Understanding the Need for Change: The Re-Design of the Ellipse

by sarahkburke

The Ellipse is one of the most popular sites in the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens.  This is the first of two posts based on a presentation by James Carder, Archivist and House Collection Manager at Dumbarton Oaks.

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In the mid-1920s, Beatrix Farrand designed and installed the Box Walk and Ellipse as a singular unit called the Box Garden. Reportedly, the design corresponded to an image Mildred Bliss had from childhood. The dense boxwood hedges, both on the walk and in the Ellipse, were intended to create a “green oasis.”

The Box Walk was originally laid in grass with stone risers and grass treads placed at intervals. The Box Walk was changed to an unadorned all-brick walkway sometime between 1944 and 1957 and, again, to a patterned all-brick walkway sometime ca. 1957–59. The patterned walkway was based on a Gertrude Jekyll garden Mildred Bliss had visited in Somerset, England.

Farrand’s original design included a single jet of water at the center of a simple circular fountain pool with a three-foot high basin surrounded by an island of ivy, a lower moat of water, and an elliptical field of grass.

Mildred Bliss and Beatrix Farrand began discussing changes to the Ellipse about 1944. Bliss seems to have suggested a low stone wall with an overlook to the north. However, Bliss wrote Farrand: “Please have Havey sketch your personal conception: open, shut, high, or low. My mind is completely open.” Alden Hopkins, Consulting Landscape Architect, worked on plans for an aerial hedge of pleached hornbeams and a northern overlook between 1958 and 1960.

In 1960, Ralph Griswold, Professional Advisor to the Gardens, designed a fish-scaled central fountain and two perimeter elliptical stone walls with lead fountain masks designed by Don Turano and limestone finials. This was part of Mildred Bliss’s interest—especially witnessed in the Philip Johnson Pre-Columbian Collection pavilion—to “do something really new.” However, with the Ellipse she changed her mind in 1966 and had the Griswold additions removed.

In 1966, Mildred Bliss instructed Ruth Havey to design a “Jardin Delectable” featuring azaleas and magnolias on the Ellipse as an appropriate setting for the 18th-century “Provençal” fountain, which had been removed from the Copse with the construction of the Pre-Columbian Collection pavilion and which tentatively had been slated for the center of the Rose Garden. Neither Havey’s Rococo border nor planting plan was implemented.

In 1967, the “Provençal” fountain was sited in the Ellipse surrounded by the existing pleached American hornbeams (Carpinus caroliniana) that had been installed by Alden Hopkins.

Today, the Ellipse plays host to the installation Easy Rider by Patrick Dougherty (read more here.)  Easy Rider remains on view until May 2012.

In addition, the Ellipse fountain pool contains native water plants, as well as ducks, turtles, and frogs.  In 2010, Anastassia Solovieva and Jane Padelford designed the native aquatic habitat in conjunction with that year’s Designing Wildlife Habitats symposium.

The fish, reptiles, amphibians, mollusks and crustaceans in the pool are all native to this region, and it has attracted a variety of fauna including damselflies, skimmers, heron, ducks, and migratory birds. The habitat is pesticide-free.