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National Arboretum
Photo courtesy of the DC SHPO

Official proposals for the establishment of an arboretum in the Washington area date as far back as the McMillan Commission of 1901. The gradual elimination of the Botanic Gardens on the Mall in the second decade of the 20th century provided a new impetus for such an undertaking. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. served as landscape architect for the McMillan commission and its successor, the Commission of Fine Arts and when the National Arboretum was finally established by Congress in 1927, Olmsted was on its Advisory Council and intimately involved in its planning.

The Arboretum is located in northeast DC and is bordered on the east by the banks of the Anacostia River. The site is marked by Mount Hamilton on the west and Hickey Hill on the east with a broad central valley and Hickey Creek running through the center. Initially 189 acres were purchased in 1928; today it encompasses 412 acres.

As the only federally supported arboretum, and one of the larger arboretums in the country, the National Arboretum plays a unique role. It breeds plants for localities throughout the country. Its mission is to serve the entire country, and in the controlled environment of its greenhouses it breeds plants for particular locales. The primary functions of the Arboretum are research and education and its Federal support allows for long-term projects. The first and most popular exhibit, the azaleas, was the product of pioneering research of the first director.

National Arboretum
Photo courtesy of the DC SHPO

The Arboretum grounds retain a sylvan look. This has been accomplished by retaining most of the natural woods, including beeches, oaks and Virginia pines, which stood on the grounds when the land was purchased, and limiting the amount of roadways. The exhibition areas are located either along the roadways or on pebbled paths off the roadside. Their design varies from the formal landscaping of the Gotelli Dwarf Conifer Collection on the north shoulder of Hickey Road to the natural planting of crabapples along Hickey Hill Road. Fern Valley is limited to ferns and other plants native to eastern North America.

When the US Capitol building was expanded in the 1950s, 22 34-foot tall sandstone Corinthian columns were removed. The columns, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe and erected under the supervision of Charles Bulfinch were destined for a landfill when Mrs. George Garrett rescued them. Finally after years of negotiations, they were taken out of storage and English landscape architect Russell Page designed a setting for them on a knoll near the main entrance. Also on the grounds is the United Brick Corporation Brick Complex NR near the entrance at 2801 New York Avenue, which was built 1927-31.

The National Arboretum is located at 3501 New York Ave., NE. Arboretum grounds are open every day of the year except December 25th from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. The Administration Building is open Monday through Friday 8:00 am to 4:30 p.m. and on weekends in spring through autumn. The Arbor House Gift Shop is open daily and on weekends from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm, March 1 through December 24. The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum is open daily from 10:00 am to 3:30 pm. National Arboretum is not within close proximity to a Metro station.

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