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75 Years Ago this Month: Mildred Bliss and the Maintenance of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens

Posted On March 21, 2016 | 15:12 pm | by jamesc | Permalink
James N. Carder (April 2016)

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Native rhododendrons in bloom at Dumbarton Oaks.

In early April 1941, Mildred Bliss received a letter from Elmer Drew Merrill (1876–1956), a member of the Dumbarton Oaks Administrative Committee and Harvard University Administrator of Botanical Collections and Arnold Professor of Botany. Writing to Mildred at Casa Dorinda, her home in Montecito, California, Merrill wanted to know whether his understanding was correct that the Blisses wanted Harvard to continue to maintain the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens. If that understanding was incorrect, he wondered whether the gardens might be turned over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “experimental stations.” In the letter, he also offered her rhododendrons from the Arnold Arboretum to be planted at Dumbarton Oaks.

On April 10, 1941, Mildred sent her response in a letter that is preserved in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives. She dealt first with the rhododendrons:

In regard to the kind offer of rhododendrons, I submit that the only varieties we find desirable for planting at Dumbarton Oaks are the native species, since they are only needed as screens. The beautiful hybrids would only call attention to themselves and, frankly, I see no place for them at present.

She then went on to champion the continued maintenance of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens:

Yes, your understanding is correct, it is our wish that the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks be maintained, and that, where consistent with their present form and development, they should be useful and productive. This they have been for many years.

Finally, she strongly endorsed the university’s decision to employ the gardens’ designer, Beatrix Jones Farrand (1872–1959), as “Consulting Landscape Gardener”:

Mrs. Farrand, whom I am sure you know and admire—as all do who have come in touch with her and her remarkable accomplishments at Yale, Princeton, Chicago, etc.,—has been, as you know, appointed what she is called by her various universities “Consulting Landscape Gardener.” This is most fortunate as it is she who has given form to my daydreams and has laid out the gardens with such ingenious understanding of the grades and seasons that they are now of unusual and harmonious beauty. In fact, the bones are so good that the flower planting can be decreased for economy and yet not seriously interfere with the picture that we have tried to paint and, thanks to her, have succeeded in realizing. It is fortunate that she can continue to give her counsel for the benefit of Dumbarton Oaks as no one can ever be as familiar with its problems as those who have worked upon them since the beginning.