A New Vision for the U.S. National Arboretum Melds Art and Science

National Capitol Columns at the U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green

Somehow, the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. remains under the radar despite attracting more than 700,000 visitors a year. Far on the east side of the city, it’s not accessible via the Metro and can feel treacherous to reach by bike or on foot. But a recent framework plan developed by landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand promises to make the 451-acre treasure, which includes more than 29,000 plants of scientific value, a more accessible and valued place.

The only part of the U.S. Agriculture Research Service’s 94 research stations open to the public, the U.S. National Arboretum was formed through an Act of Congress in 1927 and opened to the public in 1959. In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge signed a law appropriating $300,000 to buy land, including Mt. Hamilton, the site’s 230-foot peak. Additional land purchases made in the 1930s and 1940s brought the research facility to its current size. The Arboretum now borders the diverse, gentrifying communities of Gateway, Ivy City, and Carver/Langston.

U.S. National Arboretum 1937 Map / U.S. National Arboretum

In 2019, Reed Hilderbrand finalized work on their new framework plan, which won the approval of the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). The plan was financed by the Friends of the National Arboretum, which is now raising funds to implement aspects of the plan along with a new National Bonsai & Penjing Museum for which Reed Hilderbrand also created design concepts.

In a tour of the arboretum as part of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF)‘s free What’s Out There public tours, Doug Reed, FASLA, a founding principal at Reed Hilderbrand, and Richard T. Olsen, Ph.D, director of the arboretum, interwove stories about the research center’s design and scientific legacies with hopeful visions for its future.

Over a glass of white wine at the visitor center, Olsen set the stage, explaining how the arboretum has played an important role in the history of landscape architecture and scientific research into the plant world.

Looking out at the garden where landscape architecture firm Oehme van Sweden is said to have invented the New American Garden style, which is characterized by artful layers of native plants, in the 1980s, Olsen said “this idea of focusing on American perennials in garden design” hadn’t existed before.

Another more recent garden adjacent to the visitor center by landscape architects Claudia West, Intl. ASLA, and Thomas Rainer, ASLA, co-founders of Phyto Studio and co-authors of the influential book Planting in a Post-Wild World, further advanced contemporary ecological garden design. “Their garden is designed to take care of itself; the plants are allowed to move around. It’s a scientific planting design rooted in ecosystem knowledge,” Olsen said.

Fascinating tidbits like these are largely lost to the millions of visitors to D.C. each year, because the arboretum isn’t on their must-see list. “When I take a taxi to the arboretum from Reagan National Airport, I have yet to meet a driver who knows where the arboretum is,” Reed rued.

U.S. National Arboretum in relation to the National Mall / Reed Hilderbrand

“Our goal with the framework plan is to make the arboretum much better known, to open up the space to the public. There are unique ecological systems but also cultural aspects. It can be a marriage of science, art, and, nature.”

As we boarded the tour trolley, Olsen explained how in 1953 the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service was formed, and the arboretum became part of this system. In addition to teaching visitors about trees, the arboretum is also a scientific research facility that supports the ornamental tree industry. For example, Olsen said a “third of all crepe myrtles sold in the U.S. are arboretum introductions or derived from them.”

The Arboretum is essentially a living museum. The seeds of many trees like Oaks and Magnolias can’t be stored in drawers or freezers for long-term, so instead the Arboretum must keep the tree DNA intact in live trees. Visitors can marvel at the collections of boxwoods, azaleas, lilacs, dwarf conifers, and ferns, along with the rare Asian plants, but these are also working scientific specimens.

In their extensive research as part of the planning process, Reed noted that they found an earlier property map from 1863, which showed the site’s hydrological systems, cropland and orchards. The rural trails through the landscape influenced the roads that were developed for the arboretum. “There have always been human and ecological imprints on this land,” Reed said.

U.S. National Arboretum 1863 Property Plan / U.S. National Arboretum

While the arboretum was included in the McMillan Plan for the District of Columbia, there was no further detail. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., son of senior, was involved in early planning. A framework plan created in 1948 guided the development of the site, with a further update by Sasaki in 1978, and then five or more planning efforts over the ensuing decades.

Reed’s team found that the landscape is made up of “wooded hills, meadows, dendritic ravines, and agrarian fields,” so restoring the original, diverse character of the landscape would be key to creating deeper stories and connections for visitors. The firm also wants to restore the connection with the Anacostia River, which flows along the east side of the arboretum, past the Asian collections. “We want to evolve the landscape so it’s more clear and coherent and better introduces people to the arboretum.”

