Students come away from visits to the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens with a more tangible and memorable experience of concepts and processes like pollination, photosynthesis, and plant germination.

Garden staff, including horticulturalist Luis Mármol and greenhouse specialist Melissa Brizer, offered demonstrations to the classes during their visits, highlighting interesting examples of plants that related to the lessons for the day. Miraval mentions that these moments are some of the most exciting for students, as when Mármol showed the children an ear of multicolored flint corn to explain pigmentation: “Kids are so used to seeing just a single form of corn that they were blown away! Even I was blown away. That was something that they saw and aren’t going to forget. Those are the special moments, the ‘Oh!’ moments, and I hope they carry that wonder with them as long as they can.”

Dumbarton Oaks’ collaboration with the Hyde-Addison School will continue in the spring, when the second-grade classes return for a second set of three visits around the theme “What do plants do for us?”


Hyde-Addison visit 3

Hyde-Addison visit 3

Hyde-Addison visit 4

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The Dumbarton Oaks Gardens in Vivid Black and White

Posted on Sep 28, 2016 10:25 AM by James N. Carder |
The Dumbarton Oaks Gardens in Vivid Black and White
James N. Carder (October 2016)

Even after the availability of color photography and, later, the advent of the digital image, a number of artist-photographers have continued to work with black-and-white film stock. They also continue to develop their art in darkrooms, usually employing either the silver gelatin process or the more matte platinum/palladium process. These artists use these media in many cases so that they can better manipulate the image in a printmaking-like manner and create rich tonal effects that range from bright white to velvet black.

Over the years, the archives and House Collection have received black-and-white images that were photographed in the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens. Recently, for example, Julia Cart, a photographer based in Charleston, South Carolina, sent the archives files of garden images that she took in 2002 with a vintage Rolleiflex camera. Ms. Cart works exclusively in film, using antique, large-format cameras. She has said that she is, “above all, a respectful student of natural light.”

Julia Cart, Dumbarton Oaks, Path [Ellipse], 2002 Julia Cart, Dumbarton Oaks, Path [Ellipse], 2002

In 1999, the artist Tanya Marcuse also photographed in the gardens using black-and-white film. Although she often works in color and in a large-scale format, her Dumbarton Oaks images were created in small scale (approximately 10 by 12 centimeters) using the platinum/palladium process and involving closely cropped and detail imagery. She generously gave prints to the House Collection.

Tanya Marcuse, Lovers Lane Pool, Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, 1999, HC.PH.2000.01 Tanya Marcuse, Lovers Lane Pool, Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, 1999. House Collection, HC.PH.2000.01, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.  

Tanya Marcuse, Boy, Mexican Pebble Garden, Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, 1999, HC.PH.2000.02 Tanya Marcuse, Boy, Mexican Pebble Garden, Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, 1999. House Collection, HC.PH.2000.02, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Dumbarton Oaks’ staff photographer, Joe Mills, is also a photography artist who often uses black-and-white photography to create photomontages and collages in a surrealist style. In 1979, he took haunting images in the gardens, and, in 1995, he offered prints of this series to the House Collection.

Joe Mills, Untitled [Trees with Shadows], 1979, HC.PH.1995.07 Joe Mills, Untitled [Trees with Shadows], 1979. House Collection, HC.PH.1995.07, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.  

Joe Mills, Untitled [Horizontal Tree Branch on South Lawn], 1979, HC.PH.1995.11 Joe Mills, Untitled [Horizontal Tree Branch on South Lawn], 1979. House Collection, HC.PH.1995.11, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Others who have photographed the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens in black and white include Carol Betsch and Mel Curtis.

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From the Garden Blog

Posted on Jul 06, 2016 09:33 AM by Lain Wilson |
From the Garden Blog

This month, the Rose Garden bloomed into brilliant shades of red, pink, yellow, and white. See more photos in our garden blog, What’s Blooming at D.O.

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Dante in the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens

The History and Design of the Arbor Terrace

Posted on Jul 06, 2016 09:33 AM by Lain Wilson |
Filed under:
Dante in the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens

The following is reproduced with permission from: Linda Lott, “The Arbor Terrace at Dumbarton Oaks: History and Design,” Garden History 31, no. 2 (2003): 209–17. Figures 4, 5, 6, 7, and 11 have been replaced, with the following credits: Figures 4, 6, and 11: Brett Davis, July 2016; Figure 5: Dumbarton Oaks Garden Archives, GD P-3-24A; Figure 7: Dumbarton Oaks Garden Archives, GD P-2-13B.

