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Gail Griffin

Oral History Interview with Gail Griffin, undertaken by Joshua Wilson and James W. Curtin in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives on July 12, 2013. At Dumbarton Oaks, Gail Griffin has been the Director of Gardens and Grounds since 1997.

JW: My name is Joshua Wilson. I’m here with James Curtin, and we have the great pleasure of interviewing Gail Griffin today, on July 12, 2013, about her relationship with the Dumbarton Oaks gardens over the years. So Gail, when did you first start working in the gardens?

GG: I started here in the beginning of June 1997.

JW: And what state were the gardens in when you first arrived?

GG: The gardens and those intimately connected with it, the garden staff, were in a state of crisis. An unfortunate thing had happened to the rose garden. I don’t know if it’s ever been determined exactly what happened, but all of the roses had died during the winter of 1995-’96. The person who had had my job before me had left about a year before I came, and there was a lot of tension and insecurity that was bringing out the worst in everyone. Fortunately, there was a man named Larry Johnson who had worked in the gardens since 1962, who was very supportive and generous, and things slowly started getting better.  At that point, change in the garden was not encouraged. Because there had been such a traumatic event, no one was willing to experiment. And now it’s quite different. There’s much more of a playfulness to the staff's work, and a sense of experimentation, and the realization that, if it doesn’t work,we can usually reverse it. The more ephemeral a change is in the gardens, say, a choice of an annual or something like that, the more comfortable we feel making a change. With things like the hardscape, the actual structure of the gardens, the trees, and so on and so forth, we’re much less likely to deviate from what we perceive to be the historic garden.

I am preparing a talk that I’m giving in a couple of weeks, and I have been able to go into the correspondence in a way not previously possible. Sheila  Klos, the Director of the Library, hired Deborah Patton to index all the correspondence between the important figures in the garden's early history.  As I go through the index, I see things that I hadn't seen before. An example is a letter that Beatrix Farrand wrote to Harvard as the garden was going from private to Harvard ownership, in which she stresses that the garden’s design as a series of rooms with specific purposes is something that shouldn't be changed without careful thought. She didn’t say that things shouldn’t change, but that basically the design was created for reasons, many of which are mentioned in the correspondence, and it shouldn’t be changed lightly, so to speak.

JW: How do you balance this new sense of playfulness with respect for the history of the garden itself, the design that Beatrix Farrand and Ruth Havey put into place?

GG: We have an intern here this summer, Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon, whom we have asked to create a template for decision-making. In the last few years, we have made some big changes. We’ve reinstated the vegetable garden. We are considering the reconstruction of what’s called the hot bed, a buried greenhouse, with the foundations still lying beneath the soil. And then we are studying a part of the garden called the Arbor Terrace, which we feel is unattractive in its present state  What we do whenever we’re thinking about a change is go back and find out everything that we can about the original design, all photographs and drawings, made available by James Carder through EmbARK, any sort of writing by Farrand or Mildred Bliss or anyone else in the correspondence, and what is written by Farrand in the Plant Book. We also have a cultural landscape report for the gardens written in 2001-2002, in anticipation of the library’s being built. The report traces the garden’s history by section and is well footnoted, so that it’s easy to find information quickly about the garden's history. It is such a blessing to have the archives that we have. We also talk between ourselves and with other DO staff members. Throughout the history of the gardens, we have had a lot of staff people who have been here for decades. Larry worked here for forty-three years, and his younger brother Glenn, forty-two; Matthew Kearney and Don Smith also worked here over forty years. We’ve had the blessing of these people’s memories and perspectives on the gardens. We made a big change this spring that would actually be nice to talk about now, as a record of the process. There’s an allée of silver maples along the eastern side of the end of the property, called Mélisande’s Allée. From an early 1922 survey, we can see that the area was already planted with a line of a few silver maples, which is a native species of maple that’s very fast-growing, but, as a result, brittle. Silver maples were a favorite of Farrand’s, so she extended the allée using the same species. About a third of the original thirty of so trees are now gone, so we had the choice of replanting with silver maples or choosing another species. We were fortunate that we had a colloquium this spring on Beatrix Farrand just as we were considering this change, and some of the people who were here all had lunch together and started talking about it. Probably the leading woody ornamental expert in Washington, Phil Normandy came from Brookside Gardens, and suggested that we have a brain-storming session. The next week we brought together the staff and Phil and went through the history together, also considering the possibilities for species based on aesthetics (we wanted it to have the canopied allée look to it) and survivability, i.e. insect and disease problems. We are fortunate that, because Dumbarton Oaks is such a well-known and well-loved garden, people are more generous with advice. We called Jim Sherrill, who has just retired from the National Park Service, and is a Dutch elm disease specialist, and we talked with him about all the cultivars of elms. We were also considering sycamores or plane trees, which are quintessential allée trees, with their exfoliating bark. We worked through all this, and we felt pretty comfortable that at the end of the day we had chosen the right tree, Ulmus americanus, the American elm.  Jim gave us the good advice to choose a mixture of cultivars with resistance to the elm's various pests that would still give the uniformity of an allée. We hope by the end of the summer, working with Rosabella, to standardize the decision-making process. So, I think I answered your question.

