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Donald E. Smith (Conversation)

Conversation with Donald Smith, undertaken by Barbara Harrelson and David Keil in the Orangery at Dumbarton Oaks on August 6, 1992. The interviewers’ questions were not audibly recorded. At Dumbarton Oaks, Don Smith was Assistant Superintendent (1952–1974) and Superintendent (1974–1992) of Gardens and Grounds. He died in 2012.

I worked for Beatrix Farrand one whole summer and the spring before I came down here. Years ago, I was just down the street from Reef Point and I was there once a week, long before I came here. Mrs. Farrand had retired before I came here. I didn’t come here until 1952, and she died in 1959. I had no idea that I was coming to Dumbarton Oaks, none whatsoever. Robert Patterson was the garden consultant at that time and he took over Mrs. Farrand’s work and plans. He was from Maine too. I worked for Mr. Patterson’s son in law who ran a commercial greenhouse. I started there in the summer of my seventh or eighth grade and all through high school. He had a contract with the village improvement people to pull ragweed all over town. Myself and another young guy spent the week pulling the ragweed and taking it out to the street. And Friday was a good day, we went around in trucks and picked it up.

Mr. Thacher got Mr. Patterson. Ruth Havey, as far as I know, was never paid by Harvard. She was Mrs. Bliss’s. She worked at the same time as Mr. Patterson. They worked on the Pebble Garden and the Urn Terrace and when we built the Garden Library, they did all the landscaping around that. Those were new gifts, and Havey did those for Mrs. Bliss, and when Mrs. Bliss died, Havey was through. Patterson was the consultant. And then they made up a committee of landscape architects who were Harvard graduates. Rapuano, Zach, Perry Wheeler, and Patterson was the chairman of that.

McGuire came here when Tyler was the director, and she really got started when Betty MacDougall, who was the first curator of the garden library, retired. Diane came down on a sabbatical from Harvard for a year to run the garden library and also to be a consultant. All Diane did in Beatrix Farrand’s Plant Book were the italics, the Plant Book itself, Farrand did that. Diane and Lois Fern organized it. It was indexed and put together, but Diane only did the italics and the forward.

I didn’t have much contact with Mr. Bliss – not as much as Mrs. Bliss. I always felt that the garden was hers and the Pre-Columbian was his and the Byzantine was theirs and also the Garden Library. Mrs. Bliss, Mr. Kearney and Mr. Thacher all had birthdays within one week in September. I came here in July and I didn’t meet Mrs. Bliss until late October or November. They would leave here right after the Byzantine symposium in May, they would go to New York and take the boat to Europe. The building superintendent was a man named Smallwood, and he introduced me to Mrs. Bliss at the foot of the steps to the Music Room. As far as first impressions – you’ve got to remember that I was brought up in Bar Harbor – and through the summer up there when I was a kid, the town was full with those types of people. Nine out of ten cars parked on the street were chauffeur driven. In fact, Morgenthau was Secretary of the Treasury – he had a place there, and the garages had chauffeurs’ rooms and five or six. Chauffeurs would keep their limousines there, and they would wash their cars, and us kids used to hang out there and summertime when the circuses came. Morgenthau would give his chauffeur all this money, and he’d pile all us kids in this big old Lincoln Zephyr, and he’d take us to the circus. I remember that the native people, when people like Mrs. Bliss – not Mrs. Bliss – would come down the sidewalk, they’d step off and let them go by. It was even worse than that in the twenties. The Blisses had a place up there, across the harbor, a placed called Brownstone. After ‘52, a lot of that kind of thing stopped.

Every time I met Mrs. Bliss, after we got to know each other – at that time we had an old beagle dog that we brought back from Maine that we called Dusty – the first thing she’d say was, “How’s Dusty and how is myself and how is Mrs. Smith and the children?’’ – always the dogs first. She always had dogs. When the Blisses went to Maine, they had a great dane, that they would leave up there, and my aunt would take care of it for two or three winters. When I came, Mrs. Bliss had two schipperkes and Mr. Thacher had two schipperkes, Mr. Kearney had two. That’s a little black dog. After that she had a little Himalayan terrier; it always had a bone. In the pet cemetery in Dumbarton Park, there are two or three horses buried there and some of the old pets, and in our pet cemetery down in back of the greenhouse, there are some of her dogs buried down there.

