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The Dunn Gardens: Olmstedian Gardenesque and Robinsonian Woodland Gardening

Articles: The Dunn Gardens: Olmstedian Gardenesque and Robinsonian Woodland Gardening
View through the glen flanked by EB Dunn’s woodland garden, 1996. Photographs courtesy of the Dunn Garden Archives
View through the glen flanked by EB Dunn’s woodland garden, 1996. Photographs courtesy of the Dunn Garden Archives

The Dunn Gardens are an attractive, spacious and peaceful oasis in the midst of typical low-density suburban development in north Seattle. They are an unusual surviving example of the turn-of-the century custom of creating “summer places” in the rural fringe of the city. Designed by The Olmsted Brothers, landscape architects of Brookline, Massachusetts, for Arthur Dunn in 1915, they now comprise three adjacent, but legally separate properties. Since the property boundaries are invisible, visitors can still experience the tranquil landscape qualities originally envisaged. The sensitive subdivision of the property, in 1945, by Dunn’s four youngest children also serves as an instructive example of how to maintain over time the design integrity of an important historic landscape.

The Dunn Gardens represent a significant example of the Olmsted firm’s approach to design in the Pacific Northwest. Within its wooded context, Edward Dunn, the second son and a distinguished horticulturist, created an important woodland garden in the Robinsonian tradition. His garden is now owned and controlled by a trust, while deed covenants over the adjoining parcels, still owned by members of the Dunn family, protect the principal remaining part of the Olmsted garden. The three gardens are managed as a single unit to ensure a sense of visual continuity. Their continued presence is a remarkable testament to the original vision, at a time when many larger residential properties from the early twentieth century are being subdivided.

Plan of Arthur Dunn Garden by The Olmsted Brothers,  ca 1916. North is to the right. The original cottage is at  the center; the original garage is just out of the picture  at the bottom. Photographs courtesy of the Dunn Garden Archives
Plan of Arthur Dunn Garden by The Olmsted Brothers, ca 1916. North is to the right. The original cottage is at the center; the original garage is just out of the picture at the bottom.

The Olmsteds’ Plan 

Arthur Dunn moved to Seattle in 1889 from his birthplace in Cape Vincent, Nova Scotia, and became a founding partner in a successful salmon-processing company with plants in Seattle and Blaine. Around 1912, he contemplated developing a summer place, as was then customary among affluent families, either on Bainbridge Island or in The Highlands, the exclusive domain of the Seattle Golf and Country Club. The latter’s building restrictions, combined with his strong desire to keep a cow and other animals, persuaded Dunn to purchase from his friend, John B Agen, the southern half of a twenty-acre parcel of logged-off land in an undeveloped rural area in 1914.

This gently sloping property, with a small ravine close to the southern boundary, was extensively wooded, yet had plenty of open space suitable for garden development and commanded subtle panoramic views west over Puget Sound to the Olympic Mountains.

Dunn hired the distinguished architect Carl Gould, of Bebb and Gould, to design “a cheap cottage;” in May, 1915, he commissioned The Olmsted Brothers to site the cottage and prepare a landscape plan. Agen had already hired the firm, so it made sense to jointly plan the properties. On February 29, 1916, JF Dawson, from The Olmsted Brothers office, presented the landscape plan.

A single drive serving both properties led through the center of the undeveloped, wooded, eastern section of the two properties and then split into the developed garden sections of each. The Dunn cottage was approached by a graceful curving drive that survives today. This provided diagonal views down into the southern ravine. Scattered among the original vegetation in the ravine were a variety of crabapples, including Malus halliana, M. spectabilis, M. halliana ‘Parkmanii’, M. ioensis, and M. sylvestris ‘Neidzwetsky’. Large masses of native salal (Gaultheria shallon) and shrub roses on the drive’s right side screened views of the garage, the water tank tower, the vegetable garden, and an area designated for a tennis court. Provision of any space for a cow was conspicuously missing.

The long, low, broad V-shaped cottage was placed at the eastern end of a large undulating lawn that served as an outdoor room. This large spatial element in the garden was designed to create a sense of expansiveness, which was enhanced by island beds with groups of free-standing Douglas-firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and cherry trees liberally underplanted with narcissus. Curving paths threaded through the stands of trees at the edge of the lawn, providing a sequence of views into the open lawn. This siting was contrived to ensure views from the cottage of three distinctive peaks in the distant Olympic Mountains through the trees at the western end of the lawn. An oval croquet lawn, four feet below the level of the main lawn, occupied the southwestern corner of the property.