In her Plant Book, written for the future maintenance and preservation of the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, Beatrix Farrand (1872–1959) begins the description of ‘The Herb Garden and Wisteria Arbor’ (currently called the Arbor TerraceIn some of the early drawings, the Arbor Terrace is identified as the ‘E’ Terrace.) (Figure 1) by stating that:

This small terrace, with its elegant heartwood tidewater cypress arbor (which was replaced in 1955), has changed considerably in character. It was originally intended as an intimate garden, a ‘giardini segreti’ [sic],The term translates as a secret garden and generally refers to a small, strongly enclosed garden room in fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance gardens that grew out of the medieval tradition of the hortus conclusus. with emphasis on contrast between sunlight and shade, the sound of falling water, the scent of herbs, the movement of wind and birds.Diane Kostial McGuire (ed.), Beatrix Farrand’s Plant Book for Dumbarton Oaks (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Trustees for Harvard University, 1980), 71.

arbor2.jpg Figure 2. The Arbor, perhaps in the 1950s. The lead bookcase, inscription, and lotus flowers are now visible in the arch on the left

A discussion of the Arbor Terrace should logically begin with its most dominant feature; the Arbor (Figure 2). Farrand’s text provides an interesting overview (Figures 3–5):

It is not a display garden but, rather, one in which shaded seats can be occupied under the big Wisteria arbor, which was placed in this position in order to minimize the rather overwhelming height of the stone wall which was needed to retain the northeast corner of the Rose Garden. This arbor was modified from a design of Du Cerceau (from his drawing of the garden of the Chateau Montargis). It is planted almost entirely with Wisteria, mainly of the lavender variety but with some few plants of white. The Wisteria Arbor is designed so as to be seen from below, so that the hanging clutches of the flowers will make a fragrant and lovely roof to the arbor. In order to make the high wall less noticeable in its austerity, a wall fountain with an old, French, lead fountain head was designed; and a second niche, also ornamented with lead (which lead ornament needs revision), is placed to the south of the wall fountain, with a simple lead box under the arch in which a book or two might be left. This lead box had not proved practical, as the dampness in this position would ruin any book before many weeks.Ibid., 72. ‘Du Cerceau’ is Jacques Androuet Du Cerceau (c. 1515–85).

arbor3.jpg Figure 3. Design for the arbour at the Château Montargis; from Jacques Androuet Du Cerceau, “Le premier [-second] volume des plus excellents Bastiments de France” (Paris, 1576–79).

In July 1933, Caroline Phillips, a friend of Mildred B. Bliss, owner of Dumbarton Oaks, sent her a note thanking her for a visit to the garden and enclosing three quotations taken from Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorio (begun c. 1307). She wrote:

I have found three little extracts from Dante’s Earthly Paradise at the end of the Purgatorio, which I think fit into your garden. There might one day be a stone or block of wood to carry them on, if you want some words of the Divine Poet in your wood.The letter (dated 9 July 1933) is part of the Farrand-Bliss Correspondence at Dumbarton Oaks. The lines from the letter appear on pp. 2–3. Next to the canto selected is written: ‘For all of Dumbarton Oaks’.

arbor figure 4 Figure 4. The Arbor.

lead bookcase Figure 5. Construction drawing (copy) for a lead bookcase for Robert Woods Bliss, and signed ‘Beatrix Farrand Landscape Gardener 7/14/34’.

Bliss adopted only one of Phillips’ suggested quotations, lines 139–41 from Purgatorio, canto XXVIII: ‘Quelli chanticamente poetaro leta dell oro/ & suo stato felice forse in parnaso esto loco sognaro’, which was translated by Phillips as ‘Those who in olden times, sang of the Golden Age, and its happy state, perchance dreamed in Parnassus of this place’.The capitalization and spelling are as they appear in the quote on the Arbor Terrace. This phrase, along with the lead book box and lotus flowers, originally adorned the second niche of the Arbor Terrace, but the quotation has since been relocated to the low wall on the left inside the Arbor (Figure 6) and the other ornament removed, leaving a blank arch of masonry. Beneath the quotation appears the phrase ‘codice caetani’, indicating the edition from which it was taken, and the words ‘all amigo Gelasio’, an allusion to the Bliss’s friendship with Gelasio Caetani.

