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The Formation of the Garden and Landscape Studies Program (1952–1991)

Posted On November 29, 2021 | 11:00 am | by janep | Permalink
Transforming Mildred Bliss’s vision into an academic program

By Jane Padelford 

This essay is the first of a two-part series on the history of the Garden and Landscape Studies program. 

Elisabeth Blair MacDougall, director of studies in Landscape Architecture from 1972 to 1988 and an art historian who helped transform the study of gardens into an academic discipline, wrote the first history of the Garden and Landscape Studies program in her essay “Prelude: Landscape Studies, 1952–1972,” published in Perspectives on Garden Histories in 1999. Mildred Bliss began discussing the idea of a fellowship program in a letter to Beatrix Farrand in 1947, because “the cultural and intellectual basis on which [the gardens] have been developed should be at hand for gardeners of various ranks of ability and also for students of the art.”Mildred Bliss to Beatrix Farrand, 12 June 1947. Garden Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, B:MB 1947.06.12.

The fellowships would be “similar in character to the Byzantine fellowships, i.e., a senior research fellowship in garden design intended for mature persons who have a creative research project they wish to develop, and a junior fellowship for recent graduates of landscape architecture schools. A third category, a summer fellowship for students, single males only, required residence at Dumbarton Oaks for one month in the summer, including actual physical work in the gardens, and a month touring of the offices of selected practitioners.”Minutes of the First Meeting of the Garden Advisory Committee, 22 March 1956. The Blisses proposed their endowment for maintenance of the gardens, expansion of the Garden Library (which was created in 1963), and for “the establishment of Visiting or Exchange Fellowships for the individual study of garden design, ornament and Horticulture.” Mildred Bliss called the program “Garden Design and Ornament.”

Black-and-white photograph of Mildred Bliss leading five members of the Garden Advisory Committee through the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens
Mildred Bliss and the garden advisory committee, 1965. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, Series 3, Item 9.

Three panels with inscriptions: top, Quiescit anima libris; center: a quotation by Mildred Bliss; below: The Dumbarton Oaks Garden Library
Garden Library wall. Photo by Jane Padelford.

The administrators of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the dean of the Graduate School of Design, and prominent practicing landscape architects did not like Mildred Bliss’s proposed name for the fellowship program. In the mid-1950s the field of landscape architecture was moving away from estate and residential gardens to focus on highways, public parks, and commercial and residential developments. But Mildred Bliss was more interested in the “spiritual experience and inspirational journey” of the fellowship.Minutes of the First Meeting of the Garden Advisory Committee. The Dumbarton Oaks gardens were inspired by historical styles—Italian, French formal, English landscape, and Mildred Bliss expected fellows to research “the great garden designs of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.”Mildred Bliss to Beatrix Farrand, 7 July 1947. Garden Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, B:MB 1947.07.07. After some debate, the program was named “Studies in Landscape Architecture at Dumbarton Oaks” in 1971.

After MacDougall’s term as GLS director ended in 1988, John Dixon Hunt (GLS director 1988–1991) brought in scholars from disciplines including literary studies, landscape archaeology, geography, cartography, history, landscape architecture, and planning, and described landscape studies as a “study of a sort of cultural materialism.”Oral History Interview with John Dixon Hunt, July 14, 2009. Dumbarton Oaks Oral History Project. Hunt is the editor of the Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes, which he founded in 1981, and contributed several important books to the discipline including The Afterlife of Gardens (2004). As sociologist Michel Conan notes, Hunt’s term allowed for “intellectual jousting between various academic disciplines.”Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, Angeliki E. Laiou, and Michel Conan, Twenty-Five Years of Studies in Landscape Architecture at Dumbarton Oaks: From Italian Gardens to Theme Parks (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1996). The colloquia organized by Hunt included Vernacular Gardens (1990) and Regional Gardens in the United States (1991), topics that had been neglected by garden historians until that time. Hunt also laid the groundwork for colloquia on Mughal gardens (1992) and the theory of garden art (1993). Hunt’s tenure as GLS director set the academic tone for the program as the field of landscape architecture began to transition into the twenty-first century.


Jane Padelford is program coordinator for Garden and Landscape Studies.