Steps & Stairs

by sarahkburke

This is a guest post from Dr. Robin Veder, a Fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks for the current academic year.  Robin researches and teaches art history, visual culture, and cultural history, often forging interdisciplinary connections.  The subject of her work this year is “‘Natural’ Performances: Early Twentieth Century Body Cultures in American Gardens.”  She has used the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens as a case study, studying extant landscape features and archival resources such as drawings and photographs, and in the process has given us all new perspective on these spaces.

LA.GP.40.36, the steep stairs from the Orangery to the Rose Garden

The Dumbarton Oaks garden is full of stairs, and the steepest set, which leads from the Orangery down to the Rose Garden, was one of the first elements designed by Beatrix Farrand. On every other staircase that followed, she added landings and curves so that walkers would not be wearied by long ascents or descents. What’s more, she spaced and numbered the steps with walking rhythms in mind. In The Plant Book, a combined design manifesto and maintenance plan that Farrand prepared in 1941 for Harvard’s ongoing stewardship of the estate, she advised:

“where possible, no flights of more than six steps should be built without a landing between the first and the next run of another six or eight steps. These landings have been made longer than three feet wherever possible, in order to give rest to the climber by a change and a pace between the series of rising runs. The runs have been constructed either of odd or even numbers. In other words, a flight of steps which starts out with an even-number of steps in its runs, is continued throughout with even-numbered steps. This makes the rhythm of climbing less wearisome than if added paces have to be made on each landing in order to start the new set of steps keeping the same rhythm of right or left foot used on the first step of the first flight.”

Her statement challenges us to find places in the garden where these rules apply. It is hard to say at what point in the 1920s Farrand decided on this formula, but it was certainly after the first steep staircase was put in and before the majestic Box Walk. In setting out these rules, Farrand was attending to what she presumed would be a comfortable rhythm of exertion and rest for the garden walker. Her perspective puts great faith in the designer’s ability to create conditions that direct the length of the walker’s stride and facilitate a pattern of initiating movement with the same foot.

LA.GD.K3.03a, Box Walk Steps (click to enlarge)

Farrand’s efforts to create this structuring environment is most evident in her design process for the box walk. Disregarding the set of seven concrete steps that properly belong to the urn terrace, the box walk, which extends down the slope from the north side of the house, now exists as seven sets of stairs, four steps to each set. Through the mid-1920s, Farrand tried out at least three other solutions. In 1923, she suggested, going south to north, a series of steps in this order: four, eight, four, four, eight. In March 1925, it was six, ten, six, six, ten. In 1926, it was four, seven, four, four, eight. By 1935, the Box Walk’s long stepped ramp had been installed, with brick risers and grass paths creating six sets of four steps each.

LA.GP.15.5, Box Walk Steps

Robin Veder, March 5, 2012