A Dunn Welcome Or Why Exactly Does the Dunn Gardens Need a Director of Historic Preservation?

In February, Seattle native, Quill Teal-Sullivan settles into the weighty job title of Director of Historic Preservation at Dunn Gardens.

In February, Seattle native, Quill Teal-Sullivan settles into the weighty job title of Director of Historic Preservation at Dunn Gardens. Or rather more correctly, the description is settling back. Quill worked as a gardener at the Dunn before she set off to complete an MS in Public Horticulture. Since her 2013 graduation from the Longwood Graduate Program, she has been employed as Garden Manager at Meadowburn Farm. Like the Dunn Gardens, New Jersey’s Meadowburn is over 100 years old and listed on the National Historic Register. Sounds like a job tailor-made for someone with Quill’s interest in horticultural preservation. It was. Fortunately, the Mt. Rainier effect, along with an opportunity to cherish a historic garden, proved compelling. The Dunn is pleased to welcome Quill home. 

Why the Dunn Gardens needs a minder of the historic heritage is likely puzzling to some. It is not as though the Gardens presents rolling exhibitions, as does a museum or art gallery. Can’t you just replace the trees and flowers that die? The short answer to that question is yes, the long is no.

The long version response begins with the revered American polymath, Frederick Law Olmsted, (1822-1903). In current vernacular Olmsted got his start as the co-designer of Central Park in New York City when his genius in landscape design surfaced. His guiding philosophy in developing grand spaces is also evident in the work of his two sons. In Seattle alone, the company they formed, Olmsted Brothers Landscaping Architects designed 37 parks, and the grounds for the University of Washington. Understandably, requests to the firm to design private estate gardens were common.

Among those private citizens who engaged their services in 1915 was businessman, Arthur G. Dunn. The correspondence between the company and their client registered great excitement on the part of the latter. Mr. Dunn wrote, “I am …desirous of fixing up the grounds as soon as possible”. Arthur Dunn took enormous pride in the property, undertaking much of the labor himself.

Edward B. Dunn lived on one of parcels into which the estate was divided after his father’s death and he surely inherited the gardening gene along with the land. He turned his property into a woodland haven replete with trails, ferns, rhododendrons, and drifts of both trilliums and erythroniums. Ed is remembered as an accomplished horticulturalist with a warm expansive manner and formidable eyebrows. Alarmed by urban encroachment, Ed Dunn orchestrated the preservation of the property at the end of his life.

The Dunn Gardens is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. To maintain its listing Dunn must retain its historical integrity. That requires maintaining a treatment plan with a simple guiding principle: to preserve the landscape in keeping with the original vision. Implementation, though, is far from simple. Gardens are dynamic. Time and seasons challenge those who take care of them. Finding a suitable replacement for a fallen tree requires lengthy deliberation so the aesthetic and spirit the plant left behind remains.

Of course, all of this history begs the question of why we should bother with such heroic efforts. But, if you believe Martin Luther King, Jr’s assertion that, “We are not makers of history. “We are made by history,” these efforts make eminent sense. Preserving a landscape that grew from the genius of a man who contributed significant parks to the nation is itself a special privilege.

In addition, both Frederick Law Olmsted and Ed Dunn believed highly in conservation. (Olmsted’s efforts led to Congress designating Yosemite Valley as a public reserve, the first such designation.) As noted, Ed Dunn took extensive measures to conserve the Gardens against urban sprawl and his extended family supported his vision with handsome generosity. This is a gift to the public. All you need to do is ask any visitor. After being in the Dunn Gardens people consistently find themselves at peace and it is often difficult to get them to leave. This is because, as Olmsted intended, a deep human need has been met and, as he thought it should, it was met unconsciously. He wrote with reference how this happens:

“Gradually and silently the charm comes over us, the beauty has entered our souls; we know not exactly when or how.”   

So now it is Quill’s turn to preserve and conserve this living museum/urban forest. She is well positioned in terms of experience and qualifications for the task of building on the work of her predecessors, Doug Bayley, Charles Price and Glenn Withey. We are indeed pleased to have her among us. It will be her pleasure to guide us in which trees, shrubs, and flowers to plant when the original ones reach the end of their lifespan. And to tell us why planting something that has not been there before keeps the Olmsted magic alive for us all.

No pressure Quill!