Arbor Terrace inscription Figure 6. Inscription from Dante Alighieri’s “Purgatorio” on the inside left of the Arbor. Parts as well as entire letters are missing in the inscription.

Caetani served as Italian Ambassador to the United States from 1920 to 1925 and owned Ninfa, in Lazio, among the loveliest gardens in Italy. Like his grandfather, Michelangelo Caetani, Gelasio was a Dante scholar, and, in 1930, he published a limited edition of three hundred copies of the Codex Caetani,The Dumbarton Oaks Library owns number 27. his family’s manuscript copy of the Divine Commedia.Don Gelasio Caetani (ed.), Comedia Dantis Aligherii Florentini (Sancasciano, Val de Pesa, 1930). The manuscript itself is written on parchment in a calligraphic hand of the late fourteenth or very early fifteenth century. Georgina Masson reported that Caetani transcribed for Bliss the quotation that so aptly described the beauties of his own garden at Ninfa and those of Dumbarton Oaks.Georgina Masson, Dumbarton Oaks: A Guide to the Gardens (Washington, DC: Trustees for Harvard University, 1968), 24. The appropriateness of the quotation is underscored when viewed in the context of the entire canto.

After passing through Hell, Dante had to climb the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory on his way to Heaven, the summit of the mountain, on which lay the Earthly Paradise or Garden of Eden. It is here where Dante, abandoned by Virgil, encountered Matilda,Robert M. Durling (ed.), The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 484. Matilda can be seen to embody the innocent happiness of Eden: she is a sort of wood nymph or protective spirit of the place. For further information concerning the question of her identity, see A. Bartlett Giamatti, Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), 107–8. who told him, ‘Here the root of Humanity is innocent: here is everlasting Spring, and every fruit: this is the nectar of which they all speak’.Dante, Purgatorio, canto XXVIII. Certainly, the Arbor Terrace, with its fountain, arbour, flowers and location, evokes the Earthly Paradise of which Matilda spoke. Just as Dante encountered a garden before his final ascent into Heaven, so a visitor to the Arbor Terrace discovers an Earthly Paradise.The Divine Comedy takes place in a structured, concentric universe through which Dante and his guides move so that he might learn the results of evil and the meaning of Divine Love. The setting of the poem is a constantly varying landscape, which changes with the state of the author’s soul and the condition of those whom he observes. In order to understand the joys of Paradise he must descend to the depths of Hell’; Margaretta J. Darnall and Mark S. Weil, ‘Il Sacro Bosco di Bomarzo. Its 16th-century literary and antiquarian context’, Journal of Garden History, IV (1984), 1–94 (p. 6). While Darnall and Weil are writing about Bomarzo, their text can also be applied to the Arbor Terrace.

GDP213B.jpg Figure 7. Drawing (in coloured pencil) for the ‘Center Paving Arbor Terrace’ showing a rendering of a flute, lyre and flowers.

At this point, it is instructive to examine some of the drawings created for the Arbor Terrace from the mid-1930s. Possibly the theme of Mount Parnassus, mentioned in the quotation, was expanded upon and iconography representing Apollo was at one time to be subtly incorporated into the design scheme of the terrace. Mount Parnassus was sacred to both Apollo, god of archery, prophecy, music and healing, and to the Muses. One early drawing for the fountain depicts the head of a satyr and may have alluded to the story of Apollo and the satyr Marsyas, who challenged Apollo to a musical contest, lost and in defeat was flayed alive. Originally planned as a herb garden, the Arbor Terrace evolved into a pot garden and at present incorporates sweeping scrolls in the pavement design, but an early rendering shows the image of a flute lying diagonally over a lyre, partially framed with a spray of flowers (Figure 7). The iconography of both the flute and the lyre could refer to the fact that Apollo was the god of music, the flute also referring to his association with Marsyas. Furthermore, one of the designs for the Arbor Terrace has several wrought-iron gate finials with arrows incorporated into the design, possibly iconography associated with Apollo’s role as the god of archery. (The possibility also exists that the theme of Apollo might have been considered as a separate design scheme before the quotation from Dante had been selected. It may then have been decided to use personal rather than public language in the final design.)

arbor8.jpg Figure 8. Garden ornaments: a lead mask depicting a wind or a river god, dated 1931.

