The Grounds at Dumbarton
As much as the house itself, the grounds at Dumbarton House tell the story of early life in the nation’s capital and in the burgeoning American Republic.
The Grounds Three Centuries Ago
In the early nineteenth century when Joseph Nourse and his family called Dumbarton House home, the house was surrounded by eight acres of property. Nourse owned the land south of his home, running downhill from present-day Q Street to just south of P Street. A large portion of this land was most likely a lawn, sparsely planted with groups of trees and shrubs, as was the fashion at the time. Joseph Nourse is also known to have purchased thorn plants from a local nursery to plant a hedge, a common practice to keep out curious wildlife and roaming farm animals.
Joseph Nourse’s land would also have been populated by a number of outbuildings. His writings indicate the existence of a number of these, including an ice house that he moved to his new property from his previous Georgetown residence.
A large barn with a stable and shelter for cattle was constructed into the slope of the hill to the north of the house. The barn also served as a carriage house and storage for hay and other material. Nourse also noted the efficiency of combining the dairy and smokehouse into a single structure, with an attached washhouse, stating that doing so “saves one roof and a foundation.”
Finally, the grounds also included quarters for the servants– enslaved, indentured, and free– who worked in the house and around the grounds.
New Surroundings for Dumbarton
In 1915, as plans to bridge the Rock Creek and join the Washington and Georgetown sections of Q Street took shape, it was determined that Dumbarton House would either have to be moved or demolished. Today, in its new location, Dumbarton House sits on 1.2 acres of gardens and terraces. The landscaping has evolved over the years, with some additions dating to when the house was moved and others made more recently.
The East Park
The East Park is a landscaped area just to the east of the house itself which is open to the public. As part of the NSCDA Centennial efforts in the early 1990s, it was decided that the vacant lot adjacent to Dumbarton House, donated to the National Society in the 1950s by the Belin family, should be turned into a garden. The Georgetown Garden Club graciously funded the plant material, the planting itself, as well as the landscape design of the park.
The park was designed by noted landscape architect M. Meade Palmer. Palmer graduated from Cornell University with his degree in landscape architecture, and achieved notoriety in the Washington, D.C. area for his minimalist designs which often incorporated a plethora of plant species native to the region. Palmer’s other notable landscape designs in the area include Bull Run Regional Park in Manassas and especially the Lyndon B. Johnson Memorial Grove in Lady Bird Johnson Park on the Potomac River.
Dumbarton House is very grateful for the Georgetown Garden Club’s generous donation which made the beautiful East Park possible.
The Herb Garden
As part of Dumbarton House’s efforts to interpret the historic house and grounds, a landscaping plan was adopted in late 2009 which, among other things, called for the creation of a historically-appropriate herb garden. Dumbarton House Advisory Committee member Guy Williams of DCA Landscape Architects, Inc., designed the garden and researched which plants would be appropriate for the recreation of a 19th-century herb garden. DCA Landscape Architects is an award-winning Georgetown-based firm which plans and executes projects ranging from small gardens to large-scale master planning and estate planning.
Plants would fall under one or more of several general categories of use, ranging from culinary and medicinal to aromatic and economic. The result is a landscaped herb garden with over 40 different plants, herbs, and flowers which in the 18th and 19th centuries were used in everything from herbal teas to soaps and perfumes.
Below is a list of all the plants that can be found in our herb garden. Click a plant to see more information about its uses and characteristics. Much of the information about the plants in our gardens comes from Herbs & Herb Lore of Colonial America, published by the Colonial Dames of America.