A couple of times a week the chauffeur would come up for the scented geraniums. We’d always supplied the Blisses with flowers and bring back what they didn’t want. They’d come back sloppy wet – he’d just watered them, and they would use a handful in the finger bowls. Even today, we have that Dr. Livingstone and some of the lemon geraniums that we used back then. I just kept them, and we’d stick them out in the garden someplace. They at this time were living at 28th and Q, on the southeast corner. It was sold, and they had a big copper beech in the back yard, just like the one here, and the people who bought it sheared one whole side off and put in a swimming pool. The place where Mr. Bliss’ office was, an outbuilding where the servants lived, is now a residence, and the area on the Q street side where the garage was for four cars, that is another residence and on the 28th street side, behind the house, where the garden was, there are three townhouses. There is nothing of the old Bliss garden, but in the front yard – there is a great big grandiflora magnolia and two or three clumps of soulangeana magnolias which were left there. In the back there was a little rose garden with boxwood, lots of camellias, and every year we would go down with the same shipment of bulbs, and we were putting bulbs on top of bulbs. We did that for her. She had one of the men here go down at night and work in her garden. She liked apple blossom pink and white, she liked the white gardenias and azaleas – no magenta, she didn’t like magenta.

You have to remember that we were not open in the summertime. Come the first of July, we didn’t have to fool with those borders. Sometimes at the end of July, when things slackened, we’d move the chrysanthemums in. Mr. Kearney told me that Mrs. Farrand told him mums won’t work, but you can go ahead and try them. She was right, because they didn’t bloom until October or into November, and by then they were getting hit with the frost. Now, mum culture, the way it is now, you can get mums to bloom in September. She liked the pink mum that Mr. Kearney tagged with the name of Dumbarton Oaks. That was the color that Mrs. Bliss didn’t like but when Mr. Kearney called it Dumbarton Oaks, she said we could use it. They found a seedling of it down in the Fountain Terrace, in the bed to the right where you go through the gate. They kept it and Mr. Kearney just named it. The forsythia named Beatrix Farrand was not here. That didn’t go in until after we redid the Ellipse. If you stand on the Ellipse and look over the forsythia, it’s right in the middle. It’s upright and a bigger yellow as against a weeping, which is a lot smaller and not quite as yellow and doesn’t bloom as heavily as the upright. There is a hawthorn named for Mrs. Farrand, the forsythia and there is one other plant I’ve forgotten. She said that they had picked the thorniest hawthorn that they could find and named it after her. That was not her character, she was very strict and stern and just as straight as an arrow. In the summertime up in Reef Point you could count on her to come out about 10:00 or 10:30 every morning with her Harris tweed – she was quite an old lady at that time – shawl and a cane, and she’d go all through the whole garden. Reef Point, in Bar Harbor, was the summer home of her parents, and when they died, she married Max Farrand in 1942. She married real late, and then they developed the Reef Point garden. I think it still would have been going today, but they were maybe fifteen or twenty years ahead of their time.

I don’t think Edith Wharton ever came here, not when I was here. She’s the one that had that picture in the garden library, and down in the pit right now I have two or three pieces of honeysuckle that came out of Edith Wharton’s garden. One of the Garden Fellows a couple of years ago, a Canadian fellow, he went to visit and he brought back these cuttings, and I have to find a place to put them. It’s not the japonica, it’s like the heckrotti, one of the taller ones. It’s down in the back of the pit house. That japonica – I think that is the only thing that Mrs. Farrand made a mistake – that has only been in this country for a hundred years or so. It’s all over everything, all over the country, almost as bad as kudzu. We have quite a few clumps of it down through the allee, huge clumps of it. But it made a good screen. The arch of the area leading to the Rose Garden, going up the goat steps – that walk has kind of a funny curve – has a row of honeysuckle that we have to keep pruned, it camouflages that curve.