The fountain head selected for the final design of the Arbor Terrace has been identified, along with two others, as a river god (Figure 8).All three heads were purchased in May 1947 from Frances W. Huard (antiquarian), Versailles, France; Dumbarton Oaks House Collection Files. Barbara Israel, however, provides a different theory supporting the identification of the head as a river god:

Although the mask does not strictly conform to traditional images of Poseidon, or Neptune, the cattails, which are echoed at the base of the wall fountain, suggest rivers and wetlands, which fell within the sea god’s kingdom. The rays of sunlight, however, may allude to Apollo, the Greek god of music, song, and light, indicating instead a modern representation of that mythological deity.Barbara Israel, Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999), 130.

The current fountain, occupying the wall of the right arch, went through a number of revisions before the final design was selected: the head of a mythological god, perhaps a river god or Apollo, surrounded by sheaves of wheat, an element from the Bliss family coat of arms (Figure 9).Sheaves of wheat are also to be found on numerous gates at Dumbarton Oaks: in the design of the Pebble Garden and in the bench in the Rose Garden. While the lotus flowers placed either side of the book box have no connection with Apollo, their selection for the arch on the Arbor Terrace might be a reference to mythology and the story of Odysseus in the country of the lotus-eaters.In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew encountered the country of the lotus-eaters while journeying home to Ithaca. Odysseus sent three men to find out who inhabited the island. They were entertained by the Lotus-eaters, were given some of the food of the lotus plant and, as a result, lost all desire to return home. The dream-like state induced by the lotus plant may have provided the inspiration to use lotus flowers in the arch and might refer to the phrase in Dante’s quotation on the Golden Age: ‘perchance dreamed in Parnassus of this place’.

arbor9.jpg Figure 9. Detail from the Wisteria Arbor showing a dripping fountain with plants drawn in at the bottom.

Could these drawings and ornaments have been part of a conscious programme for the design of the Arbor Terrace, employing subtle references to Apollo and to mythological elements in the Odyssey? While there is no documentation to support this hypothesis and no references made to Apollo in the correspondence between Farrand and Bliss, the allusions evoked by the images mentioned are difficult to ignore. The only other mythological references currently found in the gardens appear in the Star Garden and the mosaics in the Swimming Pool Loggia, which depict the story of Diana and Actaeon.A watercolour by Allyn Cox (1896–1982) of Diana and Acteon has written in pencil in the lower right-hand corner: ‘first sketch for a loggia decoration, Allyn Cox, 1927’.

As Farrand indicated in her Plant Book, the original design for the Arbor Terrace grew out of an Italian garden tradition, the giardini segreti. While it is not possible to discuss the tradition of Italian gardening and Humanism within the scope of this note, it is instructive to look briefly at one text that was widely read in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Pietro de’ Crescenzi’s thirteenth-century Latin treatise on agriculture, Liber ruralium commodorum,De’ Crescenzi drew on the writings of ancient Romans such as Cato, Columella, Varro and Palladius, as well as on his own experience as a country landowner. His work began its wide circulation in manuscript form in 1305, and was one of the earliest printed books in Europe: in Latin in 1471, in Italian in 1478, in French in 1486 and German in 1493. described the construction and design of gardens from the 1300s to the Renaissance. Book VIII, Chapter 3, focuses on pleasure gardens and is divided into three classes: those of poor men, those of modest means, and those of wealthy nobles and kings. The following passage has particular relevance to the design of the Arbor Terrace:

Each of these [gardens] should be adorned with sweet-scented flowers, arbours of clipped trees, grassy lawns, and if possible, a sparkling fountain to lend joy and brightness to the scene. A pergola of vines will afford shade in the noonday heats, but in small gardens it is well to plant no trees on the lawn, and to leave the grass exposed to the pure airs and sunshine.Quotation in Julia Cartwright, Italian Gardens of the Renaissance and Other Studies (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914), 2–3. The translations are also given by Robert G. Calkin, ‘Pietro de’ Crescenzi and the medieval garden’, in Elisabeth B. MacDougall (ed.), Medieval Gardens (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture, 1983), 155–73; and Frank Crisp, Medieval Gardens: ‘flowery medes’ and Other Arrangements of Herbs, Flowers, and Shrubs Grown in the Middle Ages, with Some Account of Tudor, Elizabethan, and Stuart Gardens (London: John Lane, 1924), 15–19.