U.S. National Arboretum Framework Plan / Reed Hilderbrand

Coherence will also arise from solving the many access and circulation issues.

One “70-year-old problem” is that the District of Columbia government didn’t follow early plans from the 50s and create additional connections into the arboretum straight off of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Olsen explained. “Visitors now arrive at the back door,” Reed said, through R Street, which cuts through a residential community, only after they have navigated the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, a major artery.

“This creates a larger wayfinding issue,” Reed argued. A key part of the new framework plan is to re-orient the entrance to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, with the idea of capturing more vehicles more easily.

Once drivers arrive, they will be steered towards a new, expanded visitor center where they will be invited to leave their car behind. Additional bicycle and pedestrian access improvements are also planned.

Reed Hilderbrand’s plan will center administrative and scientific efforts in the core of the arboretum, enlarging visitor services areas and scientific educational experiences, so that the story of the science can be better told.

U.S. National Arboretum Framework Plan / Reed Hilderbrand

At the same time, the plan calls for re-opening a gate along M Street and Maryland Avenue, near Carver Terrace, which was sealed off in the 1980s due to the explosion of drug-related crime. “We are working with the city to re-open this gate and provide more equitable access to the surrounding community,” Olsen said. “It will take funding.”

Back in the early days of the arboretum, vehicle drivers would travel off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, enter Maryland Avenue, and access the arboretum through grand gates. Those gates now appear as relics encircled by opportunistic plants.

Abandoned gate and entrance at U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green

Reed Hilderbrand plans on shrinking the parking lot facing the gates and expand the central Ellipse Meadow, the centerpiece of the arboretum, to extend south. “We will remake Ellipse Road as a pedestrian path and reconfigure the drives in this part of the campus.” Communities cut off from the park will soon be able to enter and greeted with an expanded meadow.

Inside the campus, the current circulatory system of the arboretum is highly car-centric, with nine miles of paved roads and a number of large parking lots. All of these impervious surfaces means that a sizeable chunk of the Arboretum’s $14 million annual budget goes to paying storwmater run-off fees to the District government.

So the new plan will remove some roads and make others permeable gravel, transform wide two-way roads into one-way routes, and scale back some large parking lots. The goal is to shift to inner and outer circuits.

Drivers will be invited to parallel park along these roads, but there will still be some larger parking lots for peak seasons, which is spring and fall. “In total, there will be 40 fewer acres of parking,” Reed said, which will help the arboretum significantly cut back on those stormwater fees.

The tour trolley then stopped at the Asian Collection. Trees for the Japanese collection were gathered after Word War II; for the Korean collection during the 1950s; and for the Chinese collection in the late 1980s, after the country opened again to Americans. Designed by landscape architect Perry Wheeler, the collection takes visitors down pathways to the Anacostia River.

Asian Collection at U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green

Here, Olsen described the great lengths scientists have gone to in order to gather specimens. One garden features a rare Chinese tree from the Camilia family that required a scientist to travel through a hillside latrine in rural China to secure its seeds. Beyond determined exploration and collection efforts like this, arboretum researchers study tree taxonomies, genetics, breeding, and virology.

Rare Chinese tree specimen / Jared Green

The tour ended at the arboretum’s heart: the interior corinthian columns of the original U.S. Capitol Building, which British garden designer Russell Page and landscape architecture firm EDAW arranged on a hilltop within the expansive Ellipse Meadow in the late 1980s.

National Capitol Columns at the U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green
National Capitol Columns at the U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green
National Capitol Columns at the U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green
U.S. National Arboretum Ellipse Meadow / Jared Green

Experiencing the setting sun in the meadow was an uncommon pleasure given the arboretum’s usual closing hour of 5pm. Hopefully, if the arboretum’s new plan is fully realized, more visitors will be able to discover both the splendor of the landscape and the science, and hours will be extended for summer evening reveries.

Support the Friends of the National Arboretum’s fundraising efforts and also check out TCLF’s What’s Out There Guide to Washington, D.C. online and print versions.

One thought on “A New Vision for the U.S. National Arboretum Melds Art and Science

  1. Valerie Jablow 07/04/2022 / 7:29 am

    Thank you for this. The piece that is missing IMO is funding. Right now, the arboretum has lots of neglect due to lack of funding for decades, with invasive plants, dying or dead trees, abandoned plots and trails, broken amenities (fountains, decorative walls and other hardscape), and enduring road problems co-existing with its many admittedly lovely features. I think it is irresponsible to consider renovations without first funding it adequately such that its current assets are maintained to a level that doesn’t feature such neglect on a regular basis.

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