JW: Yeah, definitely. How would you characterize Beatrix Farrand’s philosophy when it comes to the garden here at Dumbarton Oaks?

GG:  I can’t really think of one philosophy that applies to all. The one sort of principle that is mentioned often is something that was passed down to her from Charles Sargent, which is to make the plan for the garden fit what is here rather than shaping the ground to fit the plan. There is a lot of discussion of Farrand's capitalizing upon the topography as it was. There were definite efforts to adjust the plan to accommodate the trees, for instance, the big beech that was up in the Beech Terrace. I think too that Farrand was influenced by the work of William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll, and Edwin Lutyens in England, which appeals to me personally. Much of what is in the gardens today was added by other designers, Ruth Havey, Alden Hopkins and Robert Patterson, but Farrand’s original designs for these gardens often appeal to me more than the more ornamented designs that have followed. I’ve had interesting discussions with James Carder about trying to honor what was here in the past of value, whether it’s from Farrand or Havey or whomever, and also to honor the wishes of the Blisses. I have been thinking recently about a garden called Chanticleer, which is an estate roughly contemporaneous with Dumbarton Oaks that is one of the most exciting gardens in our area. It has great horticulturalists who make interesting plant choices and do unusual things like make their own furniture that is very playful. I realize that a lot of the vitality of that garden, or the importance of that garden, is in what is there today, rather than what it was in the 1920s. And I realize that Dumbarton Oaks has become so much more vital and vigorous in the last few years, and we now have the freedom to explore different things. A large part of this change is because of the  installations that John Beardsley has encouraged in the gardens: Charles Simmons and Patrick Dougherty and now Andy Cao. Because the installations are temporary, visitors are more willing to tolerate the change. In the past visitors complained about even minor changes, like a different color of tulip.

JWC: People say that to you?

GG: Yes. I remember that Ned Keenan, our former director, ran into somebody in the borders who chastised him for allowing us to introduce yellow tulips, and of course we hadn’t thought about it, we hadn’t realized that about ourselves, that we had never had yellow tulips. I think that this garden represents something that transcends trauma to a lot of people, and so in that transcendence, they resent it itself changing in a noticeable way, even though of course it’s changing all the time. I think this garden means a lot to a lot of people in ways we don’t even realize. I think it represents serenity. People object to many changes that we make. For example, one of our longtime visitors complained to me about Patrick Dougherty’s installations. Patrick built these wonderful structures swirling around the Ellipse that gave it a sense of movement that it hadn’t had before. But, although the longtime visitor didn't really like the installation, he was willing to tolerate it because it was temporary. I think it is important to understand how visitors see the gardens. When I take people through the gardens and hear their comments, I am able to see it through their eyes, rather than the way I see it on my own, which is when I see problems, diseases or insect issues or erosion. It’s usually more encouraging see the garden reflected in other people’s viewpoints.

