About the Arbor Terrace

Drawings Historic Photographs

The Arbor Terrace is one of the first seven garden rooms designed by Beatrix Farrand. Located on a steep hill dropping away from the Orangery to Lover’s Lane, the Arbor Terrace lies below the Rose Garden and north of the Fountain Terrace. It commands a view of the Crabapple Orchard falling away to the Kitchen Gardens in the north, and Mélisande’s Allée to the east. Over its ninety-year history, the Arbor Terrace has undergone some of the most extensive redesigns in the garden.

Before the Blisses purchased the property, this area served as the barnyard. The land here sloped away from the house, dropping over thirty feet. It was prone to frequent and destructive landslides. To create gardens out of such unstable ground, Beatrix Farrand planned a set of terraces shored up by retaining walls. She began working on designs in 1922, and by 1924 the Arbor Terrace, or “E Terrace,” started to take shape.

Farrand’s vision for this space developed from the European concept of a giardini segreti, or secret garden. To accomplish this effect, Farrand planned an intimate green space enclosed by box hedges and fragrant herb borders to the north and east. She masked the severity of the high retaining wall to the west with an oak arbor based on a 16th-century design by French architect Jacques Androuet du Cerceau for the Chateau Montargis. Lavender and white wisteria coated the arbor, creating a sense of seclusion. Within the arbor, two stuccoed niches added ornamental detail. One contained a lead book box, which was removed in the 1970s due to water damage and deterioration. The other niche features a fountain and pool of water.

The central expanse of the Arbor Terrace was one of the first elements to change. Beatrix Farrand’s original plan called for the space to be predominately green with diagonal planting beds of fragrant herbs leading the eye north over the orchard. This design quickly proved too difficult and complex to keep up. By 1933, a more formally proportioned herb garden took its place. However, during World War II, the central beds underwent further modification as the herb plantings required too much upkeep for the reduced wartime staff and budget. When Farrand wrote her Plant Book for Dumbarton Oaks in 1944, an unbroken expanse of grass filled the garden. 

In 1949, Mildred Bliss and Ruth Havey began plans for a redesign. Their work culminated in a large renovation in 1954-55. Paving of Tennessee Crab Orchard stone replaced the grass, and a low Rococo parterre of Doria stone added structure to the space. Stone walls replaced the box hedges, and the original oak arbor was rebuilt in Cypress. To counteract the harshness of the new central paving, Havey brought in pots filled with seasonal herbs and plants. The aerial hedge of Kieffer pears along the northern and eastern walls maintained a sense of enclosed green space.

During the 1950s redesign, Havey moved the Dante inscription from the lead book box arch to the southern wall. The book box and accompanying lotus motif, which Farrand had designed, was completely removed and the arch left bare. Havey also planned a sundial and a water feature for the central expanse of the parterre, but neither design was realized. The Arbor Terrace today is a hot, bright garden room offset by the deep shade of the arbor. Plantings follow Ruth Havey’s seasonal pot design. In 2012-13, the Arbor Terrace was the site for a contemporary art installation, “Cloud Terrace,” by Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot.

Wisteria arbor in bloom, view west Black and white photograph of the Wisteria arbor in bloom view west in the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, Arbor Terrace, Washington, D.C.

Lead inscription for base of arch in arbor Drawing of lead inscription for base of arch in arbor for Robert Woods Bliss, esq., Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, Arbor Terrace, Washington, D.C.