While the text itself might not have been a direct influence, it can be seen that elements listed in de’ Crescenzi’s text, and depicted in a later variant edition at Dumbarton Oaks (Figure 10)Pietro de’ Crescenzi, II libro della agricultura(Venice: Matteo Capasca di Codeca, 1495).

arbor_web10.jpg Figure 10. Woodcut text depicting a young woman in front of an arbour; from Pietro de’ Crescenzi, “Il libro della agricultura” (Venice, 1495).

In the preamble to Bliss’s will, a passage again echoes the Humanist theme found in Farrand’s Plant Book:

Those responsible for scholarship at Dumbarton Oaks should remember that gardens have their place in the Humanist order of life; and that trees are noble elements to be protected by successive generations and are not to be neglected or lightly destroyed . . . the serenity of open spaces and ancient trees . . . are as integral a part of Humanism at Dumbarton Oaks as are the Library and the Collections.Preamble to the will of Mildred B. Bliss, 31 August 1966.

The sentiment also appears, in modified form, on the plaque that flanks the right-hand side of the Museum entrance on 32nd Street, which also functions as a portion of the outside wall of the Rare Book Room of the Garden Library (designed and constructed to house Bliss’s collection of rare materials). At the top of the plaque is the phrase Quiescit Anima Libris (The spirit finds rest in books). This phrase is taken from the inlaid inscription on the sixteenth-century Italian bookcase cabinet in the Music Room and also recalls the lead book box originally housed in the Arbor Terrace. It is possible to View these as unifying, integral elements at Dumbarton Oaks, connected in part by their form and function, but also united by Humanist ideals. The concept of unity can be taken a step further with other design elements, such as the oak leaves and acorns on the wrought-iron railings in the main portion of the house (Figure 11) that help to bring nature indoors.

arbor figure 11 Figure 11. Detail of a banister in the Main House, leading to the second floor, with oak leaves and acorns incorporated into the design.

The current design of the Arbor Terrace is a distant echo of its former past as the terrace and its arbour wall have suffered over time, principally because of its location. As Farrand stated, it functions as a retaining wall for the Rose Garden, and in the past, the task of watering so many bushes was accomplished by flooding the entire Rose Garden. Over time, the flow of water and chemicals through the weep holes have clogged them and created an inhospitable environment for both the masonry and the original lead ornaments, causing them to deteriorate.In conversations the author has had with Gail Griffin, Superintendent of Gardens and Grounds at Dumbarton Oaks, the problems of conservation and preservation that exist on the Arbor Terrace have been discussed. The lead book box, as Farrand had predicted, was not practical for the setting and was eventually removed from the wall, along with the lotus flowers. There are several letters from Ruth Havey (1899–1980), an employee at Farrand’s office from the summer and fall of 1949, that included information about renovation work on the Arbor Terrace. Another note from Havey dated 1954 stated: ‘handle of lead cabinet is missing. Replace or cover the hole with a small plaque of lead’. Havey’s sketches presented alternative solutions to the problem of the walls, described in her text as ‘Sketch—two panels in arbour wall without lead lotus and bulrushes—leave waves’. None of Havey’s suggestions for the arches has ever been implemented. The paradigm for the garden that Mildred B. Bliss, Beatrix Farrand and Ruth Havey envisioned might exist in the early drawings and correspondence. The gardens as a whole, as well as individual areas, warrant closer study and examination.

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Behind the Scenes

A Reading of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” in the Gardens

Posted on Jul 06, 2016 09:33 AM by Lain Wilson |
Behind the Scenes

On Monday, June 13, the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens became a main stage as actors from the D.C. area offered a stunning and lively reading of Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia.