JWC: Do you have a lot of people who are like that, who have been coming here forever?

GG: Yes, yes.

JWC: Do they come frequently?

GG: Well, I think a lot of people come from the neighborhood. Visitors can purchase season passes and many neighbors come frequently. Katharine Graham lived down the street before she died, and I read in her autobiography that she took weekly Sunday walks in the garden after lunch. We know many visitors by first name, because they come here so often.

JW: You mentioned that when people come to the garden, you get a different perspective through their eyes. What are your favorite rooms in the garden, or rooms that you see particular problems in, and how do those compare with the feedback that you get from the guests of the garden?

GG: You know, I can’t say what my favorite room is. It is a lot like not wanting to tell you who my favorite child is. But I have to say, I usually like best the part where we’re doing something new. Also, I’m an entomologist and I like the parts of the garden that attract insects. In the last few years, some of our garden staff members,working with Jane Padelford, who works with John Beardsley,  have taken the fountain in the middle of the Ellipse and planted it with native aquatic plants, which are attractive to aquatic insects. The staff put in native frogs and crayfish and so on, and that’s really neat. We have a new staff member, Luis Marmol – he’s been with us for about two years- who has created these really beautiful containers in the gardens. Anastassia, who I mentioned before, moved for the summer from where she usually works in the garden to the vegetable garden, where she’s really interested. We’ve doubled the size of the vegetable garden and added new vegetables and different structures that have been built to support things. It is really beautiful. One of the things that I like about working at Dumbarton Oaks is seeing a group of people working in a synergistic and creative way. When I see things like the vegetable garden, it gives me great pleasure, because I know that Walter and Anastassia and Terri all collaborated to bring it together.  And I like Andy Cao’s installation, seeing it from down in the kitchen gardens, with the crystals acting as prisms and sending flashing colors through the trees. It is such a surprise. I also like Lover’s Lane Pool and sitting in the theater and looking down the allée. Also, I like seeing the gardens as an estate with the vegetables and the orchards and thinking of it in that sort of self-sufficient way. All the different utilitarian components appeal to me more than the more ornamental aspects. I think that is because, in many cases, I see creativity happening there, and we are trying new things, and that’s appealing to me.

JW: What kind of feedback do you get from guests?

GG: One of the funniest things that I get is that a lot of people interchange me with the gardens. I get a lot of reflected glory from its beauty. People seem to see a spirit here, it’s almost an abundance, a tranquility. It’s a life lifted up to a higher level. I’ve noticed people are often very tense when I begin to take them though the gardens, but they relax as they walk through. There’s something about it that’s so beautiful, and I think it helps to have the sky and to look over the hillside and the city beyond. In the fall, it’s extraordinary looking down from the upper terraces when the leaves are all changing color.. I think that it lifts people's spirits, even if they’re not particularly interested in gardening. It's the contrast of the sense of enclosure within the garden's terraces against the expanse of sky; it’s well designed. Also, the architecture and ornament accentuate and complement the plants and the topography. Even now, after all these years, I feel drawn through the garden as I walk, as I catch glimpses of  objects in other spaces.  Most people are positive in their comments, but I sometimes get feedback from other horticulturists who mention the lack of color or interesting plant species. A former garden advisor, Diane McGuire, writes in the mid-1980s of a similar visitor complaint about lack of color. Dumbarton Oaks is not as bountiful horticulturally as other gardens. I think it is a quieter garden. The gardens were created for when the Blisses were here in the spring and the fall with a lot of bulbs and chrysanthemums. There were more annual plantings here than there typically would be in this sort of estate garden.