The naturalistic spatial character typified the Olmsteds’ adherence to “picturesque” planning ideas. But the firm’s strong antipathy toward the native firs resulted in their being thinned, and new shrubs planted beneath. Typical combinations included butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), syringas, and rhododendrons, including Rhododendron ‘Alba Elegans’, R. ‘Charles Sargent’ and R. ‘Lady Armstrong’. This new facer planting was intended to create a “gardenesque,” or garden-like, setting. Against the west side of the house were beds with lilacs (Syringa), privet (Ligustrum), honeysuckle (Lonicera), Viburnum tinus, and Spirea x vanhouttei. The motor court was lavishly planted with Poet’s narcissus (Narcissus poeticus) and heathers (Calluna). In many places, Dawson, who was noted for his considerable plant knowledge, created gradations in the planting. A typical sequence was narcissus, Rosa multiflora, viburnum, Rhamnus, mock orange (Philadelphus), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), foxgloves (Digitalis), and salal. The northern boundary, separating the Dunn and Agen properties, was established with a mixture of native hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Douglas-fir, maples (Acer), and native Spiraea and Philadelphus.

While the designed character and planting of the Dunn estate is generally similar to the firm’s other northwestern residential commissions, it is most unusual in containing a large number of deciduous trees that Dunn had specifically requested, reflecting his deep-seated love for his native Eastern landscape. They have now grown to a prodigious size and dominate the garden. European beech trees (Fagus sylvatica) occur along the southern side of the main lawn and along the drive, together with several oaks (Quercus palustris and Q. rubra), and three sugar maples (Acer saccharum). A large cucumber tree (Magnolia acuminata) was planted in the turning circle of the motor court. Along the eastern part of the drive were a red-flowering and a double white horsechestnut (Aesculus x carnea and A. hippocastanum ‘Baumannii’), both of which have recently been removed because they were casting too much shade.

Arthur Dunn was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable gardener and implemented Dawson’s design, using his planting plan as a guide for herbaceous borders, perennial gardens, and screen plantings of deciduous and evergreen shrubs. However, he pointedly disregarded the designers’ advice about obtaining his plants from Eastern nurseries and used the services of a local nursery.

Motor court with the original cottage designed by Carl Gould
Motor court with the original cottage designed by Carl Gould

A Second Generation of Dunns

By 1920, Dawson’s design was fully implemented, albeit with some different plants; such changes in detail, however, did not affect the Olmsteds’ design. As a summer retreat, this country place gave immense pleasure to the Dunns and their five children for decades. Following Arthur Dunn’s death in 1945, the estate was subdivided among his four younger children. The youngest daughter already lived on the property in a small house built by her father on a separately platted lot at the edge of the old croquet lawn. The youngest son and his family lived in the original cottage, until it was replaced in 1949 by a new ranch style house, designed by Daniel Lamont; its placement just to the south of the original house extended the size of the lawn (now known as the Great Lawn). The sprawling plan and low-lying that of the new house attempted to reflect character of the cottage. The drive was retained and slightly rerouted to enter a new motor court at the entrance to the house.

Edward Dunn took over the remaining eastern portion of the garden, centered around the vegetable garden and original garage. In 1947, he converted the latter into a three-bedroom, two-bath house for year-round use. The remaining undeveloped eastern wooded section of the property was sold in 1952 and, with the equivalent adjoining wooded section of the Agen property, formed part of a new sub-division, which now serves as the entrance to the Dunn garden.

Ed Dunn gardened here successfully from 1947 until his death in 1991. He gardened firmly in the tradition of the gentleman-amateur, who successfully integrated several influences (including his gardener-father’s example) and seemingly disparate passions—hunting, fishing, photography and travel, plant collecting, and seed exchange with horticultural friends—into a framework that made for a distinctive way of gardening.