The gardens, last used as a performance space during a 2010 production put on by the Byzantine Studies department, were an ideal setting for Arcadia. The play, a tragicomedy that explores modern ideas in the context of the past, is centered around an English estate. One plot line tells the story of its nineteenth-century inhabitants, focusing on a young girl’s relationship with her tutor and with her family. The present, a twentieth-century storyline, acts as a foil for the earlier plot, tracing concerns of contemporary academia, including poetry, science, mathematics, and philosophy, back to these characters. It is a work that resonates with arts admirers and science enthusiasts alike, perfect for bringing together communities with a wide variety of academic interests.

The idea of staging the play in the gardens came from a discussion between Tyler fellow John Davis and Emily Townley, a local actress who would become the producer—and one of the stars—of Arcadia in the gardens. Townley and Davis spent two months putting together the reading.

“They call it a reading that is ‘lightly staged,’” Davis said. “They were reading from scripts, but there was a director who gave them direction on where to stand, when to enter, to actually make it more dynamic.”

Arcadia 2 Local actors Thomas Keegan as Septimus and Erin Weaver as Thomasina read a scene in the Fountain Terrace.

The dynamism of the performance extended to the setting, as Arcadia’s main stage separated itself into the Fountain Terrace, the Lovers’ Lane Pool, and the Orangery. The actors and audience moved from space to space as the production progressed. Davis and Townley, seeking to emulate the play’s original English country estate backdrop, chose these parts of the gardens strategically. Townley opened the play on the Fountain Terrace, utilizing its balconies and staircases to introduce the characters. From there, the scene transitioned into the Lovers’ Lane Pool. The amphitheater layout of the pool, which had been drained for cleaning, served its purpose as an area designed for entertainment. As the sun went down, the play moved to the well-lit Orangery for its final scenes.

At the play’s end, “the enclosed nature of the Orangery provided a level of intimacy that was especially appropriate for the changes in narrative and tone,” noted Kaja Tally-Schumacher, a student attending the Garden and Landscape Studies summer school. “The transition from very open spaces to such an intimate and small space really heightened emotion and the sense of community between the audience members and the actors.”

Arcadia 3 Kimberly Gilbert as Hannah and Jonathan D. Martin as Valentine read a scene in the Lovers’ Lane Pool. 

For Tally-Schumacher and other summer school students, the play evoked the themes they have explored in the two-week course, such as the origins and cultural practices of gardens and design landscaping. “The history of gardens is integral to the setting and plot of the play,” added Thalia Allington-Wood.

Similarly, Davis mentioned the inclusion of theories about order and chaos in nature that are studied by the students and elaborated on in Arcadia, specifically through the effects of staging. The temporality between acts, coupled with the unchanging nature of the play’s props and setup, also related to discussions on the memory of place and the passage of time within gardens. However, many noted that one of the greatest consequences of staging the play in the gardens was the intimacy experienced by the audience in such a setting.

“I was very happy that that’s the way it turned out,” he said. “Just because we were that close and just because there wasn’t the separation between a stage and an area for an audience, I think it became intimate . . . just by the way that it was done. And it was good in that way. I hadn’t planned it but it worked out very, very well.”

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From Garden to City

Urban Landscape Outreach Launch

From Garden to City

By Jeanne Haffner, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Urban Landscape Studies

The Mellon Initiative in Urban Landscape Studies is located on the tree-filled grounds of the historic gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. But its mission, as its name suggests, is to extend landscape studies into the city. In April and May, the program did this literally, launching its outreach program for students from underserved schools in Washington, D.C. Over a hundred students were given tours of the new LEED-certified Fellowship House, the recently designed pollinator garden by the Garden Court, and the historic gardens themselves.

The first of these workshops, titled “Biodiversity from Garden to City,” built upon the landscape and architecture curriculum at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School, located in northeast Washington, D.C. Students toured the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, paying particular attention to landscape design, topography, and water management, and met with Luís Mármol, gardener and horticulturalist. They were shown different types of plant beds—from the highly aesthetic Rose Garden to the more functional Kitchen Garden—and the Wilderness, an area located in the South Lawn, just before R Street, that serves to absorb water as well as to provide a contrast with more formal areas. Tyler fellow Deirdre Moore, who designed the new pollinator garden, discussed issues of water management as well as the connection between certain plants and the insects they attract. The field trip ended with a pop-up exhibit of Moore’s drawings and maps of the pollinator garden in the Lower Refectory, where students were given the opportunity to ask questions about the design process.

