The landscapes surrounding the Hirshhorn Museum’s plaza and sunken garden exhibit a more restrained palette and style than most of the other gardens at the Smithsonian. These garden spaces have experienced many minor design changes since major redesigns were implemented in 1977 and 1991. In more recent years, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturists have honed the continuity and subdued landscaping conceived by Lester Collins and by James Urban.
Though the plant palette remains relatively green throughout the plaza and sunken garden, it stays interesting with shifts of texture and noteworthy plant specimens. The plaza is broken up into ‘rooms’ separated by clipped allées of crabapple trees. Lining the perimeter walls are hedges of holly, false cypress, and laurels that act as a neutral green backdrop to the diverse collection of modern art displayed on carpets of lawn. Though the color of the hedges remains limited, the subtle changes in texture from one plant to the next keeps the plantings visually interesting and prevents the space from feeling too overwhelming and enclosed. Three magnificent southern magnolias punctuate the northwest corner of the plaza.
The sunken garden is a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of Washington, D.C.’s summers and a getaway from the often hectic activity on the National Mall. Plantings here offer a more dynamic range of style and interest. Central beds of grasses and bold-leafed evergreens anchor the garden with a cohesive appearance while lavender adds a soft touch of fragrance to the air. Crape myrtles arch over the northern sidewalk, snowing white flower petals on visitors in late summer. Interesting conifers are a highlight. Look for the crooked growth of the black pines, the ancient-world look of dawn redwoods, the cloud-like appearance of mature ‘Thunderhead’ pines, and the lacy texture of false cypress. One corner of the garden plays host to a large climbing hydrangea, a frequent resting stop for visiting birds. Along the Mall, a line of cherry trees blooms profusely in the early spring. It is the perfect spot to enjoy the famed D.C. cherry blossoms away from the crowds at the Tidal Basin. Locals often consider the sunken garden a hidden gem to enjoy art and a soothing atmosphere alike.