Revisiting the Greenhouse

Doing field archaeology during a summer heat wave, when temperatures exceed one hundred degrees, when you are gulping down half a liter of water every fifteen minutes, when the air is so humid that it is heavy, when you feel the mosquitoes buzzing around you, is…fun! These past few weeks, whenever Washington afforded me several consecutive days of clear skies, I have been focused on completing the excavation of the old pit greenhouse located near the vegetable garden, concentrating on two important tasks: excavating three 5 x 3′ test units in order to identify the base of the greenhouse, the way it was constructed (and de-constructed), and the type of soil it was built on; and clearing the profiles, in order to understand the stratigraphy of the area. Stratigraphy is a term borrowed from geology, and in archaeology it refers to the layers of both natural and cultural features. As a general rule, the more superficial layers are more recent and the deeper layers are older. Studying the stratigraphy of a site is useful to reconstruct the “life story” of the greenhouse: how it was built, how it was abandoned, and what has happened since then. In this case, the profile indicated that the greenhouse was built on very hard, rocky greenish-brown soil, and part of the floor may have been compacted clayish brown soil, an adequate foundation for this type of structure. “Reading” the layers and the physical remains of the greenhouse also revealed the imprint of demolished walls, and in one of the units we found a layer of broken brick under the central concrete corridor. These bricks would have served to reinforce and stabilize the foundations of the concrete floor.

Back in the Greenhouse

Back in the Greenhouse

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Reading the stratigraphy of the greenhouse: a floor made of compacted earth, followed by the concrete walls of the greenhouse. After it was abandoned, the greenhouse was filled in with earth and fill, in which we found the debris from the demolition process. Finally, a lush layer of fast-growing grass as the most recent layer. 

Unit two before exxcavation

Unit two before exxcavation

 

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Unit 2 at the end of the excavation. Notice the concrete floor (left), the imprint of long-demolished walls on both the floor and the back walls (centre), and the hard, rocky, greenish soil which served as the foundation for the greenhouse.

 

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Image 2, showing the remains of broken bricks under the concrete floor corridor of the greenhouse.

 

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The back of the greenhouse, showing the concrete foundations and imprint of brick walls.

So far, we have been able to reveal a structure far more complex than what we initially believed, mainly due to the discovery of a concrete foundation located at a higher level than the original pit greenhouse, with the remains of a brick wall. Our very preliminary idea, based on the evidence, is that the greenhouse may have been built on two levels, taking advantage of the slope of the terrain.

Although the actual process of excavation yields plenty of information, it was the in the documentation through photography and ground plans that more details emerged, along with more questions and theories of how the greenhouse worked and what was its form. In this case, the plan of the excavation area was especially important since we have not been able to find the original plan for the greenhouse. However, even if we did have the original plan, it does happen that architectural plans and blueprints are not always absolutely accurate reflections of what is eventually built, and they do not include later modifications to the structure. Now that the excavation is complete, a potential next step could be to compare the floor plan of the excavated greenhouse with those of other, contemporary and similar structures; determining which areas were roofed and which were exposed; examine what was the relationship between the two main spaces we identified; and if we are looking at a structure that was built all at once or in stages. By understanding how the old greenhouse worked (and what did not…), we hope to obtain information that will be useful in the potential reconstruction of the greenhouse.

Please Do Not Climb The Lions, and other approaches to conservation and preservation

Part of my research has also focused on studying how nearby and similar parks and gardens, both public and private, approach the issue of conservation, and how do their approaches compare to that of Dumbarton Oaks gardens. In the United States, the Secretary of the Interior has issued a series of guidelines regarding the treatment and management of historic buildings, places and landscapes, and describes four main options: preservation (sustaining the historic form, materials and design), rehabilitation (adapting a historic building/landscape to new use, while still retaining the imprint and identifying features related to its old use; an example being the conversion of old industrial lofts to apartments and stores), reconstruction and restoration (choosing a period of significance, then removing all features that do not belong to this period; think Mount Vernon). One of the main problems with these options is that, with the exception of rehabilitation, all assume that the main value and significance of historic places lies in the past, which often restricts flexibility and the nature of places to change and adapt with time. For instance, I was surprised to read that there was actually a requirement to state a “period of significance” in which the place “acquired” its significance and value. This ignores the fact that places are not just discrete events and moments in time, but a continuum. Think, for instance, of an iconic place like the Lincoln monument, which has witnessed many significant moments that have shaped the way this place is perceived and remembered. It is very likely that this monument will continue to inspire and be the stage for more significant, perhaps even history-changing events in the future. How could we pick just one period of significance?

