Washington's summer secret is Dumbarton Oaks gardens
For visitors to Washington, it's the secret garden. Like ''The Secret Garden'' in Mary Hodgson Burnett's children's classic, it's sealed away behind a towering wall.Skip to next paragraph
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You have to know the flowers are there at Dumbarton Oaks, that behind the 12 -foot red-brick walls there are 10 acres of formal gardens, everything from Chinese wisteria to flowering jasmine and an oasis of roses.
Although the Dumbarton Oaks estate is known historically as the site of the 1944 international conference that gave birth to the United Nations, a visitor finds that other memories cling:
Cherry Hill in the spring, for instance, when the fallen cherry blossoms lie in thick pink drifts across the brown tree roots and early grass. Look up at Cherry Hill against the gray spring sky and the thousands of pink cherry blossoms give the air a silver-mauve light.
In spring on nearby Forsythia Hill, dozens of weeping forsythia bushes burst into a yellow blaze of flowers that cover the hillside like a three-alarm fire. It is so quiet then that you can hear the leathery green magnolia leaves fall with a gentle ''thunk'' on the rim of the pebble garden. Now, with summer, the crowds begin and the rose garden on a warm Sunday afternoon looks like a Jackson & Perkins rose growers' convention.
Over 100 rosebushes are in bloom, their colors ranging from crimson to fuchsia to salmon pink, seashell, lemon, garnet, cream, and the blond pink of the peace rose. Blue larkspur blooms in the gardens, along with purple and yellow pansies, pots of white jasmine, star of Bethlehem, honeysuckle, peonies, and perennials. The day lilies, gardenias, fuchsias, and oleanders are midsummer flowers; the chrysanthemums riot in the fall.
The family that left Dumbarton Oaks in trust to Harvard University in 1940 wanted to ensure that their secret garden would be shared with the public. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss bought the 19th-century Georgetown mansion in 1920. It was named not only for its towering oak trees but also for the rock of Dumbarton in Scotland; the grounds originally were part of a 1702 land grant owned by a Scottish farmer from Dumbarton-on-the-Clyde.
In 1922, Mildred Bliss and Beatrix Farrand, a celebrated landscape architect, began transforming it. They turned the former farm with cow paths and barns into the formal gardens which would vie with the traditional beauty of the English, Italian, and French gardens Mrs. Bliss loved. ''The Garden Twins,'' as these friends dubbed each other, devoted 25 years to perfecting the green and flowering vistas around the mansion. Like painters adding careful brushstrokes, they paid careful attention to every detail: to the hundreds of perfect pebbles from Mexican beaches for the pebble garden; the garden benches made of weathered teak from old British sailing ships; the Swedish wrought iron used throughout for decorations; the Star Garden fountain, which pictures Aquarius the water-bearer pouring falling stars and fresh water from a jug.
There is a harmony about the landscaped gardens and the mansion itself which mirror the Blisses' own attitude. They were extremely close in their tastes and outlooks, with a compatibility springing perhaps from their dual-family situation. The Blisses had been brought up together; as teen-age children her widowed mother had married his widowed father in 1894.
The Blisses were a handsome couple, both were independently wealthy, and they burnished their magnificent home and grounds when he retired. He had a 33-year Foreign Service career in Paris and Stockholm that was capped with the ambassadorship to Argentina. Instead of collecting souvenirs in their foreign travels, the Blisses collected art, beginning before World War I with pre-Columbian artifacts, and Byzantine art during the 1920s.
It was an international exposition of Byzantine art in Paris in 1931 that spurred the Blisses to begin acquiring only the best of this genre. Today, the Bliss Byzantine collection, housed in rooms of the mansion overlooking a mosaic pool, is considered one of the finest in the world.