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Keeping Time with Nature

Posted On January 21, 2022 | 14:23 pm | by kathys | Permalink
Telling the story and restoration of Dumbarton Oaks Park

By Liza Gilbert and Lindsey Milstein

Many who visit Dumbarton Oaks have no idea what awaits just beyond the North Vista…it is the other half of the great garden story that began a century ago. Designed as the wild garden companion to the formal gardens, the 27-acre enchanting oasis now known as Dumbarton Oaks Park continues to soothe and inspire with a powerful sense of place, but its rich garden story is rarely recounted. Perhaps it is the secluded nature of the place that has kept this landscape from our gaze. Perhaps it is the lack of care over the last 75 years. Nevertheless, it is a foundational part of landscape history as the last remaining wild garden designed by Beatrix Farrand and stands as an integral piece of her masterwork at Dumbarton Oaks. 

Stream Path, 1930s. From Library of Congress: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey.
Stream Path, 1930s. From Library of Congress: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey.

One can only wonder what Farrand and Mildred Bliss discussed as they walked through this secluded stream valley for the first time. The topographic bowl that envelops you as you move through the towering tulip, beech, and oak trees which march up the slopes and the cadence of moving water must have made their imaginations soar. For Farrand, the landscape elements: water, woodland, and meadow most likely sparked childhood memories of Maine. As she studied the lay of the land, she recognized the potential of this varied landscape to be expansive and yet equally intimate. Long views and curving perspectives along the Farm Track and at the edge of the meadows create a landscape that seems ever unfolding. The narrow streamside path with its garden follies and repurposed agrarian structures offers a more intimately scaled experience. From large gatherings in the meadows to solo forest bathing, this landscape can hold varied layers of human activity simultaneously. This is why each visitor who enters the park gates feels like it is their own park each day, each season, each year.

The 27-acre wild garden was a gift to the National Park Service in 1941 by the Blisses, and unlike the formal gardens above, was never substantially altered by successive landscape architects or gardeners. This original piece of the masterwork is a living landscape mirror to the 16-acre formal garden reflecting again and again through viewsheds and repeated design elements, each piece making sense of the other. Moving from formal into wild, the intended transformational experience choreographed by Farrand was a personal journey through time. Farrand worked closely with the National Park Service for a decade to advise on maintenance and stewardship following the transfer from private to public. She was a strong proponent of keeping the two pieces visually connected and proposed a new path, Clifton Hill Walk, to create a way to move through the wild garden at a higher elevation to achieve this goal. 

 

Crest of Meadow 5, fall 2021. Photo © Allen Russ
Crest of Meadow 5, fall 2021. Photo © Allen Russ

Just over two decades after the transfer of the park, in 1963, Stewart Udall stood at the foot of Meadow Five and lobbied for the passage of the Wilderness Act and thanked Mildred Bliss in person for the park gift to the American people. But as the decade moved forward, the gifted park was left to the ravages of time and Mother Nature’s handiwork. The “wild garden” became a deeply neglected urban landscape. Rampant stormwater and associated erosion paired with shrouds of invasive plants threatened the entirety of this landscape. Historic views that connected the upper and lower gardens were lost to overgrowth and felled trees, architectural features were left to decay, and paths including Clifton Hill Walk were abandoned. This demise was a turning point in the history of this public landscape. 

A landscape intervention was necessary. Since 2010, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy has been developing and implementing a layered approach to adaptive management of the area that has foregrounded Farrand’s wild garden design again. Hundreds of caring citizens have been called upon to reinfuse the landscape with Beatrix Farrand’s spirit while learning the tenets of integrated landscape restoration through a boots-on-the-ground approach. Farrand once wrote, “We must keep time with Nature, and flow her forms of expression in different places, while we carry out our own ideas or adaptations.”Beatrix Farrand, The Collected Writings of Beatrix Farrand, ed. Carmen Pearson (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2009), 81. And this is the challenge at hand: preserving an undervalued and underfunded Farrand naturalistic garden after a century while keeping pace with the changes of climate, culture, and sustainability. 

 

Stream Valley Restoration Project Plan, designed 2021, Larry Weaner Landscape Associates.
Stream Valley Restoration Project Plan, designed 2021, Larry Weaner Landscape Associates.

Enhancing and protecting this park through Farrand’s vision while keeping in mind the current and future challenges is our point of departure for the restoration work in Dumbarton Oaks Park. During 2021, the design of the Stream Valley Restoration Project was completed in collaboration with Larry Weaner Landscape Associates. The stream is the backbone of the Farrand design, and it runs from west to east across the entire park. We purposefully started the project with the installation of the plant layer to support the stabilization of path and stream edges, reduce erosion, and increase plant diversity. This will serve as a sustaining layer until the funds are in place to integrate engineering and architectural features. Five individual plant communities were identified in the Stream Valley from the lowest elevation floodplain meadow to the highest elevation upland woodland understory. Key native plants were identified for each specific plant community for their ecological resilience and their seasonal beauty. For example, in the original design, Farrand located a large drift of native azaleas in the floodplain meadow following Clapper Falls. In the restoration, these azaleas were paired with sedges and rushes, and ferns and wildflowers which will be reintroduced with a broader range of selections that will expand the pollination season and create improved habitat structure and greater plant diversity. At this juncture along the stream, the historic spatial progression of moving through a rhododendron plantation studded by towering tulip poplars that opens wide to a flat floodplain meadow with its lower thickets of azaleas and groundcovers will be restored, ecologically enhanced, and more sustainable. 

Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy “Leave No Child Inside Expeditions: Landscape by Design” students, October 2021.
Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy “Leave No Child Inside Expeditions: Landscape by Design” students, October 2021.

The subtlety of a wild garden design cannot be overemphasized. The large drifts or plantations, as Farrand called them, were designed as color masses like those of a painter’s palette to highlight views, topographic ebbs and flows, textural change, sound difference, and the sky’s reflection that all sit in delicate balance. As we follow Farrand’s interdisciplinary working approach, we are ushering this landscape towards a state of health and equipoise, making it possible to renew and revive the elevated experience of this vibrant wild garden for all.

Liza Gilbert is a board member of the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy and Lindsey Milstein is president of the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy.