Behind the Private Gates, Design, In the Garden

Inspiring Garden Design: Dumbarton Oaks

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Dumbarton Oaks in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. was a mecca for me when I was planning and implementing my gardens twenty years ago. A former private estate, now under the stewardship of Harvard University, its owners took full advantage of the topography of this hilltop property which has allowed a wealth of  design opportunities from garden rooms to an all pebble terrace with water to  woodland amphitheater to sweeping tapis verts.


My recent trip for a lecture in Alexandria, Virginia provided the welcome opportunity to visit this outstanding American garden at a time of year when I would not usually be in Washington. As I’ve always thought,  a garden in its bare winter state affords the viewer a chance to “read” its true design; as foliage dies back, vistas open up. The garden’s winter incarnation has a stillness and grandeur about it.

And then there was the benefit of an early spring, with pink cherry blossoms and magnolia blooms taking center stage. Pure magic!




With few other plants blooming, I could give full attention to the tasteful embellishes and flourishes created in stone that accent  walls as part of the residence site. These creative additions and the enhancement they provide, without ever being overwrought, are unlike any I have seen, even in France or England. Their three dimensionality is what makes them stand apart.

When I showed these images to a stone expert, he commented, “What an amazing example of sculpturing in limestone.  Although I can’t find any apparent seams in the cap with the flowing overhang of flowers, it’s improbable that it was all carved out of one piece of limestone. The floral urn at the corner is probably two or three pieces. The pedestal and the wall cap under the flowers are separate. The adorning string of flowers, for all practical purposes, is segmented.  What a tremendous illusion!”


“The following pieces…appear to have been carved as pedestal and adornment out of a single piece of stone, so incredibly delicate and complex.”





Dumbarton Oaks should be top of anyone’s list for a visit, particularly in the winter when uncloaked trees allow vistas to reveal themselves; case in point…the woodland amphitheater, created on one of the levels of this hillside property.


A curved series of rustic lattice trellises , centered with wooden urns, encircle the upper tier of the amphitheater. One can only imagine the entertainment that took place here…


Happy Spring!

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Bettie Bearden Pardee

About Bettie Bearden Pardee

Author of Private Newport and Living Newport, garden furniture designer (The Parterre Bench), national lecturer, and entertaining expert. An honoree for the second year on "The Salonniere 100 America's Best Party Hosts", she was also the host and creative producer of "The Presidential Palate: Entertaining at the White House".

8 thoughts on “Inspiring Garden Design: Dumbarton Oaks

  1. As winter threats to reaffirm on the seaboard!
    Dumbarton Oaks beautiful.

  2. What a beautiful place to visit. I will revisit it again. Thank you for your wonderful posts. Happy spring to you. Just love the blog. Beth

    1. Thank you for those kind words…and I’ll look forward to “seeing you” twice a week.

  3. I just completed a reservation to stay at the Goring in June. Do you have any restaurant suggestions? I haven’t been to London in 10 years and I know things change. Your posts about the Goring was an inspiration.

    1. Yes! You must, must go to Thomas Cubitt restaurant just a few blocks from The Goring (the concierge told me about it. Hope they have the partridge!)
      And sit at the bar at The Ivy after the theater.

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