Erythronium montanum on Mount Rainier. Photograph  by EB Dunn
Erythronium montanum on Mount Rainier. Photograph by EB Dunn

A Woodland Garden

On the site of the former vegetable garden, Dunn developed a small lawn, defined on its western side by a curving herbaceous border. A new loop drive, in front of the converted house, connected back to the original drive. Beneath the existing canopy of firs and deciduous trees, he planted numerous hybrid and species rhododendrons, camellias, and azaleas, together with a range of native plants that he collected on sites in Washington and Oregon. These included Erythronium, Trillium, Camassia, Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum), Viola, huckleberry (Vaccinium), hemlocks, and a medley of groundcovers.

Narrow, meandering paths in the woodland garden threaded among the shrubs and led down to a long grassy glen, at the southern end of the ravine, that terminated in a vegetable and experimental plot sited on the sunniest area outside of the lawn.

Ed Dunn’s garden owed much to the gardening theories of England’s William Robinson, who codified the planting techniques of both the woodland garden and “wild gardening.” He also defined the true task of the gardener as that of an artist representing nature. The woodland garden is a visually coherent representation of Pacific Northwest nature, derived from years of close observation. Ed hunted and fished throughout the Northwest, frequently from May to September or October. These jaunts not only provided opportunities for excellent sport but also enabled close study of the natural regional landscapes. His photographs from such expeditions record his delight in the immense scale of these lonely landscapes, as well as the great pleasure he took in studying how small plants (especially erythroniums) grew in these sublime settings. The photographs from these trips, and from his own garden, provide critical insights into the way in which he viewed and valued the world around him.

In addition to his sporting trips, he made frequent plant-collecting jaunts into the local mountains; these are recorded in his diaries with entries such as the following: “Soil taken near Corvallis, Camp Adair area. grubbing erythronium and trillium sessile” (January 3, 1948); “2 days plant hunting. . . . east of North Bend. Took numerous wild cover plants. Camas, solomon seal, etc. and blue huckleberry and native azaleas” (May 28, 1950); “Left from Stevens Pass. Picnicked and marked the spot for return for bulbs” (May 3, 1952). On the following day, he recorded, “Dug bulbs as usual. A dozen Calypso and a strange small ground cover.”

He became an ardent advocate of Erythronium, writing in Horticulture “of all the wildings that can be brought into the garden none is more successful or satisfying than the western erythronium. . . . most rewarding for very little trouble. . . . Late February in my garden the earliest in bloom is E. Tuolumnense native of Tuolumne County in the High Sierras, clear and bright. . . . Early March E. revolutum will suddenly appear pushing through the brown maple leaves. The sight is always thrilling to me but also sends me for the slug bait. . . . By the time the narcissi are starting to bloom there will be clumps of E. revolutum shining in the rain, its bright yellow anthers contrasting widely with the different shades of . . . blossom.” He concluded, “few plants can bring as much feeling of the woodland and springtime as the western erythronium.”

View across the Great Lawn toward the enclosing woodland, with rhododendrons flowering under deciduous trees, 1979. Photograph by EB Dunn
View across the Great Lawn toward the enclosing woodland, with rhododendrons flowering under deciduous trees, 1979. Photograph by EB Dunn


When he started gardening in the late 1940s, rhododendron cultivation in the United States was largely confined to the Eastern states. John and Carol Grant noted, in 1943, that the best-known rhododendrons in the Pacific Northwest were the older garden hybrids, which had been superseded by the introduction of species and improved hybrids. Dunn’s close friends, EHM Cox and Peter A Cox of Perthshire, Scotland, noted, in 1965, that rhododendron cultivation in the US had suffered from the inferior development and availability of the better species and forms. However, they drew attention to the development of dwarf hybrids that were more appropriate for smaller American gardens.

Species rhododendrons were equally neglected. Leonard Frisbie, founder of the Pacific Rhododendron Society, lamented, in 1949, that rhododendron cultivation in the Northwest was dominated by the spectacular hybrids, despite the fulminations of a few lonely advocates of species rhododendrons.

Ed obtained plants for his woodland garden from local nurseries, distinguished plant collectors, such as the Coxes, and botanic gardens, as well as from his own forays into the local mountains. It is difficult to establish exactly which came first, but, prior to his earliest recorded purchases from nurseries, we know that he grew two old hybrid rhododendrons: ‘Mrs. E. C. Sterling’, recommended by Robinson, and ‘Betty Wormald’, a hybrid appearing in England, prior to 1922, that Harold Hillier described as a “magnificent hybrid with immense trusses of large funnel-shaped, wavy-edged flowers, which are rich crimson.”

