About Mélisande’s Allée

Historic Photographs

As with many of the garden rooms at Dumbarton Oaks, Beatrix Farrand’s vision for Mélisande’s Allée was inspired by the existing landscape. When Robert Bliss purchased the property, a narrow cow path ran along the eastern boundary of the property, screened by a line of silver maples beside Lovers’ Lane. Impressed by the height and grandeur of the maples, Farrand planted a second line of trees to the west, creating a thirty-five-foot-wide informal allée that led from Lovers’ Lane pool to the Trompe L’oeil. The allée was named for the titular character in Claude Debussy’s opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, and it referenced a forest path where the star-crossed lover meet in Act 1.

In keeping with the romantic, fanciful name, Farrand designed the allée as a dreamlike woodland. To achieve the right effect, the width of the brick path between the maples was specifically designed to be narrow and winding, which emphasized the surrounding landscape elements and invited solitary exploration. Beneath the towering maples, Farrand chose short, close-cropped groundcover that contrasted with the height of the trees. Vinca and Japanese honeysuckle predominated, with spring-blooming highlights of daffodils, iris, forget-me-not-and grape hyacinth to add to the fairytale woods Farrand tried to evoke. In the 1940s, there were discussions about widening the path through the allée, but Farrand remained adamantly against it, and the idea was eventually dropped. 

The scale and length of the allée was paramount, because it provided the only vista from the Lovers’ Lane pool and amphitheater in the south. As the path stretched northward, the grade of the land dropped. Beatrix Farrand took advantage of the descent, using it to extend the view beyond Mélisande’s Allée by tucking the end of the path into a niche in the hill. In the niche she placed a bench, originally designed for the Lilac Circle in 1933.

Brick walk with daffodils (4) Black and white photograph of Mélisande's Allée brick walk leading north to the Lovers' Lane Pool rellis, Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, Washington, D.C.