JW: You mentioned the joy of watching your team work synergistically. What do you think the most exciting or important project is that your team has undertaken while you’ve been here?

GG: Several projects come to mind. One of the most satisfying projects is a garden that we call Ondine. It was the first big change that we made, and it went poorly for a while and then it just pulled itself together and became something we really like. But I’d say the most important project is probably the vegetable garden, because it’s been the biggest deal. Growing vegetables requires a lot of work. One thing that I haven’t mentioned is that we started a volunteer force a few years ago, maybe four or five years ago, and they have been involved in much work. We would have never been able to put the vegetable garden without that added group of hands. And now we’re extending it beyond the “vegetable garden” to be the “kitchen garden.” Another important thing that we’ve been doing in the past few years is planting trees. One of the longtime visitors to the garden was a woman named Janet Fesler, who bequeathed to us about fifty thousand dollars, which we decided to use for trees.We’ve had maybe three seasons of planting, spring, fall, and then spring again, and so far have put in about a hundred new trees. A lot of them have been little, which is lots of fun. We’ve put new fruit trees in the orchards, new cherry trees in cherry hill, new crabapples in crab hill, and new screening plants.  By the way, the planting of elm trees that I’ve told you about are not part of the Fesler project. We’ve replanted that allée in memory of Don Smith, the person who did my job for forty years here. He came in early 1952 and left in 1992, and died this past fall. He really liked trees. He was a great friend to me at the beginning and gave me lots of support. When I started, he came down from Maine where he retired and took the time to share things with me and encourage me. His whole family did. His wife Joan gave encouragement too. So, the tree planting is pretty exciting.

JW: How do you see the garden in relation to Dumbarton Oaks’ focus on Byzantine and pre-Columbian studies? Do you see any interaction between those fields?

GG: I think of the gardens as a backdrop, as a balancing influence, for academic focus. I don’t think we’ve ever measured how much actual time the Fellows spend in the gardens. I do get more feedback about the pool because it is popular. Over the years, a few Fellows have volunteered for us in the gardens, and definitely friendships have arisen between the garden staff and the Fellows and the fields-of-study department heads. We have a strong friendship with John Beardsley, and enjoy our collaborations, and with Margaret Mullett, who really enjoys the gardens and takes people into them. Colin McEwan, who just began, also seems to enjoy the pool and the garden.

JW & JWC: Yeah.

GG:  I  think you might want to ask one of them what the importance of the gardens are to them. As I was reading the correspondence in preparation for my talk, I read that the Blisses felt the gardens important not just for visiting, but also for viewing from the house.  [Looking out the basement window] Well, it doesn’t look like you have too much to view from here, but – [laughs].

JW: Do scholars come to study the garden itself from a landscape design/architecture perspective?

GG: Yes. A number of Farrand scholars and landscape architects come to study her design independently of us, while other scholars work with us while they are here. For instance, Robin Veder was here last year. Robin is an art historian who is interested in the sense of bodily awareness while walking through the gardens. It was a whole lot of fun because she took us on a lot of walks, going up and down stairs and even talked about what Mildred Bliss’s footwear was like. John Beardsley’s predecessor, Michel Conan, talked with me extensively about his perception of the gardens. And people like Anatole Tchikine (postdoctoral associate of John Beardsley) relates his work elsewhere to elements of our garden. We’ve just recently reinstated the shared internship summer program. It had been discontinued in the 1970s; Michael van Valkenburgh was one of our last Fellows in the 1970s. These interns typically work half-time in the gardens and half-time in the library. I’ve told you for instance about Rosabella’s work. And then we have Matthew O’Donnell who’s expanding our GIS, our Geographic Information System, which is a linking of information to maps, a geographic organization of data. Matt is the fifth of the summer interns working on the system, which can be used to keep track of our tree work spatially or to create topographical surveys or to consider interactions throughout areas.

JW: What do you see as the next big challenge or the next big project for your team in the gardens?