One of the first things that I remember was the Blisses’ fiftieth wedding anniversary in ’58. That was a big to-do. It was all tented out there. It rained and it rained and it rained. There were 2,800 people. Mamie Eisenhower came. She bumped her head getting out of the car, I remember that. At that time there was a Captain Candy. There was a precinct on number 7 Volta Place – that was the Georgetown police precinct. Captain Candy came up here – a lot of these diplomats wouldn’t wait with their limousines, they were coming up and dropping them off. Two of them cut across the grass. He went over and he just reamed them a good one. At that time it was all tented, and it was cut for them to come in. There were seven bars set up. Mr. Bliss was up here just before people were to arrive, down underneath the loggia at the swimming pool. There was a bar down there, and Mr. Bliss got behind the bar and he mixed myself, him, and Mr. Kearney a drink before the festivities.

Let me see what else happened. We had a Japanese dance type thing with drums on the North Vista. We had to build a stage and we built a big chicken wire background and we spent the day weaving grandiflora leaves in the chicken wire to make it solid. I remember we could do all that, but when it came time for the stage to be taken apart, we could not touch it. They brought the union stage hands from the National Theater to take it apart, but we had to lug it down and put it on the trailer.

And then, what else happened? Princess Margaret came to visit right after the Garden Library and the Pre-Columbian were finished. She came up in a Rolls Royce. That is one of the very few times that I’ve seen the front doors leading to the Oval Room open. She wasn’t a very big woman. She had a hairdo about like this, and one of the first things that she did was go into the Oval Room and change her shoes. She couldn’t walk through the gardens with high heels.

I remember that we had a big staff party here one day. One evening after the garden closed, Mrs. Bliss came out, and at that time this guy and gal stayed in, they hid. And they came to the party, and they came up. At that time we had an assistant director named Charley Millard – that’s when we started having Christmas parties. We’d never had Christmas parties, we’d had some problems with this kind of thing. Charley wasn’t here then. This guy had to have milk. He had a forked stick that he’d put a bunch of grapes on it, and plucked it out there. They just made themselves at home, and we, of course, thought they were Charley’s friends. Mrs. Bliss walked in here and walked over there and looked at all these people, and she pointed right at those two people, “They don’t belong here.” They went down and went in swimming. We finally got him cornered and ushered him out that gate over there and then we went back and got her and told her that you better get out of here, he’s gone. They just went in and got peoples bathing suits and put them on.

I can’t think of any other things. Oh yeah. I met Elizabeth Taylor in the garden, but she didn’t have a little dog. When John Warner first met her, they came in here two or three times in public hours, and he introduced me to her right by that gate. Graham’s husband lives right across the street from the cemetery. He’s the one that blew his head off. Elizabeth Taylor, when she married John Warner – that house that is across from the Fellows Building. On each of the shutters – every window has shutters – she painted each shutter on each window a different color – the whole building, yellow, green, blue, black. And she stood out there and picked out the one she wanted, and then they painted the other ones. She didn’t know what color to put up there. I don’t remember now, but it was something similar to what’s there now.

Diana. The model for that was the sculptor’s wife, and he did it in clay down around the swimming pool. I’m just telling these things Mr. Kearney told me. First done in lead, Diana set down in Dumbarton Oaks park. They destroyed it, pushed it over and broke it up, and then it was brought up here. When first came it was down where the Perspective is. There is a little park that goes down on the left. There is a great big rock down there; it sat on that. Well, they destroyed it down there. They broke the animal off; they broke the horn off, and finally we took it out of there and put it in the basement of the greenhouse for about ten years, I guess. When Mr. Thomson was here, before Angeliki, we got that fixed. We finally found some people that would fix it. In fact, the stone people that did the Pebble Garden, they had a man who did some work with lead, and he fixed it. So, we put it over there where it still can be seen and the public can’t get to it. So, it’s been fine and we set up so it would be straight ahead. Mrs. Thompson looked at it, and she wanted turned to the side, which is better.

