This is a guest post from Dr. Robin Veder, Associate Professor of Humanities and Art History/Visual Culture at Penn State Harrisburg and a former Fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. She recently published “Walking through Dumbarton Oaks: Early Twentieth-Century Bourgeois Bodily Techniques and Kinesthetic Experience of Landscape” in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (March 2013).
The recently recovered film of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens has a strikingly horticultural sensibility (available through Vimeo). Instead of a tour of Beatrix Farrand’s structured landscape design, we see highlights of plant life in seasonal bloom: the Herbaceous Border stacked with chrysanthemums, weeping forsythia along the staircase east of the Orangery, daffodils in Mélissande’s Allée, Cherry Hill in a blowsy wind, and the Forsythia Dell, all in flower.
The film features several static and slow-moving shots of individual specimen trees and flowers, such as Deodar Cedars, Dumbarton Oaks Chrysanthemums, and the Japanese Magnolia that is affectionately referred to as “The Bride.” The camerawork emphasizes the height of two magnificent cedars, one on the East Lawn and another on the North Vista, tilting upward at a tantalizingly slow pace. It is as if the filmmaker imagined future viewers and wanted to “rub it in our faces” that the North Vista tree (now long-gone) is only “a cedar in our dreams,” remarks made by Archivist and House Collection Manager James Carder and Director of Gardens and Grounds Gail Griffin in their live commentary on the film.
When Matthew Kearney, Superintendent of Gardens and Grounds between 1949 and 1974, marches through the Herbaceous Border and the Rose Garden, he stops to examine single blooms. He cups each like a stemmed crystal goblet, looking at it intently and quickly. When he does, Kearney is modeling an act of horticultural observation. The anonymous camera operators help viewers to perform the same act – but slowly – by offering us lingering takes of flowers. The Dumbarton Oaks Chrysanthemum is at its peak, seeming to call out: “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
We believe the footage was edited by the Amateur Cinema League (ACL). In the first half, the ACL’s technicians appear to have mixed black-and-white material taken in the mid-1920s through mid-1940s. Different occasions are edited into a roughly seasonal pattern, contrasting a snow-frosted landscape with spring strolls in the meadow and summertime poolside parties. The second half of the film is in color, from the late 1940s or early 1950s, and is edited to move from late summer or early fall into the garden’s spring highlights. (For more information on the footage and these scenes, see the DO Conversation blog post by James Carder, Gail Griffin, and Rona Razon.)
The editing offers little sense of the importance landscape architect Beatrix Farrand placed on designing spaces to create dramatic sequential views. The filming was mostly done on a tripod or in shakier hand-held pans of garden rooms. As the lens rotates, it orients us to the camera’s location in the garden. It does not recreate the horizontal movement we experience when walking through the garden. To be fair, Dumbarton Oaks’s terrain is irregular, and the frequent changes of level and texture underfoot would complicate both hand-carried and mechanical dolly shots. Despite these technical challenges, the camera operator could have taken and the editor could have sequenced the shots with the intention of reproducing Farrand’s spatial design.
In live experience, when stair-climbers reach the upper southern terminus of the long, narrow Box Walk, the quiet and compact Urn Terrace gradually comes into view. From there, one may look left to gaze down on the glorious Rose Garden. In contrast, the film-edit reorganizes the landscape’s narrative. First, we look north down the Box Walk, the wooded hillside rising above it in the background. This view is directly followed by a high-angle long shot taken from the Urn Terrace, showing the Rose Garden and its geometric topiary. The camera pans from east to south-west. Crossing the balustrade into the Urn Terrace, this scene becomes one of the few to capture this landscape’s characteristic level-changes. And yet, it fails to order the views as they would be experienced by someone climbing the stairs (to the south), going directly into the Urn Terrace, and then turning to the east to see the Rose Garden.
Where are the Arbor Terrace’s grand elevated views of the Orchard, Herbaceous Border, and northern reaches of the original property? Or the willow-protected blue rectangle of the Swimming Pool, as seen from the Green Garden above? The filmmaker gives us a long shot of the Ellington Bridge, surely taken from the Green Garden, but who would know? Without some foreground framing, viewers are denied the panoptic thrill of approaching a terrace’s edge and suddenly finding an expansive prospect beyond or an unexpected treat below.
In one scene, we see the east end of the Herbaceous Border, featuring the Irish “Mr. Yew” flanked by precisely clipped pyramid-topped topiary yew hedges. (Mrs. Yew holds down the west end of the paired borders). Unfortunately, the film does not re-enact the peek-a-boo effect of Mr. Yew’s situation.
Today, when Mr. Yew is approached from Mélissande’s Allée, it is the center of an austere enclosure, grass surrounded by a tall hedge. As we progress around Mr. Yew, the Herbaceous Border’s colorful chaos explodes into view. It is like the moment in The Wizard of Oz (1939), when Dorothy glimpses the Technicolor gardens of Munchkin Land from the sepia-toned interior of her Kansas farmhouse. Two black-and-white photographs from the early 1930s demonstrate this spatial progression, while a frame of the color film brings to life the radically shifting palette. In this frame, and throughout the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens film, we see Mr. Yew only from the west, amid the raucous chrysanthemums, never the sober cell to the east that precedes it.
Dumbarton Oaks’s botanical wonders, of which there were and still are many, are the film’s true stars. For example, Forsythia Dell claims over two minutes for its towering golden shrubs. In a particularly poignant shot, we see its brilliance through the stark winter branches of a tulip poplar and other deciduous trees. That view was taken from the adjacent hill to the north, in what is now Dumbarton Oaks Park, owned by the National Park Service. Perhaps this newly recovered footage will assist the nascent Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy to restore the wilder sister of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, by drawing attention to the complementary relationship between their terrains and plant life.
We treasure the images of fantastic trees sorely missed and flower varieties still featured here, but we are fortunate that much of the original hardscape survives. Given only the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens film, we could not see what makes this place so deservedly famous: the architectural “genius of the place.”