From Garden to City 1 Fourth graders from Achievement Prep learn about the role of trees in urban ecology.

In May, we expanded outreach initiatives to include elementary school students through the D.C. Arts and Humanities Education Collaborative, a group that organizes field trips for public and public charter schools across the District. The “Tree Notebooks” workshop, given to fourth, seventh, and eighth graders from Achievement Prep in southeast Washington, D.C., introduced the basics of tree identification and emphasized the importance of trees in urban sustainability and well-being. Students were first asked to identify the uses of trees, ranging from wood and food to spiritual renewal in some cultures. Then they sketched particular trees in the garden—an exercise aimed at reinforcing some of the elements of tree identification as well as landscape design. Another workshop, “City of Trees,” was given to sixth graders from McKinley Middle School. Using the grounds of Dumbarton Oaks, students were shown various ways in which ecological issues enter the city, from gardens like the ones at Dumbarton Oaks to water management and biodiversity at the pollinator garden and LEED certification at the Fellowship House. Throughout the tour, students also paid particular attention the gardens’ topography and various strategies for controlling the flow of water from garden to park.

From Garden to City 2 The National Building Museum’s Teen Council visited the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens on May 14 to examine differences in landscape design between the historic gardens and neighboring park.

The National Building Museum’s Teen Council, a part of the museum’s Design Apprenticeship Program, came to Dumbarton Oaks in mid-May to explore design features, hydrology, and historical topography in the gardens and Dumbarton Oaks Park in a workshop called “Private Garden, Public Park.” As those familiar with Beatrix Farrand’s work know, the gardens and Dumbarton Oaks Park used to be connected, giving the visitor the experience of going from a manicured garden to a more “wild”—but just as designed—space. The more feral parts, which lay at the bottom of the hill by the creek, were given to the National Park Service in 1940, the same year that the gardens and museum collections were transferred to Harvard University. After an extensive tour of the gardens, students walked through the gate at the base of the Forsythia Dell to Dumbarton Oaks Park. They saw remnants from the pre-1940 era, including the stone bridge, dams along the creek, and stone benches along the path, and then imagined new transitions from garden to park.

Outreach is just one aspect of the Mellon grant, which was awarded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's “Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities” initiative and runs through 2018. The program also provides fellowships for scholars working on urban landscape issues all over the world and organizes a variety of events aimed at encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue. The outreach component of the grant, however, is unique. It provides an opportunity to foster new collaborations between Dumbarton Oaks and outside organizations, such as the National Building Museum, and to rethink the gardens as the basis for a series of workshops on landscape and planting design, urban sustainability, and biodiversity in cities. In addition, preparing for these events drew together people inside Dumbarton Oaks, from the gardens staff and Garden and Landscape Studies program to the Director’s Office.

The Mellon Initiative in Urban Landscape Studies is excited to build on these workshops with more events next year with these and additional institutions. Extending scholarly research in urban landscape studies to students in secondary education occupies an important position in Dumbarton Oaks’ overall mission to support the humanities and serve the wider public and to find ways for local schools to use the gardens and museum as an educational resource. Dumbarton Oaks might have some very old relics in its possession but they are being looked at through younger and younger eyes.

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Good Ink

Dumbarton Oaks in the News

Good Ink

In the Washington Post, Michael Dirda calls Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau’s Letters of a Dead Man, recently published by Dumbarton Oaks as part of its ex horto series, a “classic of travel literature,” comparing the prince’s account of his time in Britain to Stendhal’s writings on Italy. “This richly illustrated edition of the Letters of a Dead Man is one of those books that bring an era to life,” Dirda writes. “En route to England, Pückler visits the aged Goethe in Weimar; in London, he dines with the great financier Nathan Rothschild; later, he flirts with the Duchess of St. Albans, a foundling raised by gypsies who slept her way to the top.” You can purchase Letters of a Dead Man on the Harvard University Press website.

The Washington Post’s Adrian Higgins meditates on the role of designed landscapes in academic life, including a mention of Dumbarton Oaks and a few words from John Beardsley, director of Garden and Landscape Studies: “Harvard University’s research center at Washington’s Dumbarton Oaks provides the sweetest blend of landscape and academia, even if the Georgetown garden started life as a private paradise.”