Mr. Coles used to come with a straw hat and a lime green Thunderbird. He never drank anything but water. During the war, where we have the orchid house now, they had grates like this in here, and then went all around the room like these do. During the war they took all but the ones near the door and put them in a scrap yard, and they also took all of the heat pipes out, except the one that goes over to the greenhouse; there wasn’t any heating there. Mr. Coles used it as a cutting room, cutting finials. He didn’t do the ones on the way farther end of the North Vista, but there are two or three up by the gate; he did those. And there’s a couple more up next to the house, he did those since I’ve been here. The pineapples down in the Ellipse, he did those, and a number of others. I think he did the lead basket as you go through the gate from the black oak into the beech terrace. He was 87 when he died. He got out and washed his Thunderbird – he lived over on Pennsylvania Avenue in southeast with his daughter – he went out and washed the car, came in, and sat down and died. He and his brother did most of the lettering on the Lincoln Memorial. He was a little tiny man, very nice, and when my son was little enough so Joan could let him out of the house, he’d come up to the greenhouse by himself. When he got up there, he’d run right up there and sit on a box and watch Mr. Coles by the hour. Mr. Coles bought him a little wheelbarrow and a little red wagon – the young and the old. The week that he died, one of the men who worked on the garden passed. Heck we went to three funerals that week. He’d make the clay models, and Mrs. Bliss would make the changes, and he would do those. Mrs. Farrand designed those earlier, but you can bet that Mrs. Bliss was making the changes. Do it this way and get it done. She’d say, “That’s exactly what we don’t want; let’s do this way,” and do it again. I don’t know how Mrs. Farrand and Mrs. Bliss got along, they called them the garden twins, and when Mrs. Farrand said she wanted that bottle over there and fifteen other people said no, she’d go right along and pretty soon that bottle would be over there. This is why it took so long and making all of those changes and not being together. Farrand and Bliss would talk about this and Farrand would sketch it and send the sketches over and Bliss would change them and they would send them back and forth. She was a talented woman in her own right. My father told me that a lot of the tradesmen in Maine and a lot of the gardeners of the estates that Mrs. Farrand did up there – she’d come in with three or four bushel baskets of labels. Everything would be all in beds labeled before you’d do anything, and then she’d make the changes. She’d always come with bundles of labels. You have got to remember the plants that they had. All the people like Mrs. Stewart always had plenty of money.

I don’t think there were fifty gardeners. I know that when they were building the Music Room, Mr. Kearney told me that there were seventy-five people working here, but that was everything. I don’t really know what the average gardening staff for Mrs. Bliss, because they had three or four working in the greenhouse; there were gate tenders and that sort of thing, but the most that we’ve had here is fourteen since I’ve been here.

The greenhouse was put up in the twenties. We never had orchids in the orchid house until they put the heat back in there. We always had orchids, but at that time the orchids were on this end of the east wing in that one room, and I think it was when Tom Baird was assistant director here. He was interested in orchids and plants. I think it was ‘63 that we put heat back in there and then we moved the orchids over and we bought some orchids and Mr. Baird bought some for Dumbarton Oaks. He liked gardens.

Where the peonies are now, that was just open. Many years ago there was a greenhouse there with lots of cold frames, and that’s where they grew all the annuals, perennials, and vegetables. When Harvard took over, they did away with that and they did away with the tennis court and they did away with the herb garden where the Arbor Terrace is. There were two more greenhouses down in back of the one that we have now, they tore those down. And down in the woods where we keep our orchids outdoors, there was a huge greenhouse down there and that was all torn down.

The part where my office is, that and the room up above were added on. When Mr. Thacher came here he lived in the Farrand suite in the house. When Mrs. Farrand came here, there was always a suite of rooms for her in the Main House – that is when it was privately owned. And when Thacher came, he lived in there and that building down there was the servants quarters and down underneath where the three doors are was a garage for electric cars. They had one little room down there for charging the batteries. And then when Thacher remodeled that, he added on where my office is and that whole thing, all the way up. He moved the kitchen from that side of the building to this side. The first thing that he did was to take the kitchen from the back and put it up on the front. Before that, where the gardeners’ lunch room and locker room are, is where the carpenter’s shop was. There is a little closet now where we keep barbed wire, that was a little toilet for the garden help.

We tried to have concerts at the Lovers Lane pool when Constable was director here in the early eighties. We ran a cable all the way down there to keep the harp tuner warm. Mr. Kearney told me that when the Blisses were here, they had a stage that covered the whole upper end. When we decided to have the concerts with Giles here, there was just a little fight-foot by four-foot thing over to one side, and both times that they did it, ten minutes into the performance, the heavens opened up. They canceled the first one and they canceled the next one and they ended up having a little concert out in the North Vista.

There were electric light plugs all down through there, and you could hook into a tree and run the electric shears and everything, until it started blowing so many fuses because it was so old. We disconnected them. They had a huge Japanese lantern that they used to hang down there.

