Park History

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In 1920 a career U.S. diplomat and his wife, Ambassador Robert and Mildred Woods Bliss, returning to Washington from twenty years abroad, purchased an early 19th century mansion surrounded by six acres of disheveled gardens and “gentleman’s farmland” on the northern edge Georgetown. With a goal of creating, in Robert Bliss’ words, “a country estate in the city,” over the next twenty years they vastly expanded that acreage and, under the guidance of landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, created one of the greatest garden ensembles in American landscape history. Farrand’s 1921 design envisaged a carefully phased transition from formal gardens near the mansion to informal gardens further away, ending in a designed pastoral/woodland landscape in the valley below the mansion, centered on a stream with numerous constructed waterfalls and ponds.

In a remarkable act of generosity, in 1940 the Blisses — still healthy and only in their 60s — donated their estate. The mansion, out-buildings, and formal gardens nearby went to Harvard University (Mr. Bliss’s alma mater) for use as one of the world’s leading research institutes in three fields in the humanities. The majority of the estate, comprising the carefully contrived pastoral/woodland, 27 acres which are now Dumbarton Oaks Park, was donated by the Blisses to the American people, as represented by the National Park Service, which since has administered the Park as a unit of Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.

The donation in 1940 coincided with the ongoing Great Depression and soon thereafter World War II, which would consume the nation’s energies. The National Park Service thus from the beginning was limited in the resources necessary to maintain the Park, which slowly deteriorated over decades. Community efforts in the 1990s and early 2000s helped restore some of the Park and also catalyzed National Park Service support. Those efforts achieved some visual improvements and successes in conservation landscaping, but not fundamental break-through solutions to the underlying issues of invasive plants and hydrologic (water drainage, stormwater surge, and erosion) problems.

The Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy, created in 2010, respects the previous efforts but affirms–at cost of modesty–that we are the best organized, best supported organization in 70 years to bring back this park. By tackling the underlying problems in order to create a long-term sustainable and affordable environment, the Conservancy believes that Dumbarton Oaks Park can contribute to the community and “polish up” a true aesthetic gem of American landscape design.

For more on Park history…

U.S. National Park Service, Dumbarton Oaks Park Cultural Landscape Report, Part I: Site History, Existing Conditions, and Analysis and Evaluation, August 2000

Dumbarton Oaks Park: What’s in a Name?

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