Rhododendrons figured prominently in Dunn’s 1950s acquisitions from nurseries on Vancouver Island. In 1951, he purchased roses, fruit trees, Prunus, and rhododendrons from a Victoria nursery. The order is interesting because it included only two species rhododendrons: R. augustinii, which, with its striking blue flowers, is considered one of the finest of all rhododendrons, and R. yunnanense. The hybrid cultivars, in a full range of colors, included the large, striking ‘Beauty of Little-worth’, together with a number of smaller compact selections, such as ‘May Day’, ‘Fabia’, ‘Faggetter’s Favorite’, ‘Mother of Pearl’, ‘Mrs. G. W. Leak’, and a Naomi Exbury hybrid. A 1956 order, from another nursery on Vancouver Island, included a small number of Rhododendron species, mainly from Szechuan, such as R. augustinii, R. yunnanense, and R. oreotrephes.

In later years, Ed bought frequently from a nursery in Portland, which may reflect the difficulties in importing plants from outside the US. This particular nursery supplied many native ground cover plants and rhododendrons such as R. keiskei, a bushy compact species from Japan, and ‘Snow Lady’, a compact, early, white-flowering American hybrid that had just been introduced.

In 1957, this same nursery provided Rhododendron ‘Blue Bird’, a dwarf small-leafed hybrid raised at Bodnant by Lord Aberconway, and R. ‘Bow Bells’, one of the most popular bushy compact hybrids. He also bought R. burmanicum, a compact species from southwestern Burma with yellow to creamy or greenish yellow flowers, and R. racemosum, with deep rose pink flowers. Later purchases concentrate on the cultivars raised in or after the 1930s and include ‘Ethel’ and ‘Elizabeth’ both from Bodnant, ‘Thomwillams’ from Cornwall, and two Exbury hybrids, ‘Diva’ and ‘Cecile’. In 1963, he planted opposite the front door a Magnolia sargentiana var. robusta, which is now one of the most prominent plants in the garden.

In the late 1960s, Dunn commissioned Al Bumgardner to design a single-story garden room that functioned as a large conservatory reception room. Here he cultivated more tender species. He wrote to James Russell, the owner of the famous Sunningdale Nursery in England, “I have been fooling with a few of the tender rhododendrons in my “Orangerie.” Some of the Maddeni [series], particularly a hybrid ‘Else Frye’, have done well this year, and we have a bloom on a Favaniaum [sic] rather strong orange for the first time. I have enough trouble trying to keep the hardy stuff in the garden in good shape, but don’t know why I add to the burden with the tender ones. But it seems to be fine.” In 1976, he received seed of Rhododendron mucronulatum, which had been collected from Mount Halle San and sent to him by Hideo Suzuki.

Path through the woodland garden with trilliums flowering beneath the rhododendrons, 1996
Path through the woodland garden with trilliums flowering beneath the rhododendrons, 1996

Garden Work

While Ed had part-time help in running his garden, he gardened frequently himself. His diary entries combine observations about what was happening in the garden with a record of the physical work he was doing, and provide some insight into what brought him pleasure in his garden. On May 25, 1950, he recorded “Purple lilacs at their best. Whites soon to catch up. ‘Mrs. E. C. Sterling’ and ‘Betty Wormald’ rhodos just opening.” Five days later, he noted “Spent day in garden. Rhodies and lilacs still perfect. Columbine, trilliums, geum, bridal wreath in bloom with iris starting. all trees in good leaf now. black walnut just out.” In the following year, on February 3, he noted “Spent day moving lilacs, peonies, roses to prepare planting next to Hollies.” On April 16, he wrote “Narcissus almost over, Early tulips coming into bloom. Cherry and pear trees in full bloom. Dogwood still light green. planted erythronium,” and on April 28, he added “Magnolia at its best.”

Magnolia sargentiana var. robusta, opposite the front door. Photograph by EB Dunn
Magnolia sargentiana var. robusta, opposite the front door. Photograph by EB Dunn

The garden was also a place of experimentation. At the rear of the garage, a lath structure over raised beds provided a setting for raising plants such as erythronium, whose seeds would be given to friends and as a special gift to thank the owners of gardens that he visited on the East Coast and abroad.

