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Then and Now: Changes to the Ellipse and Kitchen Gardens

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 13:34 pm | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

Envisioned as a retreat from city life modeled on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European gardens, the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens have grown into an oasis for the public and for scholars since the Blisses donated their estate to Harvard University in 1940. The changing history of the Ellipse, one of the enclosed gardens, demonstrates the exemplary level of attention paid to design and design change, which typifies the efforts channeled into the creation of the grounds. Likewise, the Vegetable Garden has also played an important role in Dumbarton Oaks’ history, functioning as a method of community outreach in the 1940s and returning to that role more than fifty years later.

The Ellipse

Greatly inspired by her time spent in Europe—England and France in particular—Mildred Bliss took great care to assure that every aspect of the garden was developed to the standards of European perfection. She found a collaborator and friend in Beatrix Farrand, the landscape gardener whom the Blisses hired to design the gardens, an endeavor that began in 1922. Bliss and Farrand collaborated closely, a relationship evidenced by their series of correspondences, which the two often signed “Your ever loving Garden twin.”

Box Garden at "The Oaks"
Beatrix Farrand’s sketch of the Box Garden at “The Oaks,” ca. 1930–1937, GD K-4-01, Dumbarton Oaks Garden Archives

Ellipse, central pool before Provençal fountain
Two-tiered stone fountain basin in the Box Ellipse, ca. 1956, GP 15-12, Dumbarton Oaks Garden Archives

For the enclosed garden known as the Ellipse, Farrand conceived an oval of closely planted box hedges surrounding a simple water feature basin with a single jet of water at play. Called the Box Ellipse, this garden was meant to offer tranquility and privacy with only one entrance/exit point and no vistas beyond the box hedge. By the late 1950s, however, the box had become overgrown and unwieldy. It was then decided that this garden should be redesigned under the supervision of Alden Hopkins, consulting landscape architect at Dumbarton Oaks between 1956 and 1959. The original boxwood hedges were replaced with hornbeam trees, forming an aerial hedge that allowed views into the surrounding areas.

Image of the Griswold-designed moats and water feature in the Ellipse, ca. 1960-1967
Griswold-designed walls, moats, and water feature in the Ellipse, ca. 1960–67

Ellipse, metal fountain with walls and moat
Griswold-designed walls, moats, and water feature in the Ellipse, ca. 1960–1967, GP 15-28, Dumbarton Oaks Garden Archives

Extensive correspondence from the period of renovation between Alden Hopkins, director John Thacher, Beatrix Farrand, and Mildred Bliss, among others, reveals the level of detail that accompanied these plans. Detailed clearing, planting, and construction specifications abound, as the correspondents discussed changes ranging from plumbing adjustments to construction materials, from fountain water level to proposed grass length. Mildred Bliss, in particular, closely oversaw the remodeling of the Ellipse, managing details down to the color of the decorative pebbles lining the pathway. In 1960, under Ralph E. Griswold, consulting landscape architect at Dumbarton Oaks beginning in 1960, the original water feature with a single-jet fountain, was replaced by one of a more modern design, and two curved stone walls with moats were added to the design.

However, Mildred Bliss found this change unsatisfying and, in 1967, the walls and moats were removed and the water feature was replaced by the French eighteenth-century Provençal fountain that had been removed from the Copse due to the construction of the Pre-Columbian Gallery.

Ellipse with pleached hornbeam tress and Provençal fountain
Ellipse with pleached hornbeam trees and Provençal fountain

Ellipse with the new native habitat and the installation of Patrick Dougherty's Easy Rider
Ellipse with the new native habitat and the installation of Patrick Dougherty's Easy Rider

The design of a pleached hornbeam oval surrounding the Provençal fountain has been maintained to this day. However, in 2010, Anastassia Solovieva and Jane Padelford installed a native aquatic habitat in the lower basin in conjunction with that year’s “Designing Wildlife Habitats” symposium. In addition to native water plants, this basin provided a pesticide-free habitat for ducks, turtles, frogs, mollusks, and crustaceans, and the habitat attracted a variety of wildlife including damselflies, skimmers, herons, ducks, and migratory birds. The Ellipse was also host to the 2011–12 installation of Patrick Dougherty's site sculpture, Easy Rider. (For more on Easy Rider, see here.)

The Kitchen Gardens

A short walk from the Ellipse are garden rooms that were meant to be more functional than the formal garden areas, such as the Ellipse. The Kitchen Gardens are a series of several informal gardens that Farrand designed at the mid-range of the Dumbarton Oaks estate: an orchard, a cutting garden (providing fresh flowers for the house), a vegetable garden, a grape arbor, and a frame yard with hot beds, cold frames, and a pit house for the propagation and overwintering of plants. These gardens were designed in 1927 and actualized in 1928. During the Second World War, James Bryce, head gardener between 1937 and 1948, held demonstrations in the Kitchen Gardens to educate neighbors and visitors on the techniques and utility of planting a victory garden for personal consumption during the war period. (Read more about the victory garden at Dumbarton Oaks.)

Kitchen Garden lower level and tool houses
Kitchen Garden lower level and tool houses, 1929, GP 28-6, Dumbarton Oaks Garden Archives

Vegetable Garden, 1940s
Kitchen Garden, lower level, looking southeast to yew, ca. 1927–1932, GP 28-10, Dumbarton Oaks Garden Archives

After the 1940 gift of Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University, however, there was increasing ambivalence toward the Kitchen Gardens. In a 1944 letter to Mildred Bliss, Beatrix Farrand wrote that “the vegetable garden, while useful, does mean a considerable amount of work, and taking all of these various elements into consideration it would seem wise to omit vegetable growing for one year at least as an experiment.” To this end, vegetable cultivation at Dumbarton Oaks was halted in the mid-1940s, with the conclusion of the Second World War, and the pit house was interred in 1949. However, the space was never fully redeveloped. The frame yard area became a peony nursery and the remainder was covered with landscape fabric and used to grow potted mums that would be relocated in the fall to the perennial borders.

Recently, however, Gail Griffin, director of gardens and grounds since 1997, has reinstated the Kitchen Gardens. Its revival was first conceived as a community project involving volunteers, but after the volunteer force was disbanded in 2009, the responsibility for the organic vegetable garden has been taken over by the garden staff. The pit house has been excavated, and there are plans for its restoration. Moreover, a recent donation has provided the funds to plant additional cherry and crabapple trees, among others.

Excavation of the pithouse in the Kitchen Garden, 2012
Excavation of the pit house in the Kitchen Garden, 2012

Griffin plans to allow the gardens to continue to evolve. As she mentioned in a 2013 interview, “I think it’s unrealistic to expect a garden not to change, and it takes a lot of the fun out of gardening to try to slavishly follow one design. But I do feel that, in order to make particularly significant changes, it is important to understand what [Mildred Bliss and Beatrix Farrand] were envisioning.” This continued loyalty to their design honors the vision of the garden’s creators, retaining the timeless beauty of the gardens while offering longtime visitors imaginative new displays.

More archival images and drawings of the Ellipse and Kitchen Gardens are available in the Dumbarton Oaks Garden Archives.