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Gardens as Anniversary

Posted On May 06, 2021 | 14:29 pm | by lainw | Permalink
Celebrating the past, acknowledging the present, and looking to the future

By Thaïsa Way

Anniversaries are both a special and an odd tradition. Despite how often we try to tie an anniversary in gardens and landscapes to a particular moment in time, it proves a difficult and perhaps unrealistic project. When does a garden start? Is it a geological narrative or a design story or a social history? In 2022 we celebrate a century since Beatrix Farrand and Mildred Bliss began to construct the Dumbarton Oaks gardens and landscape we know today. But that landscape has a long history, from Indigenous communities such as the Piscataway and Nacotchtank who inhabited the region to the many families who attempted to cultivate the land as gardens, orchards, and above all else, a home. 

Even if we were to focus just on the Farrand and Bliss project, we might date the beginning of the gardens to any number of significant anniversaries. Is it the first time they met on the site sometime in 1921, or when they agreed on a vision for the gardens, in June 1922, or when the Blisses turned their residence over to Harvard to serve as a Home for the Humanities in 1940? Our celebration, A Century in the Gardens, hopes to explore multiple perspectives on anniversaries, growth, and change in the gardens. James Carder, our retired longtime archivist, has written a wonderful series of essays “From the Archives,” including one about the day eighty years ago when Mildred Bliss argued for a certain view of the future of the gardens and landscape. As Carder notes, Bliss also advocated for the role Farrand would take in curating the garden stewardship by Harvard as it fostered the new scholarly institution. This moment is perhaps even more important to the garden’s longevity than its founding vision and construction. 

This month, we are delighted to bring Carder’s essays to your attention, particularly this important one that acknowledges over seventy-five years of Harvard’s stewardship and the critical nature of garden maintenance as preservation. On that note, we end with a bit of Mildred Bliss’s vast wisdom shared in the preamble to her last will and testament:

Those responsible for scholarship at Dumbarton Oaks should remember that the Humanities cannot be fostered by confusing Instruction with Education; that it was my husband's as well as it is my wish that the Mediterranean interpretation of the Humanist disciplines shall predominate; 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.


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

By James N. Carder (April 2016)

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 US 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.


Thaïsa Way is resident program director for Garden and Landscape Studies. James Carder was advisor for the House Collection from 1992 to 1998, and archivist and manager of the House Collection from 1998 to 2018. Discover more stories in the “From the Archives” series.

Aerial photograph of Dumbarton Oaks, April 1990. Photograph courtesy the Frances L. Loeb Library, Harvard University Graduate School of Design