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About the Garden Archives

History of the Project | Beatrix Farrand’s Plant Book for Dumbarton Oaks | Selected Bibliography |

The Dumbarton Oaks Garden Archives makes publicly available over six thousand individual pieces of correspondence, drawings, and photographs. These original materials have been supplemented by histories of the garden areas, biographies of individuals and firms, and sections on contemporary art installations.

There are multiple ways to browse and explore the Garden Archives using the gray tabs at the top of the page.

  • Learn about the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens and the history of the Garden Archives, and discover further reading in the Garden Archives Home tab.
  • Contents allows you to browse the contents of the archives via sections that can be expanded by clicking the plus sign. Correspondence, maps, contemporary art installations, additional designs and sketches, and biographies are organized in their own sections; drawings and photographs are organized by garden area.
  • The Index is the way to search if you are uncertain exactly where to begin. It offers terms that link to relevant correspondence, drawing and photographs. Browse by clicking on alphabetical tabs and scrolling left and right, or search using the search bar at the top right.
  • Search & Refine permits a more granular search of contents, using general text, title keyword, accession number, and date fields. After an initial search, the Refine options allow you to narrow down searches by names of individuals and organizations, material type, garden area, and historic period.
  • Further information about how to search for content can be found in the Help tab. Topics include tips and frequently asked questions about how to search, the chronology of garden names, abbreviations used in the Index, preferred citation, rights and reproductions, and help with technical issues, like printing and sharing content.

History of the Project

The Dumbarton Oaks Gardens

In 1920, after a long and careful search, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss found their ideal country house and garden within Washington, D.C. They purchased a fifty-three-acre property, described as an old-fashioned house standing in rather neglected grounds, at the highest point of Georgetown. Within a year, the Blisses hired landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand to design the gardens. Working in happy and close collaboration for almost thirty years, Mildred Bliss and Beatrix Farrand planned every garden detail: each terrace, bench, urn, and border.

Since that time, other architects working with Mildred Bliss, most notably Ruth Havey and Alden Hopkins, changed certain elements of the Farrand design. The gardens have also changed in function. In 1940, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss gave the upper sixteen acres to Harvard University to establish a research institute for Byzantine studies, Pre-Columbian studies, and studies in the history of gardens and landscape architecture. They gave the lower, more naturalistic twenty-seven acres to the United States government to be made into a public park. An additional ten acres was sold to build the Danish Embassy.

Information on the history of specific parts of the gardens can be found in the Drawings and Photographs by Garden Area folder.

The Garden Archives

a formidable collection . . . it is rare that a continuous history of a place covering more than 20 years is to be found. Therefore, the papers have considerable professional value.

Beatrix Farrand to John Thacher, April 11, 1950

In April 1950, Beatrix Farrand wrote to Mildred Bliss recommending that extra staff be assigned to properly archive and catalog the collection of drawings, photographs, and letters that she was about to ship to Dumbarton Oaks. No longer designing landscapes, Farrand felt that her personal archive of Dumbarton Oaks design documentation was “of real value as few places have so long a carefully-kept record of attempts, accomplishments and failures. For the art of landscape these records are worthwhile and they should be kept safely, catalogued and protected.” (B:BF 1950.04.06) Farrand soon wrote to the director, John Thacher, warning him that she would be sending “a formidable collection . . . it is rare that a continuous history of a place covering more than 20 years is to be found. Therefore, the papers have considerable professional value. . . . You will of course want to make this material . . . available and useful to students of Landscape Architecture.” (B: BF 1950.04.11)

While the archive was accepted and stored at Dumbarton Oaks, efforts to organize it and catalog it were insufficient. For six decades researchers have struggled with the documentation for the design and construction of the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. It is voluminous and somewhat fragile. Many drawings are large and unwieldy to use in tandem with related photos or letters. None of the documentation was cataloged or indexed.

In 2009, Sheila Klos, the library director, decided the correspondence related to the gardens should be digitized, eliminating use of inferior microfilm copies of letters while still limiting the handling of originals. A professional indexer with a horticultural background was hired and a project that was begun to enable easy computerized searching of the correspondence. In pursuing this goal the potential of online access to digital surrogates of the entire collection was recognized and the project expanded to include original drawings and historic photographs. Thus was born the Garden Archives project.

Bird number 1 for swing seat support, Beech Terrace Architectural drawing of bird #1 for swing seat support, Beech Terrace in the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, Washington, D.C.

