The name Dumbarton has been part of Rock Creek history for more than 300 years—dating back to a plot of land called Rock of Dumbarton.
The word Dumbarton is from the Gaelic Dun Breatann—meaning Fortress of the Britons. It describes an actual rock in Scotland, rising in two peaks above the waters where two rivers meet. A castle has guarded that strategic high ground since the 1220s.
A Scottish immigrant named Ninian Beall established his Rock of Dumbartonin 1703 at the point where Rock Creek meets the Potomac River. Beall was remarkable in appearance, longevity and accomplishment. Tall and brawny with long red hair, he had been taken prisoner by the English army in Scotland, served five years as an indentured servant in Barbados and Maryland, and then prospered in the New World—amassing some 25,000 acres of land by the time he died at age 92. He also earned the title of Founder of Georgetown, the city that grew up around his 800-acre Rock of Dumbarton.
Thanks to a 1712 map, Beall is the first person documented to have lived along Rock Creek. Another feature on the map is an Indian trail, which more or less became Wisconsin Avenue.
House and Gardens
A house was built in 1801 within the original Rock of Dumbarton parcel on the highest point in Georgetown. The home was enlarged in the mid-19th century and named The Oaks. US diplomat Robert Bliss and his wife Mildred Barnes Bliss purchased the mansion in 1920 and called it Dumbarton Oaks. They not only preserved the house, they hired landscape architect Beatrix Farrand to create one of America’s greatest showplaces of landscape design. Farrand, the nation’s first female professional landscape architect, arranged formal gardens near the mansion, which gave way to informal gardens and finally to a naturalistic setting highlighted by newly created ponds and waterfalls.
For their 30th wedding anniversary, the couple commissioned a chamber piece by Igor Stravinsky. The Concerto in E-flat, subtitled Dumbarton Oaks, had its private premiere at the estate in 1938, four weeks before its public debut in Paris.
Robert and Mildred Bliss would give us much more than a piece of music. In 1940, they donated the entire property. Mr. Bliss’s alma mater, Harvard University, received the mansion and formal gardens. They have become the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, whose gardens and celebrated exhibits of Byzantine, Pre-Columbian and European art are open to the public. The United Nations was formulated in 1944 at a conference at Dumbarton Oaks.
Two of Rock Creek's Sister Parks
The remaining 27 acres became a gift to the American people—Dumbarton Oaks Park, now managed by Rock Creek Park and supported by the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy. Entering at the evocatively named Lovers’ Lane (or either of two other entrances), visitors can stroll through a "planned wilderness" of forest and meadow; find peace beside a stream, waterfall or scenic bridge; linger in the forsythia walk and enjoy colorful wildflowers and bulbs.
Next door—also under Rock Creek supervision—is Montrose Park, on a parcel originally called Parrott’s Woods. During the early 19th century, rope tycoon Robert Parrott would let Georgetown residents visit his property for picnics and other gatherings. His workers used the long walkway lit by gas lamps as a “ropewalk”—the place where rope was braided.
The Other Dumbarton House
A home built in 1799 on another part of the original Rock of Dumbarton tract was renamed Dumbarton House by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America after the group had it restored with 18th and 19th century furniture and decorative arts. Since 1932 it has served as a museum and the Society’s headquarters. Dumbarton House also has a connection with the Dumbarton (or Q Street) Bridge over Rock Creek. The home was moved about 100 feet north in 1915 to allow Q Street to be extended to the bridge and to the Dupont Circle area beyond.