We opened the bids last week [to redo the pool]. We invited five people to bid, and four bid on it – some very low, some very high, and two right in the middle.

When we were doing the Pebble Garden, it took them three years. The first year was spent on doing nothing but drawing plans to get the layout, and the next year when they got all that going, we had a lot of stones piled up. All the stones came – same size – hundred pound sacks of one size and one color. We had three trailer truck loads. We stored them over in the parking lot, and then we’d bring them over here. We had them piled along the wall. Mrs. Bliss saw them after the rain, before we put them down, and she saw the color of the stones after the rain, and then we put them down. Originally that fountain was supposed to set way back there against the wall. You can lay out all the sketches and plans that you want, but you have to remember only a tenth of them were actually executed.

I wish I had known I was coming here. When I had worked at Reef Point I enjoyed myself and learned a lot, but if I had known I was going to come to a place like this – I was young then – I would have paid more attention. I was college age and only came down here for two years just to get some experience and here I am. My most important contribution of forty years was the ability to stay and keep it the way it is, and maybe being around all those estates up there when I was a kid and seeing how well that they were kept. Of course, the climate is different here – that gave me a little more outlook on a place like this. Of course, being here with Matthew for twenty-one years, and some of the stories that he told me about this place. The wisteria came up in the Pebble Garden and came over and was going into the swimming pool, and he started to clean this place up before I came. And following him – he liked to do the same things that I liked to do – keep it neat and clean. He actually left here for three years. He got so damn mad at old man Geisler who was superintendent. Mrs. Bliss begged the hell out of him for three years to come back. He finally came back here, and I don’t think that you will ever find it in the records, certainly not Dumbarton Oaks records.

When I am gone from here, maybe the third week in October, I’ll wonder what the mums look like, and in the winter I will wonder if the snow drops are going to bloom just before Christmas, or just after, or if the jasmine’s going to come in on the tenth of January – just little things – and how the old oak is doing and if it is still here. If you walk through the gardens every day, any change, you notice it right off.

This garden is not a summer garden, never has been. Everybody thinks so because we’re open in summer. The mixture of the evergreens when you look out the window – you can come out in the winter, there are enough evergreens so that is nice in winter – I mean, something for all seasons.

My favorites – like delphiniums, that I can’t grow here. I was up in Maine when my father-in-law died. When I pulled into my brother-in-law’s driveway, he had a clump of delphiniums that big in solid full bloom. There were two photographers, I don’t know who they were, taking all kinds of pictures and of a big hollyhock that he had there. This time he hasn’t done much gardening at all, he’s down in Harbor Island.

I think a mixture of perennials – this is something I will have to get adjusted to again. Here we have three seasons, we have spring, summer, and fall, and up there you have summer and maybe a little bit in the fall. Maybe after all the seasons I’ve had here, I want a short season.

Mrs. Bliss had a parasol as a signature item. She had very fair skin, her hair was red when I knew her. That picture in the garden library that was painted, her hair looked like that. I don’t think she weighed over a hundred pounds, a very tiny woman. Somewhere in the archives down there, there is an eight or sixteen millimeter movie of the garden taken in 1928 in black and white and a color one taken in ‘31 or ’32. And in the color one, Mrs. Bliss is in the pool swimming, with a big hat on. They show her swimming the length of the pool, they don’t show her coming out of the water.

Mr. Bliss was very diplomatic. He was never as friendly as she was. I saw a lot more of her. He was a dapper Dan type of fellow. He had all of his hair. It wasn’t even gray, a kind of silver, very well dressed. There is a picture in the Founders Room when he was younger. The Pre-Columbian wasn’t even finished when he died. They would take him by ambulance for chemotherapy treatment, and then they would come by here before they would go. It had to be before he’d go because he didn’t feel well after. They would shut down the whole job. The Garden Library and the Pre-Columbian were built at the same time. Both of those jobs were going; it was a mess out there. They’d shut the whole job down and put him in a wheelchair and take him all over. Everybody would just quit for over an hour or an hour and a half, and we’d bring him out, haul him up and down the steps.

I think the Rose Garden was a favorite spot for them. There is a little story. Mr. Kearney says Mrs. Bliss would ask Mr. Bliss, “Bobby, do you think that we will fit in there?”

