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History of the Gardens

In 1921, Mildred Bliss began to work with landscape gardener Beatrix Jones Farrand (1872–1959) to design the garden at Dumbarton Oaks. The two women worked in close collaboration for almost thirty years to achieve their vision of terraced gardens and vistas, orchards and kitchen gardens, and a vast wilderness of meadows and wooded pathways. They also worked together on the design and choice of garden ornaments—benches, gates, finials, and sculptures.

The transfer of Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University in 1940 included approximately sixteen acres of land, including the upper, more formal gardens. Twenty-seven acres, including the more naturalistic wilderness, were gifted to the United States government to create Dumbarton Oaks Park. An additional ten acres were sold to build the Danish Embassy.

In 1941, anticipating the inevitable changes that would accompany the garden’s different function, Farrand began to write a Plant Book to define her design intentions and suggest appropriate maintenance practices. Her suggestions for stewardship still prove useful today.

After Beatrix Farrand’s gradual retirement in the 1940s and her death in 1959, other landscape architects worked on changes to the Dumbarton Oaks Garden. These included Ruth Havey (1899–1980), Ralph E. Griswold (1894–1981), and Alden Hopkins (1905–1960). The garden has been maintained under the guidance of superintendents: William Gray from 1922 to 1937, James Bryce from 1937 to 1948, Matthew Kearney from 1948 to 1973, Donald Smith from 1973 to 1992, Philip Page from 1992 to 1996, and Gail Griffin from 1997 to 2018, and Jonathan Kavalier from 2018 to the present.

Learn more about the history of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens in the Garden Archives