The Garden Archives found here offer the full complement of documentation held in the Research Library’s Rare Book Collection. They also include some more recent photographs, including documentation of the installations since 2010 of contemporary art in the gardens.

In earliest piece of correspondence, dated June 24–25, 1922, Beatrix Farrand laid out for Robert and Mildred Bliss her preliminary ideas for plantings on the R Street side of the house. In 1923, Robert Bliss was posted to Stockholm as U.S. Minister to Sweden, just one of many diplomatic postings that took the Blisses away from Washington for long periods of time while the gardens were being designed and constructed. In fact, given their residency in several foreign countries from 1923 through 1933, most of the consultation with architects and landscape gardeners regarding alterations and improvements to the property was carried out through letters and telegrams. 

Astute users will discover that there is a lamentable gap in the correspondence for the years 1925–1933. We are certain that Beatrix Farrand and Mildred Bliss wrote to each other about the gardens during that period, but those letters are lost. Our archive is built from Mrs. Farrand’s archive; the disposition of Mrs. Bliss’s copies of their correspondence is unknown. Fortunately, many hundreds of drawings and photographs help to piece together the ideas we know were shared as the landscape was designed, revised, and constructed to meet Mildred Bliss’s changing ideas.

Like the gardens themselves, our digital Garden Archives are being built a room at a time. With several thousand drawings, historic photographs, plus letters, plant lists, invoices, and receipts we think this is the logical approach. One may find index entries that are not yet active links, but they are a clear indication of content that will appear later. Please visit often to see our progress and make use of the materials that have been added.

Beatrix Farrand’s Plant Book for Dumbarton Oaks

The Plant Book for Dumbarton Oaks was prepared as a resource for those charged with maintenance of the gardens following their acquisition by Harvard University in 1941. Beatrix Farrand here explains the reasoning behind her plan for each of the gardens and stipulates how each should be cared for in order that its basic character remain intact. Her resourceful suggestions for alternative plantings, her rigorous strictures concerning pruning and replacement, her exposition of the overall concept that underlies each detail, and the plant lists that accompany her discussion of each garden make this a volume of interest to every student, practitioner, and lover of landscape design.

Balmori, D., D. K. McGuire, and E. M. McPeck. Beatrix Farrand’s American Landscapes: Her Gardens and Campuses. Sagaponack, N.Y.: Sagapress; Millwood, N.Y.: Distributed by Kraus R. and P., 1985.

Beatrix Jones Farrand, 1972–1959: an Appreciation of a Great Landscape Gardener. Washington, D.C.: Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, 1960.

Beatrix Jones Farrand Collection, 1866–1959, at University of California, Berkeley.

Beardsley, John, ed. Landscape Body Dwelling: Charles Simonds at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2011.

Carder, J. N., ed. A Home of the Humanities: The Collecting and Patronage of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010.

Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2002. First published in Apollo vol. 229, no. 266, April 1984.

Karson, R. S. A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, in association with Library of American Landscape History, c2007.

Lott, L. "The Arbor Terrace at Dumbarton Oaks: History and Design." Garden History 31, no. 4 (2003): 209-217.

———The Dumbarton Oaks Gardens & Gertrude Jekyll's Garden Ornament. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Garden Library, 2010.

———Garden Ornament at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Library and Collection, c2001.

———Garden Ornament at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Library and Collection, 1996.

Lyon, Richard A. Abood. Beatrix Jones Farrand, Landscape Gardener. (Honors thesis, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1979).

Masson, G. Dumbarton Oaks: A Guide to the Gardens. Washington, D.C.: Printed by Port City Press, 1968.

McGuire, D. K., ed. Beatrix Farrand's Plant Book for Dumbarton Oaks. 1980. Reprint, Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, 1993.

McGuire, D. K., and L. Fern, eds. Beatrix Jones Farrand (1872–1959): Fifty Years of American Landscape Architecture. Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture VIII. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, 1982.

Pariser, U. R. The Dumbarton Oaks Gardens: Their History, Design, and Ornaments. Photographs by Ursula R. Pariser; text by Noëlle Blackmer Beatty. Washington: Dumbarton Oaks: Distributed by Acropolis Books, c1978.

Tamulevich, S. Dumbarton Oaks: Garden into Art. New York: Monacelli Press, 2001.

Tankard, J. B. Beatrix Farrand: Private Gardens, Public Landscapes. New York: Monacelli Press, c2009.

Whitehill, W. M. Dumbarton Oaks: The History of a Georgetown House and Garden, 1800–1966. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.

Please contact us with any questions at gardenarchives@doaks.org.