Help Restore One of Farrand’s Masterpieces

“A precious area of the city has been neglected for too long,” said Italian Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero, about Dumbarton Oaks Park, a 1920’s style “naturalistic” landscape designed by one of the foremost American woman landscape architects, Beatrix Farrand. Bisogniero said all embassies that line the 27-acre park, the northwest D.C. communities that ring it, and even greater Washington, D.C. must play a part in restoring this “jewel.”

Restoration work is already underway, in partnership with the National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over this site and the surrounding Rock Creek Park. Over a year, said Tara Morrison, Superintendent, Rock Creek Park, “weed warriors have been at work.” They are working hard towards removing all invasive species (and there are a lot). Neighboring embassies are also being brought into the conversation about how to use green infrastructure to manage more stormwater outside the park so it doesn’t just flow in.

Rebecca Trafton, President, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy, has been amazing at getting volunteers involved. Larry Weaner, a landscape ecologist, and Biohabitats, a landscape restoration firm, have volunteered their expertise to come up with an ecological restoration plan. The Conservancy team is also getting support from the National Park Foundation in “strategic planning, capacity building,” which can “provide a foundation of support for our restoration work.”

An initial step is to clear the invasive plants. Next, a 2-acre piece of the park will be “restored to ecological health and historic design intent” at a cost of around $75,000. New interpretive signs will be added. Future restoration work will then be done in a piece-meal fashion. We have to have a “sustainable, maintainable process for restoration,” said Trafton.

Ann Aldrich, Executive Director of the Conservancy, asked the audience of local officials, landscape architects, and residents to imagine “5 years from now, when there’s a restored beech grove, terrace, wildflower meadows, gardens free of weeds, and repaired dams and waterfalls with stable stream banks, and a reconstructed arbor with stone benches.”

The Conservancy team is clearly inspired by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, who started the Central Park Conservancy in New York City and is now the president of the Foundation for Landscape Studies. Rogers, who’s written many books on landscape architecture, explained how the Central Park team spent three years developing a comprehensive plan for restoring Central Park, which was critical to ensuring that “we avoided a scatter-shot approach.”

She said Central Park is the “quintessence of romantic landscape design,” and like a symphonic work has motifs but they take the form of woods, soils, and streams. Central Park also shows how landscape architects can “fuse nature and engineering into a great work of landscape art.” The great feat of engineering was separating traffic so that pedestrians could flow over carriages and now cars and trucks.

Before her conservancy got started in the early 80s, Central Park was in pretty bad shape, with 50,000 square feet of graffiti, eroded slopes, trashed ponds, shattered lights, and bombed-out buildings. The systematic survey led to an action plan with lots of different pieces that could be financed separately. She said her group made sure “not to restore anything unless we had the funds to maintain it.” So fundraising was really the other critical piece beyond having a comprehensive restoration plan and solid team.

Regardless of how well-loved the restored Central Park is now, “place is still tenuous,” meaning that if a new mayor came in who no longer valued Central Park and wanted to discontinue the public-private partnership, the park could once again fall to pieces. With a warning for all communities and their parks, Rogers said “we live in troubling times.” The beauty of a park today is no guarantee of the future.

For those in the D.C. area, learn more about how you can volunteer or help finance the restoration of Dumbarton Oaks Park.

Image credit: Dumbarton Oaks Park / The Georgetown Metropolitan

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