In another piece, Higgins features an installation on the Arbor Terrace that recreates a sixteenth-century physic garden in Padua. He also explores Dumbarton Oaks’ links to the Paduan model through Beatrix Farrand and the Rare Book Collection.

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Good Ink

Posted on Jan 09, 2013 03:02 PM by lisaw |
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Dumbarton Oaks’ gardens were the subject of conversation on a recent edition of the Kojo Nnamdi radio show, “Shaping the City: Washington's Landscapes.” Kojo and guests, Architect and University of Maryland professor Roger Lewis and Landscape Architect Michael Vergason, discussed how landscapes shape the identity of Washington, DC. Listen to the discussion on Kojo’s website.

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ICFA Gardens Film

ICFA Gardens Film

Rona Razon

The Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) hold unique footage of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens. While most of the footage dates to the 1930s and 1940s, some scenes may have been recorded as early as the mid-1920s. Shot in both black and white and in color, the film contains garden views, winter scenes, and summer scenes at the pool, as well as glimpses of Mildred Barnes Bliss and her friends at the Orangery and in the gardens.

The Dumbarton Oaks Gardens film was re-discovered in early 2011 when ICFA staff learned that three film reels in cold storage contained footage of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens. Films were sent to Colorlab for preservation and digitization in October of 2011, and the project was completed in March of 2012. Currently, all of the original films are safely stored in one of the freezers in ICFA’s cold storage area.

As part of the DO/Conversations series, on July 20, 2012 Archives Specialist Rona Razon described the “re-discovery” of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens film and the process of preserving it. Rona’s introduction was followed by a screening of the film with live commentary by James Carder, Archivist and House Collection Manager, and Gail Griffin, Director of Gardens and Grounds.

The presentation, including the film in its entirety, can now be seen online through Vimeo: Part I , Part II , and Part III

For more information about the project and presentation, please visit the DO/Conversations Blog , the ICFA Blog, and the Dumbarton Oaks Library and Archives Facebook page.

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Now on View: Cloud Terrace

Contemporary art installation by Cao | Perrot Studio

Now on View: Cloud Terrace

Dumbarton Oaks announces the creation of Cloud Terrace, a new contemporary art installation in the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens by artists Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot of Cao | Perrot Studio, Los Angeles and Paris, in collaboration with J.P. Paull of Bodega Architecture.

Cloud Terrace takes the form of a hand-sculpted wire mesh cloud suspended over the Arbor Terrace and embellished with 10,000 Swarovski elements water-drop crystals mirrored in a reflecting pool.

The Arbor Terrace is one of the most modified spaces in the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens. Originally designed by Beatrix Farrand in the early 1930s as a simple rectangular herb garden, bordered on the west by a wisteria-covered arbor and on the east and north by a hedge of Kieffer pears, it was refashioned by Farrand’s former associate Ruth Havey in the 1950s as a pot garden centered on a Rococo-style parterre with low, Doria stone parapet walls. The space can be hot and bright; Cao | Perrot’s installation is a response to these conditions, extending the shade of the arbor across the terrace and animating the space inside the parterre with an oval pool surrounded by bluestone pebbles.

Cao | Perrot studio have a stunning list of projects to their credit, including temporary site-specific installations at the American Academy in Rome, the Potager du Roi, Versailles, the Tuileries, Paris, the Medici Fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens, and many of the world’s leading garden festivals. Cao | Perrot studio are also responsible for the winning design of the 600-acre Guangming New Town Central Park in Shenzhen, China, a collaboration with Lee + Mundwiler Architects, which received an AIA 2009 National Honor Award for Urban Design. For more information on the artists, please visit

The installation was organized by John Beardsley, Director of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, and Gail Griffin, Director of Gardens, with the particular assistance of staff members Jane Padelford and Walter Howell. It is the third in a series of contemporary art installations at Dumbarton Oaks, following projects by Charles Simonds in 2009 and Patrick Dougherty in 2010. The series is intended to provide fresh interpretations and experiences of the Gardens and art collections of Dumbarton Oaks. The project was built with the assistance of twenty-six volunteers and supported by Swarovski Elements, who provided the crystals used for the installation.

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