We were supposed to have a preview showing of the buildings right after that in November or right after that. This was in ’62; it was practically finished then. It was scheduled to have a reception type of thing in early December, they just canceled it. He never saw it finished, he died in April ‘62. In fact, Mr. Thacher, the director, came out and told us that Kennedy had been shot. We were cleaning up the leaves over by the Pre-Columbian. Philip Johnson was here but I never met him personally. He was here every day to look at the building.

I don’t really remember what Mrs. Bliss died of; she would have been 91, something like that. She broke her hip down in Barbados a few years before she died. God, it seemed it was like six months before she was out here climbing ladders. She would come in about two or three in the afternoon and say “good morning.” You could come up here eight o’clock at night and she would be running around here. I don’t remember her being carried down to watch the Pebble Garden; they used to take a chair down. When she had limited ability, she’d stand on the balcony here, and, let’s see, parasol this way; she’d hold the parasol, look and point and like I said, she would use the parasol to keep the sun off.

In ‘85, we took all the limestone that was broken in the Pebble Garden and we took all the pebbles that had come out and they were all put back. It took a couple of years, ‘85 or ‘86.

The corks are all in there from the symposiums. Go down there sometime, where the elevations drop down, you’ll see them. What it is, in the winter time, we take those out so the water won’t set there. Silvio, come symposium time, will save all those wine bottle and champagne corks. By the time they have been in there all season, you can’t pull them out. We’d break them off and punch them out through. Think of the things that happen when an O-ring goes bad, a little tiny O-ring, same idea. They can spend all the money they want, but a ten cent O-ring, that sets the whole thing up.

When Mrs. Bliss came back after being away, it would take just about a week to be acclimated. But Mrs. Farrand, she would go to California in the winter, when she came to Reef Point, when she arrived, she’d get out of the car and walk around the whole garden. Particularly over behind the garage, I forget what was planted there, what was planted there that fall before she left. As soon as she got out of the car in the spring, she’d go over there to see how that was. She would go over the whole place.

Mrs. Bliss would take the boat out of New York. They would take their own paper cups, pencils, toilet paper, everything. And Murray, the butler, forgot to pack one bag that had two of Mr. Bliss’s shoes; he had two left shoes, and he had to send the two right shoes to Barbados. He used to go over to Mrs. Billing’s, who had honey – she had lots of hives – and she would ship some of that honey down to them in Barbados. They rented down there. They would go right after the symposium. In the beginning, Mrs. Bliss was tied up with the American Field Service and in the first part of June or the end of May, all of the exchange students that had been in this country, came back to Washington before they went home. She would always have a tea for them, right here in the Orangery.

In July when I first came here, you could go down to Hogates or anywhere out to dinner. There would be maybe four hundred guys and maybe two guys with their wives; all the wives and kids had left town. I had an uncle who lived over on 19th and R street. I’d go over there and spend the evening and walk home from there and listen to TV programs all the way home.

The statues in the Pebble Garden came from the Meridian house and Mrs. Chanler, who was daughter of Mrs. Laughlin who owned Meridian house, gave those to Mrs. Bliss. I think her mother was a great friend of Mrs. Bliss. I don’t think Merriweather Post was a friend. I don’t know what the story was, maybe Mrs. Post was a little bit younger. Mrs. Castle – was she a sister in law, she was some kind of relation – she was a friend.

The Blisses had moved out of here twelve years before I came. When I first came most of the cars were chauffeur-driven, and ladies wore the same type of dress to the concerts and that sort of thing.

The tiles on the tool sheds were Italian hand-made tiles, and they were not flat. They look like it, but they have a little bit of a curve. The tool houses were built back in the twenties. The only thing that I know was Portuguese were the tiles on the mosaic by the swimming pool.

Jimmy de Benedetto, a little Italian man, did the rocaille with his hands, a stick, and a little lathe.

I think the docents’ tours is one of the best programs we’ve ever started. You’ll never believe how many tours I gave to garden clubs and things like that. You felt like you had to do it and, oh my gosh, it got more and more. I might give your garden club one this time and you belong to one and two more, and then “I can’t do it,” and then “you gave David one this one and that one.” I think I learned a lot from the Pre-Columbian and Byzantine end from people I listened to just going on the docents’ tours. I think that it opened the whole place up to the general public. I think the tour thing is good because you’re giving tours to people that we wouldn’t ordinarily get.