GG: Well, storm water management and the Arbor Terrace. We’re perched on this hill and we’re losing soil – and it is phosphorus-laden soil – down the hill and into the creek to the north of us, and then into Rock Creek and then into the Potomac. The Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy is not too keen on the erosion and the water that’s pouring off our hillside into that property. I’d like to use Arbor Terrace, which is where Andy Cao is, as an example of combination of changes that need to be made in a space in conjunction with storm water management. One of the problems that we have here is that a lot of our pools and fountains are not recirculating. For example, the two putti and fish fountains in the Fountain Terrace spit water into the pools, the overflow goes into the Lovers’ Lane pool, and then the overflow of the Lovers' Lane Pool goes into the sanitary sewer system. I would like to have all of our pools and fountains recirculate. I’d also like to catch rainwater and use it as a water source for irrigation or for the pools and fountains. We have  – somewhat connected with this – a water supply system that was laid in the 1920s and is breaking. We really need to plan over the next few years for repair or replacement of parts of the system. We also need to consider parts of the garden like the Arbor Terrace. Farrand designed it as an herb garden, and then Ruth Havey changed it, I think in anticipation of the Pebble Garden. Havey's design was never fully realized (It was meant to have water in the middle of it.) and what was built has been somewhat unsuccessful – a little stark in the wintertime and in the summertime. I’d like to think about that space, perhaps catch the water as it comes our of the mask under the arbor, and then filter and recirculate it rather than wasting so much water all the time. I guess that is the thing that I’m most worried about – storm water management –  throughout the property.

JWC: How precariously is Dumbarton Oaks perched up on the hill?

GG: Well, water is running down the hill and carrying soil with it. I don’t think we are about to slide down the hill [laughs], but we do have erosion all along the northern edge. We put a new fence in a few years ago, and twice I’ve had to ask Long Fence to weave new bits of fence along the bottom. We have water boxes on Cherry Hill that are now this high [gestures] above the ground. Of course, they were flush in 1925, so we are loosing a lot of soil.

JW: During the tour, you mentioned that the Crystal Cloud room was going to be redesigned?

GG: That’s what I’m talking about now. That’s Arbor Terrace.

JW: Okay, gotcha. Do you have any stories from the garden, from the garden’s history? Interesting things that you could share with us that might be of interest to our readers?

JWC: We like humorous.

GG:  Let me think. There’s so many really humorous things that have happened, but I can’t think of anything specifically.

JW: Okay. What would you tell your predecessor – successor, excuse me. Your successor is reading this fifty years down the line. What are your words of wisdom given your experience, given your intimacy with Mildred Bliss’s and Beatrix Farrand’s intentions for the gardens?

GG: Well, what I would suggest, which is hard, is to try to understand thoroughly what Mildred Bliss and Beatrix Farrand were thinking and how they saw things. Otherwise, I think its very difficult to make changes. 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 they were envisioning. There are a lot of interesting ways to do that. A few years ago, I took Edith Wharton's Italian Villas and their Gardens to Italy, because we were going to Italy anyway and I used it as a tour guide. It was fun to imagine what Farrand’s experiences were and Mildred Bliss’s. What they read. My mother-in-law, Florence Griffin, was a great collector of books, which she passed down to me, many of which were also in Farrand's and Bliss's libraries. That’s one of the pleasurable things for me is to go back and read what they were reading and to get a sense of what was important in gardening at that time. Also, part of what is important is understanding the relationship between the two women and seeing the pleasure they took in their friendship. While I was reading the correspondence today, writing this talk, I’ve discovered that, as they get older, they start talking just like old people do about things that hurt such as their gout and their inner ears and things like that. I think it's important to see them as people and also appreciate that there was a synergism in their relationship. And their work together gave them so much pleasure. I think it is one of the nicest things in life to create things with other people. They had that. And I think I see it in the gardens, and I see other people doing things here that bring them this same joy, and I feel very lucky that I, for instance, don’t have a board or Jan saying to me, “You have to do it this way!” We are able to garden in a looser way, and let things follow their own course, which is  a lot of fun. I think that leads to a healthier garden and a healthier work environment.