It is my belief that some of the most successful and valued places are those that preserve their past while adding layers of modernity, creativity and even whimsy. One of the historic places I researched got around this restriction by establishing a “period of significance” which spanned thousands of years, from the prehistoric period all the way to the time when the site was adapted for visitors in the mid-20th century. In this way the curators of this place thus recognized the futility of trying to decide what was “the” most significant period, and emphasized that historic places are made up of many different layers. For instance, is it possible to choose just one “period of significance” for Dumbarton Oaks, considering the number of people who influenced and shaped its design over the years, and considering that even today we still shape this place by the way we use it, the way we see it, the ways we value it? Over lunchtime (ice-cream sandwiches with watermelon, obviously) a fellow once told me that “conservation encourages restraint”, of making sure memorable places remain recognizable, but not static and unchangeable. Conservation is more about curating, about preserving the many layers of the past while adding more layers of interest. What would happen if one day we went for a quiet morning stroll in the gardens and found Lover’s Lane pool filled with pink rubber ducks? Wouldn’t we suddenly see the place differently?

Please do not climb on the lions! Preservation policies at Hillwood estate.

Please do not climb on the lions! Preservation policies at Hillwood estate.

 

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Researching how the public uses and perceives a historic park by using rigorous hands-on methods (Montrose Park, Georgetown)

Dumbarton Oaks Oral History: An Intern’s Reminiscence

Amid other auxiliary projects, my fellow Oral History intern James Curtin and I have successfully interviewed nine Dumbarton Oaks affiliates over the course of the summer: Bridget Gazzo, Natalia Teteriatnikov, Valerie Stains, Herb Kessler, Gail Griffin, Eurydice Georganteli, Justin and Barbara Kerr, and Donald Mehlman. We’re deeply grateful to each one of these people for sacrificing their time to share with us their experiences at Dumbarton Oaks over the years, and we heartily encourage you to peruse their interview transcripts (http://www.doaks.org/library-archives/dumbarton-oaks-archives/oral-history-project): each offers a distinctive, creative vision of Dumbarton Oaks that nonetheless harmonizes with the others into a synergetic whole.

Librarian for Pre-Columbian Studies Bridget Gazzo, crisply knowledgeable, discussed with us the integration of the libraries at Dumbarton Oaks, a gargantuan project the fruits of which scholars studying at the institute savor every day. Researcher and archivist Natalia Teteriatnikov gave us a glimpse into how, fueled by a deep passion for Byzantine studies, she and her colleagues accommodated the arrival of the Princeton Index at D.O., an invaluable research aid, as well as how she went about organizing the D.O. archives. The elegant Valerie Stains chatted with us about the ticket to putting together a cutting-edge, but nonetheless tasteful and enriching, concert series with the Friends of Music program. Scholar Herb Kessler charted for us the democratization of D.O. under Director Giles Constable, and also provided us with an affectionate sketch of D.O.’s oracular Joan Southcote-Aston (http://doakshistory.wordpress.com/2013/07/02/ms-joan-southcote-aston/). Director of Gardens and Grounds Gail Griffin, soft-spoken and deeply kind, took us beneath the garden’s mask of greenery and floral color to reveal the lush philosophy of gardening that puts forth the moldings of its features from behind that mask. Scholar Eurydice Giorganteli intelligently praised D.O. for providing her with the resources she needed to bloom as a scholar. Photographers Justin and Barbara Kerr shared their learned, creative love for Maya vases, as well as an eloquent description of the rollout camera, which Justin inventively applied to the process of photographing such vases. And, finally, gardener Donald Mehlman took us for a tour of the gardens in his expert shoes, renewing our appreciation for the indefatigable efforts required to keep the gardens in their pristine condition. Again, the Oral History interns’ gratitude goes out to all of you, for filling our summers to the brim with your know-how, your deep learning, your high-bouncing anecdotes, and the pleasure of your distinguished company.

 Though my colleague James has another week on the job, this will be, I’m sad to say, my last. I’ll miss the gardens and pool, I’ll miss the stimulating work; but most of all I’ll miss the friends I’ve made during my time here at Dumbarton Oaks, which has been not just a home for the humanities, but my home for the past three, good months, where I’ve always felt welcome.

James and Josh.

James and Josh.

Representing a Wild Washington

Coming from the perspective of a landscape architect, I view research as a design tool to help the public better understand the ever-changing dynamics in their own cities. Therefore, my goal this summer has been to relate and condense the different aspects and qualities of a Wild Washington into a form or concept that can be more easily understood to people living in and visiting DC. This involves the making of several key graphics. My ultimate goal, as a (budding) landscape architect, is to raise awareness and affect behavior by influencing the design of public space.

Urban Wild Scales

Urban Wild Scales

The first step in explaining a Wild Washington is to define the urban wild. Here, I’ve attempted to break down the various components and aspects of the urban wild into multiple scales, measured from “smallest, less visible” to “largest, more visible, assumed.” As evident in the graphic, the urban wild is not only represented by flora and fauna, but also by hydrology, infrastructure, and social activities. Instead of isolating and separating the wild from human appropriation and our constructed environment, how can we foster a stronger relationship between the urban wild and these aspects from our everyday lives?

