Washington, D.C. is filled with memorials and neoclassical public
buildings. But there are also tranquil, romantic places where you
can get away from the monumental proportions of the U.S. capital,
including Dumbarton Oaks Gardens and the Hirshorn Sculpture Garden.
By Toby Saltzman
|An impressive work
in the Hirshorn Sculpture Garden on The Mal.l
When the monumental proportions of Washington begin to boggle
your mind and entrance your soul, and you crave a tranquil interlude
before approaching yet one more overwhelming edifice or emotional
memorial, there are two gentle, romantic places where, amid the
solace of their beauty, you can linger awhile and refresh your thoughts.In
this regal city, where cleverly orchestrated vistas and gleaming,
neoclassical structures induce public awe, each, by passionate design,
articulates exquisite contradictions in very private space and time.
You find the tiny Hirshorn Sculpture Garden tucked, almost secretively,
in a sunken and walled enclave in the midst of The Mall's Smithsonian
marvels. The rambling Dumbarton Oaks Gardens lie secluded behind
banks of formidable oak trees in the heart of Georgetown, the comparatively
quaint, residential area where Pennsylvania Avenue, the historic
"avenue of the Presidents", culminates.
In reality a satellite gallery of the Hirshorn Museum, which boasts
one of the U.S's finest collections of modern art, the Hirshorn
Sculpture Garden is an enchanting, timeless retreat containing works
by the likes of Auguste Rodin and David Smith, along with a mobile
by Alexander Calder and rare reliefs by Henri Matisse and Thomas
Favored by those familiar with The Mall, it is a heavenly place
for a peaceful picnic. Arguably among the most significant landscaped
gardens in North America, Dumbarton Oaks blossomed from the romance
of two teenagers with impeccable taste, cultural breeding and untold
|The Hirshorn Sculpture Garden
Thrown together as step-brother and step-sister (he was eighteen
and destined for diplomatic service, she, fourteen, the heiress
of Fletcher's Castoria fortune) when their widowed parents wed in
1894, Robert Bliss and Mildred Barnes fell in love, married and
embraced their passions for music, art and gardens in Dumbarton
Oaks, a palatial, early 1800s estate that they renovated and, in
1940, endowed to Harvard University.
Dumbarton Oaks now serves as a museum and research institute for
Pre-Columbian and Byzantine art and the history of landscape architecture.
Intent on having a "country house in the city," even though Mr.
Bliss's career kept them from settling here permanently until 1933
(he was Ambassador to Argentina), Mrs. Bliss collaborated with Beatrix
Jones Farrand, the renowned landscape architect, to transform 10
of the wooded valley's 16 acres into "a series of broad terraces
leading from the strictly formal architectural character of the
house through various transitions to the delightful informality
of the lower garden with its loose plantings of flowering trees,
shrubs and naturalized bulbs." The result is splendid.
|Dumbarton Oaks Garden
Farrand's meticulously conceived composition of stepped plateaus,
arbors, fountains, reflecting pools, pebble garden and winding pathways,
and her perfectly restrained choice of plantings, which bloom in
concert creating a symphony of colors, created a garden of timeless
beauty in any season.
The garden demands strolling, then dallying on a bench. In spring
it is a riot of cherry blossoms, sunny forsythias and vines of mauve
or lemon wisteria. In summer vibrant fuchsias cascade and roses
beckon with irresistible fragrance. In fall, myriad varieties of
Dumbarton Oaks mansion bears a stunning, ageless lustre. Originally
built for Senator William Dorsey (financial problems forced him
to sell it), the Federal-style structure had been Victorianized
by successive owners.
The Blisses stripped away most of the 19th century gewgaws, renovated
and expanded the interior to accommodate the music room, the garden
library, the rare book room, and two museum pavilions, one each
for their Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art collections.
Famed for hosting the two Dumbarton Oaks Conferences in 1944 -
the first assembly of ministers from the U.S., Great Britain, China
and the Soviet Union - which laid the foundation for the charter
of the United Nations, the elegant Music Room, whose grand piano
is autographed by Ignace Paderewski, also inspired Igor Stravinsky's
Concerto in E-flat Dumbarton Oaks in honor of the Bliss's 30th anniversary.
Their photograph graces a table in front of a 16th century French
chimney piece. Bedecked with a wood ceiling painted like that of
the Salle de Gardes in the 16th century Chateau de Cheverny of France's
Loire Valley, the music room is adorned with soaring arched windows,
Flemish and German tapestries, antique European furniture and artworks
that include El Greco's The Visitation.
The Byzantine Empire collection includes exquisite pieces from
the fourth to the 15th centuries: intricately designed jewelry,
gold artifacts, a 21,000-piece Byzantine coin collection (said to
be the largest, most complete in the world) and precious Greco-Roman
bas-reliefs and bronzes.
pool of Dumbarton Oaks Garden.
The Pre-Columbian gallery is itself a work of art. Designed with
eight, curved-glass alcoves encircling a fountain, it invites natural
light and garden views. Succinctly detailed, the collection is rich
with golden adornments, Mayan ceramics and glyphs, Aztec pottery
and masks and Peruvian tapestries. It does make you wonder if Bliss's
"sources" were the original raiders of the lost civilizations of
Tikal and Chichen Itza.
With time to spare, architecture and history buffs will appreciate
a walk through Dumbarton Oak's neighboring streets. Distinctly Federal
in style, the homes are conspicuous only by their gardens and hushed,
albeit celebrated, status.
In this conservative milieu, the most outlandish of them sport
red or green shutters instead of black. Number 3017 N Street is
where Jackie Kennedy lived as a reporter for the Washington Times.
Number 3307 N Street is where she and John Kennedy lived when he
Nearby, the redeveloped Washington Harbor lies along the Potomac
River with a popular boardwalk, restaurants and cafes. And the old
C&O Canal (a narrow, long waterway once plied by mule-drawn barges)
provides shade for walkers, cyclists, canoeists and fishermen escaping
the city's bustle.
After you've seen the essential sights of Washington D.C., the
poignant monuments to humanity - particularly the Vietnam Memorial
and the Holocaust Museum - you will certainly appreciate the peaceful
respite of Dumbarton Oaks and the Hirshorn Sculpture Garden.
The Hirshorn Sculpture Garden, open around the clock, is located
in the recessed space between the National Mall Grounds and the
Hirshorn Museum, located at 7th Street and Independence Ave. SW.
Dunbarton Oaks Museum, Garden, Library open at various times.
Museum details: Phone: 202-339-6410
Washington guidebook: Phone: 202-339-6410