Understanding the Need for Change: The Re-Design of the Tennis Court/Pebble Garden

by sarahkburke

This is the second of two posts on the topic of change in the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens.  Both posts are based on a presentation by James Carder, Archivist and House Collection Manager at Dumbarton Oaks.  For the previous post, see here.

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Ca. 1922-23, Frederick H. Brooke installed a tennis court on the site of the former owner Henry Fitch Blount’s chicken yard. In 1924, Beatrix Farrand enclosed the area with stucco piers and wooden lattice covered in vines. In 1930, she designed and installed an overlook iron balcony.

In 1932, Beatrix Farrand designed a semi-circular arbor off the west wide of the Tennis Court; she also designed a table and chairs to provide a pleasant viewing area. The Tennis Court seems to have been used infrequently, perhaps due to the hot temperatures and high humidity of the summer months. It was occasionally used as a staging area for other garden and construction projects.

In 1930, Mildred Bliss commissioned the Parisian designer Armand Albert Rateau to design a west wall feature for the Swimming Pool area that would incorporate 18th-century lead sculptures by Edmé Bouchardon which the Blisses were contemplating acquiring in Paris. The design employed a rocaille wall and fountain masks. However, when Irwin Laughlin acquired three of the sculptures for Meridian House in Washington, D.C., the Blisses abandoned this project.

In 1959, Mrs. Hubert Winthrop Chanler (née Gertrude Laughlin), having heard the story of the Blisses’ interest in the Bouchardon sculptures, gave the Meridian House pieces to Dumbarton Oaks. Mildred Bliss decided to employ them in a redesign of the Tennis Court area that would also incorporate a mosaic of Mexican pebbles, which she and Ruth Havey also used on the Urn Terrace.

Between 1959 and 1963, Ruth Havey designed a Tennis Court Parterre, the final version of which incorporates intricate sinuous limestone outlines (inspired by French 17th-century garden parterres), Mexican pebbles, rocaille walls, and the Laughlin fountain sculptures.

The Tennis Court Parterre (or Pebble Garden as it is now generally known) was intended to have a shallow water covering to enrich the color of the pebble mosaics. However, both the rudus of the mosaic and the limestone capping have cracked and spalled resulting in leakage. Because this problem remains unresolved, the parterre is now dry.