Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dunn Gardens, a miniature Olmsted in north Seattle

A paperbark maple, Acer griseum, showing off its coppery bark against native salals and Rhododenrons.
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Last Friday, I wandered through the lush, dripping shrubberies of the Dunn Gardens in Broadview, some five miles north from Seattle city centre. A piece of living garden history of the Pacific Northwest, they were designed in 1916 by the renowned landscape design firm Olmsted Brothers, and built by prominent Seattle business man Arthur Dunn, who had made his fortune (amongst other things) in the salmon canning business.
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Beds filled with Epimediums, Hellebores, ferns and other woodland plants.
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A square lawn that used to be a tennis court, meets the visitor like a small surprise after all winding paths that lead to it from different parts of the gardens.
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At that time, the Olmsted Brothers was one of the most prominent landscape design companies in the United States. Its initial founder, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) had designed several notable parks and gardens, such as the Central Park in New York, the grounds of the US Capitol, Stanford University in northern California, and the huge Vanderbilt-owned Biltmore House in North Carolina. His son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr (1870-1957) continued the work, and established the Olmsted Brothers together with his stepbrother John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920). These two designers were invited to develop a park plan for Seattle city in 1903, a commission they filled more than satisfactory during the following three decades. Their legacy in the Seattle area gardens and parks is immeasurable; not only did they deliver the park plan, but also designed tens of parks, avenues, playgrounds and public and private gardens in the area. The Dunn Gardens are one of the few surviving private ones.
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Luscious seedpods of the giant Himalayan lily, towering three meters above the ground. They have self-seeded themselves prolifically in the gardens, forming commanding focal points in the most unexpected places.
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Doll's eyes, Actaea pachypoda, is native to the eastern North America. The whole plant and especially the dotted, porcelain white berries are highly poisonous.
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The Dunn Gardens bears all the characteristics of a typical Olmsted design. It is well adapted to the topography of the site, and its design takes into consideration the sloping site and the distant sea view. Meandering paths wind around the gardens, and reveal the overall plan and sights only gradually to the viewer, which makes the garden feel larger; also, borrowed views have been used for the same purpose. Native plants are used throughout the gardens, and existing trees and other vegetation have been saved and included in the plan when possible. There is even a small water feature, another typical element for the Olmsteds, even if this was added to the design by Arthur Dunn's son, Edward Dunn, who just like his father was an enthusiastic gardener. Edward continued to take care of the gardens until his death in 1991.
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Beautiful stone steps, an original feature by the Olmsteds, was found only recently under a layer of soil and debris that had gathered on the unused tennis court..
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The work of the Olmsted Brothers forms an important part of the history of appreciation of native landscape and plants in North America, that began with the first landscape gardens laid out by presidents George Washington in Mount Vernon (in mid to late 18th century) and Thomas Jefferson in Monticello (late 18th to early 19th century), and continued with Andrew Jackson Downing's hugely influential book A Treatise on the Theory and Practise of Landscape Gardening Adapted to North America (1841), the first book that advised American gardeners to use native plants and to adapt their designs to suit the surrounding landscape. Many others, like landscape designer Jens Jensen and garden author Frank Scott, expressed the same ideas in their work, but none had probably as wide-spread and lasting legacy in this area as the Olmsteds together.
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A selection of pots filled with lush greenery, their contrasting leaf forms complementing each other.
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As I wandered through the Dunn Gardens, after almost a century from their creation and with the surrounding suburbia creeping close onto them on all sides, I felt how they still quietly relayed the original Olmstedian goals that had guided their design. The paths lingered, never revealing what was waiting around the next copse, headlands of plantings pushed into the vast lawns, and behind the boundaries, distant trees invited my eyes to explore the scenery further away. Many of the plants, like the towering Douglas firs and huge Rhododendrons, had clearly grown out of their optimal size and sometimes overtook the scene. Despite this, these majestic, native plants continue playing an important part in the story of the Dunn Gardens, just like the Dunn Gardens play an important part in the history of gardens in the Seattle area.
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4 comments:

Northern Shade said...

It's a lovely woodland garden. The maple in the first photo looks great rising out of the lush plantings. I like the little details in the planting around the stone stairs.

Madame C said...

Beautiful garden and very interesting post. A bit far for a visit and therefore grateful for your show:)
Charlotta

nilla|utanpunkt said...

Vackert reportage! Och så fint med den inhemska plantorna, inte alltid givet nu för tiden. SKönt med så mycket grönt nu när det blir allt gråare. Ha det så gott (och jag finns kvar, om än inte så ofta i bloggvärlden).

Jean Bradbury said...

I would still love you to start a lecture series on garden history. I would subscribe!
Hope you are well,
Jean