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Sustaining the Gardens

Posted On June 28, 2021 | 11:05 am | by lainw | Permalink
Celebrating those who steward our gardens

By Thaïsa Way 

The gardeners at Dumbarton Oaks are the very reason we have a garden to celebrate. These people steward and nurture the gardens and landscape come sun, rain, or sleet, and bring to their work a deep knowledge of horticultural practices and of the history of Dumbarton Oaks. This month we have the pleasure of highlighting their work in our celebration of the garden centennial.

Enjoying the gardens as a visitor, it’s easy to overlook the labor it takes to keep them looking so beautiful while maintaining the design vision set out by Farrand in 1922. Under the Blisses there were upwards of 36 gardeners and related staff for the landscape; today there is a remarkable team of 12 responsible for the daily, seasonal, and annual preservation of the 16.5 acres: Robby Adams, Ricardo Aguilar, Austin Ankers, Melissa Brizer, Rigoberto Castellon, Kimberly Frietze, MJ Garcia, Walter Howell, Luis Marmol, Donald Mehlman, Martin Nji, and Marc Vedder, directed by Jonathan Kavalier. They supervise plantings, maintain historic ornaments, manage greenhouse operations, and sustain the gardens.

They follow in the footsteps of others, and we are privileged to have archives of some of those earlier gardeners. In the spring of 2017, we received a donation of a collection of photographs from Richard Amt, the staff photographer from 1963 to 1974, who took photos of the gardeners during his tenure. These photographs are an invaluable contribution to the celebration of the Garden Centennial as we look back on the past century of curating this wonderful piece of art.

In addition to several Amt photographs and staff images, a portrait of the 2021 garden staff appears in a new centennial exhibition opening in the Catalogue House this summer.

As part of the Writing the Gardens series, we are exploring highlights from a blog series by retired Dumbarton Oaks Archivist James Carder entitled “From the Archives.” This month, we bring you Carder’s April 2017 blog post about the Amt acquisition.


New Acquisitions of Photographs of Gardeners

By James Carder (April 2017)

Donald E. Smith, ca. 1970. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, AR.PH.Misc.360.(Neg.)
Donald E. Smith, ca. 1970. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, AR.PH.Misc.360.(Neg.)

Richard Amt, staff photographer at Dumbarton Oaks between 1963 and 1974, recently donated to the Archives fourteen photograph negatives of gardeners working in the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens. Among these images are several of Matthew Kearney, superintendent of gardens and grounds, and his assistant superintendent, Donald Smith. Amt employed a square format for these images and used both Agfa and Kodak black-and-white film stock.

Amt had been an aerial photographer during his four years in the US Air Force and then became a photograph technician for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He joined Dumbarton Oaks in 1964 as staff photographer; at the time, a darkroom and studio had been equipped in the basement of the newly completed Pre-Columbian pavilion. In 1974, he moved to the National Gallery of Art as staff photographer, where he remained for twenty years, becoming chief of photographic services during his last nine years there.

Matthew Kearney, ca. 1970. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, AR.PH.Misc.365.(Neg).
Matthew Kearney, ca. 1970. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, AR.PH.Misc.365.(Neg).

Matt Kearney (1909–1973) was born in Ireland. After immigrating to the United States, he began a career as a gardener. Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss hired Kearney in 1930, and he worked under the Blisses’ garden superintendent, William Gray, and later, beginning in 1937, under superintendent James Bryce. In 1948, he took over as superintendent of gardens and remained in charge of the gardens until his death. 

As a young man, Don Smith (1928–2012) had worked for Beatrix Farrand at her estate Reef Point in Bar Harbor, Maine, before receiving a degree in horticulture from the University of Maine, Orono. At Dumbarton Oaks, he served as assistant superintendent of gardens and Grounds (1952–1974) and then as superintendent of gardens and grounds until his retirement in 1992.


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.