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About the North Vista

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The North Vista is the only landscape element that appeared in any form at Dumbarton Oaks before Beatrix Farrand took over as landscape gardener. In fact, the basic structure of the North Vista appears in photographs of the property taken before the Blount family sold to Robert Woods Bliss in 1920. The Blounts planted a long, linear flowerbed leading northward on an axis with the central tower of the house. The Blisses must have liked the concept, because when they hired landscape architect George Burnap in 1920–21, they told him to create a north-facing garden space behind the house.

Burnap’s plan outlined a “Cedar Garth,” or enclosed yard, terminating in a reflecting pool with water jet. Mildred Bliss was not pleased with his work, and in 1921 Burnap and his Cedar Garth disappear from the record. In his place, Mildred hired Beatrix Farrand to help her create an entire garden landscape on the former farmland, and so the North Vista fell into Farrand’s skilled hands.

From the beginning, the North Vista proved a challenge for Farrand and Bliss. In her first letter to Bliss outlining potential garden design, Farrand said that “the north front of the house with its vista, cedar edged, may be developed in so many different attractive ways that it is difficult not to be distracted.” The basic structure of a grand, green-lined vista was clear to her, but the details proved frustratingly hard to decide. Whatever she suggested needed to bring scale to the architecture of the house, compliment and balance existing trees and plantings, work around the eighteen-foot drop in grade, and transition through the seasons. In her first draft, Farrand considered the Burnap reflecting pool as part of an overall design informed by Versailles. However, she rejected it almost immediately as too fussy and prone to ugliness in the winter. In 1926 she proposed a simple set of five terraces that would form the backbone of all North Vista designs to come.

Beatrix Farrand’s five-terrace plan centered on the northern façade of the house. All planting and design details functioned to trick the eye and extend the view northward from the tower into a uniform and elongated landscape. To accomplish this, Farrand replaced all existing groundcover with a carpet of grass, and she lined the terraces with dense green plantings, mostly box hedges. Because the grass covered the tops of the steps between each terrace level, the view from the house presented an unbroken line of green. The furthest end of the Vista dissolved into a narrow box allée that led to the “Clifton” hillside and forest beyond.

The box allée and the terminus of the Vista proved the greatest challenge for Farrand. Neither she nor Mildred Bliss felt completely satisfied with the details of the final terraces nor the framing of the view. They spent the next thirty years working together, and later with the input of Robert Patterson and Ruth Havey, to refine the design.

Although the entire Vista evolved over time, the terraces closest to the house quickly gained a formal quality. The stairs from the house led directly into the first terrace, called the North Court. The basic design of the North Court was finalized by the 1930s, when flagstones paved the perimeter, central walk, and French steps. Marble benches and balustrades with urn finials were eventually added. The designs for these as well as sweeping stone cheekwalls, added in 1950, were based on original Armand Albert Rateau drawings commissioned by Mildred Bliss. Brick walls with limestone coping enclosed the North Court.

Until 1940, the brick walls terminated at the North Court balustrade, and box hedges took their place in the next level, the Cedar Terrace. The second terrace gained its named from the two Cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libanotica) growing there until the 1930s.  When the Cedars of Lebanon died, they were replaced with Himalayan Cedars (Cedrus deodara). From the beginning, the cedars were the only plantings in this terrace. Farrand toyed with the idea of planting beds along the inner base of the box hedges, but ultimately she chose to leave unbroken sod.

The next level stepping down and northward has been called by several unofficial names. Due to the fluidity of design details over the years, this terrace has been known as the Bench Terrace, Tulip Terrace, or Intermediate Terrace. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was enclosed by heavy box hedges with tall evergreens to the west to block traffic noise and the view from 32nd Street. The box hedges extended through the entire terrace and into the narrowest final sections, the North Section or North Bay and the Tunnel.

When Dumbarton Oaks transitioned to Harvard University in 1940, Beatrix Farrand made a change she and Mildred Bliss had discussed for some time. She ordered the overgrown and dying box bushes removed, and gray dry stone walls with limestone coping took their place. The Tunnel disappeared, and the North Section became the final view in the vista.

The framing of the final view continued to elude Farrand. In 1942–43, workmen completed the stepped masonry walls along the sides of the vista, and constructed a low pavilion wall with a five-foot opening at the end. Farrand added a segmented arch to the opening, but she remained dissatisfied with the design at the time of her semi-retirement in 1946. Her successor, Robert Patterson, proposed an expensive solution to the unfinished Farrand design. Keeping the pavilion wall, he planned to extend the vista into a large Italianate paved terrace leading to a fountain and jet. In 1948–49, Mildred Bliss was considering options for a new entrance to the gardens that would come through the Service Court, and Robert Patterson offered the new Italian terrace as a dramatic first view of Dumbarton Oaks. Ultimately, none of his designs received approval, and the job fell to Ruth Havey.

In late 1948, Havey submitted a total redesign that called for taller side walls and Rococo stone details. Under her supervision in 1950, chains replaced wood slats in the North Section wall, and wisteria was planted to trail over the chains. To frame the northern view, she designed new stone scroll and leaf consoles and iron bouquet finials based on Albert Armand Rateau drawings. Havey left the view between the tall stone piers unobstructed to the hillside beyond, but she placed a low scrollwork fence of Swedish charcoal iron across the opening for a sense of completion. The final Havey updates were completed in 1951.