JWC: One of the things you said on the tour is one of the reasons you have so much information about the gardens is because the gardens were constructed while the Blisses were overseas, and there was so much correspondence going back and forth.

GG: Yes. That’s right.

JWC: If you didn’t have that, if it was just verbal, say them having a cup of coffee planning their future garden, how would that affect how you see the purpose of their design?

GG: I think it would take away from us a lot of the layers of meaning. It would take away the pleasant complexity. I don’t know if it would have changed the way it looked; it may not have come out very different. But because we have the record of the process and intent behind the design, there are nuances and associations that we can understand and that can affect our interpretation. Without the historic importance, we might go to other criteria for our decisions. We might choose, for instance, ecological reasons or aesthetic reasons, to alter the design and ignore the historic component. I’ve worked in other historic gardens where we didn’t have that wealth. You just had the garden in front of you, and you just had to speculate. I’ve noticed that people can pretty much justify a speculation.

JW: Given the complexity of this garden, I imagine there are some secrets that people who aren’t as familiar with it wouldn’t or couldn’t see as they walked through. Could you clue us in to any pieces of concentrated significance?

GG:  I’m not a very secretive person so, if I knew of any garden secrets, I would have already told you. When I first came, the administration was more arcane in its processes. It was a more secretive place. Even now, I imagine a lot of things go on in this garden that I don’t know about. The staff would probably know better. You may want to think about talking with them, some of them who have been here for twenty-five years.

JWC: I sent out an email, but I think I may need to go down and talk to someone in person.

GG: I can make some suggestions. You may like talking to Rigo.

JWC: He was one of the people that I emailed.

GG: They don’t read their emails [laughs]. Miguel is particularly quiet, but he’s been here a long time too. Donnie – have you met Donnie?

JWC: He’s the other person that I emailed.

GG: Ah. He’d be a very interesting person, and he has an unusual perspective on things, but I think you definitely want to talk to Donnie.

JWC: What about when people are in the garden, and maybe it’s their first time visiting, what are some of the things that they tend to overlook? Things that if they had some background, it’d be worth their while to stop and look at?

GG: I think that probably one thing that the typical visitor is unable to see and we don’t do much to present is the history of the design. I don’t think most people realize the layers. I remember when the library was going to be built under the North Vista, I would see arguments against the construction showing photographs of the North Vista, which is quite different from Farrand’s original design. People would say, “This in quintessential Farrand. How can you build a library here?” I think there is confusion over who did what. I think there is even confusion for me, and I’ve been here sixteen years. For example, last winter, we took out an Elm above the pebble garden, that the structural engineers were concerned was pushing apart the Pebble Garden Walls.   I assumed Farrand had built the terrace around the elm that was already there.  It wasn’t. She had planted it there. When I did further reading, I realized Farrand had put it in this place that it would outgrow. We have at certain times in the past gone through the trouble to bring historic photographs into the gardens so that visitors could understand better the history. A few years ago, the ASLA – the American Society of Landscape Architects – had its annual meeting in Washington and visited Dumbarton Oaks. Walter built stands that we positioned throughout the garden with the photographs taken in the 1920s, 30s, 40s. We also opened up the central bay in the house to allow the group to enter the garden as the Blisses had, from its main hall.  Also, many years ago, I created a binder of old photographs that I can take into the garden and show people, the property as it was. Its interesting to me to see how agricultural the property was when Mildred and Beatrix first began to design. It makes the designs seem all the more brilliant, the transformation of that space.

JW: We’re approaching the end of our time. Is there anything that we’ve neglected to ask that you’d like to discuss with us?

GG: No.

JW: All right, so thank you so much. This has been a pleasure.

GG: You’re welcome. It was fun for me too.