Framing the Kitchen Garden

Farrand’s 1927 drawing of the Kitchen Garden showing the location of the Frameyard.

By Siobhan Aitchison

July 16, 2012

Another hello from the garden!  I am one of the three “shared” Garden and Landscape Studies interns Alexis introduced in her last post. As landscape conservation intern, I have been focusing on the history of the Kitchen Garden at Dumbarton Oaks. Previous landscape conservation interns have given detailed accounts of the development, discontinuation, and reconstruction of the Kitchen Garden as a whole, while I am focusing specifically on the Frameyard, which is the northeastern-most section of the Kitchen Garden that once included hot beds, cold frames, and a pithouse.  (A pit house is a semi-underground greenhouse, one of many forms of greenhouse technology used to help plants start start earlier in the season–or survive later–than they would be able to in the open ground.) In the late 1940’s, the gardeners stopped planting a vegetable garden, and finally after 1949, the pithouse was interred.  My task has been to determine what the Frameyard looked like, what inspired its design, how it was used, and why it was removed.

Surveying our progress! You can see the original stairs leading to the entrance of the pithouse (next to the area that used to house the stove) on the lower right.

Using surveys of the property from the 1920’s, Gail Griffin, Director of Gardens and Grounds and the garden staff were able to locate and begin the excavation of the remains of the pithouse in May of this year. With the help of the gardeners, shared interns, and volunteers, we have managed to make a great deal of progress toward revealing the foundation and interior structure of the pit house. The pace of excavation has been slowed by the significant amount of brick rubble and highly compacted soil on the site.  The recent heat wave also presented a bit of a set-back (digging in 100-plus temperatures is not advisable!), but now that we’re back in the 90s, excavation should proceed much more quickly.  It will be exciting to see if enough of the foundation remains for the pit house to be restored!

The excavation process is very important because no detailed construction drawings of the pit house or the other structures in the Frameyard are housed within the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections. To help fill in the blanks, though, I have spent three days each week reviewing correspondence and historical garden texts for information about the pit house’s design, use, and the reasons for its suppression.  I have especially enjoyed reading the correspondence between Beatrix Farrand, Mildred Bliss, and former director John Thacher.

One day each week I take a break from the books and excavation to work with the garden staff and other shared interns in the garden.  I work with Rigoberto Castellano’s team in the Northeast quadrant of the garden.  I love having the chance to get outside and pester the gardeners with questions: I have learned more from them in a couple of months than I could in two years of coursework! They are a very knowledgeable bunch and it has been a joy to pot chrysanthemums, prune pear tree espaliers and lop off wisteria runners under their guidance.


I am a Master’s in Landscape Architecture student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. I will be completing my degree in 2013. I have a BA in philosophy and the history of math and science from St. John’s College in Annapolis.

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