Urban Wild Palette

Urban Wild Palette

I’ve also been developing a material palette that describes the ever-changing, cyclical characteristic of the urban wild. Inherent in this wild is the idea that nothing is stagnant and a climax stage does not exist. Instead, everything is part of an ever-evolving landscape, fluxing between tame and wild, back and forth. Particularly interesting to this palette (and arguably the most controversial) are the invasive and native species, which alternate in dominance depending on various external influences. Considering this natural flux, are invasive species as detrimental to native environments as people argue? The answer, of course, depends on the location, but perhaps invasive species are just one necessary part to the larger cycle evident in this palette.

Wild Washington

Wild Washington

Given the varying scales, components, and changing palette of the urban wild, I’m in the process of creating a map of a Wild Washington. Large and small corridors and patches form a wild matrix that highlights the movement and locations of plants, animals, water, infrastructure, and social activities. Selected layers of history, infrastructure, and vegetation help give shape to this vision of a Wild Washington, and scaled pullouts of the map highlight just a few of the existing spaces in this wild network.

Wild Spectrum

Wild Spectrum

Finally, Dumbarton Oaks’ relationship to corridors, topography, and water, as well as its proximity and integration with Rock Creek Park, make it an interesting case study within a “Wild Washington.” As a hybrid at the edge of a social and ecological spectrum and lying in the middle of this wild spectrum, Dumbarton Oaks is an integral part of this wild network. In particular, Dumbarton Oaks Park, with Farrand’s cascading water features, has a unique opportunity to hybridize design, experience, and the urban wild.

In addition to my research, I have continued to work in the gardens – planting, clipping, watering, hauling and testing my plant identification skills (to the point where Rigo, Mark, and Luis are probably tired of hearing me ask, “What plant is this?,” for the 100th time that day!). Below is a sketch of one genus I can now confidently identify: a hibiscus, which is currently in full bloom in the Cutting Garden.

Hibiscus Sketch

Hibiscus Sketch

Dumbarton Oaks: History Talking Back

The interns have moved far past the halfway point in our ten-week sojourn at Dumbarton Oaks, and I am reluctantly beginning to think about how I will spend the last few weeks of my summer and the school year, which is beginning to loom on the horizon.  In the meantime, however, I have been reflecting on my work here and the significance of the project to which I have committed a mere few weeks. 

Interviewees for the Oral History Project generally speak for about an hour on their experience and time at Dumbarton Oaks. It is important to note that we do NOT conduct interviews in the traditional sense; instead of a strict question and answer format, the ideal oral history interview has a few guiding questions that lead the interviewee to follow their stream of consciousness.  In this way, they independently identify what they view as most important without the interviewer inserting himself into the conversation.

Thus, oral history interviews are bits of super concentrated history—the most salient memories from a fifty-year period condensed into an hour.  It does not take long to peruse a transcript, and I highly encourage you to do so.  A reader will quickly discover that names, places, and themes reoccur with great frequency. The overlap of content between interviews allows one to create a coherent picture of what it was like to live and work at Dumbarton Oaks in the earlier days of the institution. Countless men and women—the brightest minds in their fields—have devoted great amounts of time and energy to study at Dumbarton Oaks. The magnitude of the knowledge that has accumulated here and its resultant impact on the scholarly community is almost too staggering in magnitude for the curious observer to even begin to comprehend.  Fortunately, though, the Oral History project is a perfect primer for the amateur historian; it covers many of the most important institutional and scholarly developments, all of which are discussed casually and in plain language.

As an individual with no formal training (and very little informal training) in Byzantine, pre-Columbian, or Garden and Landscape Studies, being a part of this project has been extraordinarily informative, and I find I have picked up much more information through osmosis than I would have by casually reading a textbook on one of the subjects.  The concentration of knowledge and the commitment to scholastic excellence makes Dumbarton Oaks one of the most exciting places for someone with a curious mind to spend time, even if he or she does not have background in the areas that are studied here.

For Josh and I, the job is never boring. Though some might think the study of ancient civilizations may be dry, many of the scholars showcase their sense of humor in the interviews. More than that, we have diversified from just interviewing and transcribing; we created a blog, did some entry-level archival processing [with the platform we worked on expected to go live in the fall], and even dabbled in some basic web editing. Bottom line: I have developed a respect for Dumbarton Oaks, its mission, and the people who work here far deeper than I would have expected before arriving here this summer. In the last few weeks I will be spending here, I fully intend to make the most of the garden, the museum, and all the other things that Dumbarton Oaks has to offer, fully aware of how lucky I am to be here.

BY THE NUMBERS:

  • Number of years the project has been ongoing: 6
  • Number of interviews conducted: 108 (and counting)
  • Number of interviews published online: 52
  • Breakdown of interviews by subject:
    • 39 Byzantinists
    • 32 pre-Columbianists
    • 12 Garden and Landscape Scholars
    • 10 Museum Staff
    • Administrators
    • Facilities/Maintenance Staff
    • Garden Staff
    • Librarians
    • 3 Friends and Family of the Blisses
    • Friends of Music Staff