The last improvement he made to the garden, in 1987, was the creation of a small pond above the north end of the woodland glade, built to a design by Lynn Sonnemen of Sonnemen Design.

An Active Horticultural Life

By the mid-1950s, Ed Dunn was a prominent figure in local and national horticulture. From 1954 to 1958, he was president of the Seattle Rhododendron Society. From 1957 to 1960, he was president of The Arboretum Foundation. Between 1959 and 1965, he was vice-president of the American Rhododendron Society and served as president from 1965 to 1989. During this period, he played a key role in transforming this moribund organization. The society awarded him its Gold Medal in 1971. He also served as president of the Rhododendron Species Foundation, an organization which he helped found. His role as a horticulturist was celebrated in 1958, when Endré Ostbo named the rhododendron hybrid ‘Edward Dunn’ after him. As Ted Van Veen said, in 1969, it was “named for one of the most enthusiastic rhododendron people.”

Ed Dunn died at home in 1991 at the age of 87. His will provided that his house and his 2.7 acre woodland garden would be preserved. In 1993, the property and a maintenance endowment were donated to the EB Dunn Historic Garden Trust, a nonprofit organization that works to conserve historically and horticulturally significant gardens in the Northwest. His home and garden is preserved, maintained, and made available for scheduled public educational, horticultural, and historic uses.

Visitors to the Dunn garden experience two expressions of regionalist design. The remaining sections of The Olmsted Brothers’ design, centered around the Great Lawn, are an example of the first attempt to create gardens that celebrated the character of this region. It is an edited understanding of this region: it retains the native evergreen trees as a background, but the introduced open lawn spaces and plantings of smaller flowering shrubs and trees in the foreground created a new aesthetic that was simultaneously both “picturesque” and “gardenesque.”

Woodland pool designed by Lynn Sonnemen, 1980. Photograph by EB Dunn
Woodland pool designed by Lynn Sonnemen, 1980. Photograph by EB Dunn

Ed Dunn’s woodland garden is an equally important representation of the “nature” of the Pacific Northwest in a perfected or improved sense. While the Olmsted vision is, to a considerable extent, based upon older aesthetic standards, Ed Dunn consciously used a mixture of native and non-native plants, carefully adjusted to the scale of the garden spaces and in a relatively muted range of colors, to establish a regional aesthetic. His own relatively solitary encounters with wild nature—in the mountains and at the beaches—and his passion for hunting, fishing, and photography fostered a deep appreciation for the varied ways in which wild plants grew. By combining native and non-native plants, he was able to create a new nature—one that reflects, in a perfected manner, the forms and character of the true nature of the region.


If You Should Like to Visit

Dunn Gardens is open for guided tours, by appointment only, from April through July and from September through October. For reservations, call 206/362-0933, send an email message to info@dunngardens.org, or visit www.dunngardens.org. The gardens are located about ten miles north of downtown Seattle. Directions will be provided.

Dunn Gardens has been selected as one of only twelve Save America’s Treasures projects to participate in HGTV’s Restore America: A Salute to Preservation campaign. Working in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, HGTV initiated this program in 2003 to raise awareness and generate support for saving America’s beloved and historic places. The Dunn Gardens is one of only two participating projects focused on historic landscapes and gardens; the other is Hakone Japanese Garden in Saratoga, California (featured on HGTV in the month of October).

As part of this program, HGTV provides grants totaling one million dollars to the twelve featured sites. The Dunn Gardens grant, combined with matching funds from local philanthropists, has been used to restore the Great Lawn, making it is less dependent upon summer irrigation; to renovate the Lower Woodland Garden (improved irrigation, air circulation, and thinning the canopy), allowing for better growth of the rhododendrons; to conserve heritage trees by returning asphalt pavement to a crushed rock composition in keeping with the original Olmsted specifications; and to rebuild the entrance gates and the lath house.

Throughout August, 2005, HGTV will feature Dunn Gardens in celebrity salutes and one-minutes public service announcements at various times each day. A grand “kickoff” celebration on August 4 at Dunn Gardens will feature representatives of HGTV, the National Trust, and Save America’s Treasures, along with local civic leaders, and horticultural experts. The Broadview neighbors, members of the media, and other guests will be invited to attend the festivities. If you would like to receive an invitation, please call the reservations number given above.




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