Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dumbarton Oaks

Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss purchased the 1801-built Federal-style brick house and surrounding property in upper Georgetown in 1920, after a long search for a permanent home. Robert Bliss was a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service, and until that point the two had lived a nomadic life overseas. The estate, adjacent to Rock Creek Park, had been the former home of John C. Calhoun, who had served as Vice President under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson and well as being a U.S. Senator (South Carolina) and a member of the House of Representatives.

After buying the property, Mildred and Robert Bliss altered it significantly, renovating and expanding the house to include the Music Room and, eventually, the Museum. They worked with landscape architect Beatrix Farrand to transform the unkempt land surrounding the house into terraced gardens and vistas. These gardens are considered among the most significant residential gardens in the country; they go beyond mere landscaping efforts - they are works of art. In a remarkably compact 10 acres, the gardens contain border gardens, kitchen gardens, a large residential swimming pool, an ampitheatre, broad sweeps of lawn, rose gardens and magnificent specimen trees. Everything here is a one-off - every gate handle, every piece of wrought iron, each urn, every bench. They exist nowhere else. The gardens at Dumbarton Oaks are a superior example of a client's money and taste channeled through the extraordinary vision and talent of an artist, in this instance Beatrix Farrand.

Over their lives, the Blisses assembled large and important collections of artifacts and books, which they housed at Dumbarton Oaks. In 1940, they donated their collections together with the house and its grounds to create the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, to be managed by the trustees of Harvard University, the alma mater of Robert Bliss. The institution was originally dedicated solely to Byzantine studies, but the scope was later broadened to include Pre-Columbian studies and the history of landscape architecture. The Blisses remained actively involved in the institute until their deaths in the 1960s. Dumbarton Oaks was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1967.

The Pre-Columbian Pavilion (photo below), a series of eight round, domed pavilions arranged in a square, was designed by architect Philip Johnson and opened to the public in 1963. In 2005 scholars were welcomed into a new library, and in 2008 an extensive renovation of the house and museum was completed.

Dumbarton Oaks has lent its name to a major musical work by Igor Stravinsky: Mr. Bliss commissioned Stravinsky to compose a concerto for his thirtieth wedding anniversary in 1938. The resulting "Concerto in E-flat" for chamber orchestra is more commonly referred to as the "Dumbarton Oaks" concerto.

Photo: The original Music Room, where Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks" concerto premiered. There is a celebrated chamber music concert series that takes place in this room today.

This room, which was designed in 1927 by Lawrence Grant White of the New York City architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, contains tapestries, sculptures, paintings, and furniture dating from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Prominent in the room is a 1926 Steinway concert grand piano signed by Ignace Paderewski, who had played this instrument in the home of Mildred Bliss's mother in Santa Barbara, California. As a true centerpiece for this room the Blisses acquired a large French Renaissance sixteenth-century stone mantelpiece that originally came from the Château de Théobon in Loubès-Bernac, France. Early in 1927, they acquired two Italian Renaissance sixteenth-century marble arches from Ravenna that established the music room’s Renaissance character. They failed to find an antique Renaissance ceiling and floor, however, and instead commissioned the Parisian designer Armand Albert Rateau to fabricate reproductions inspired by examples at the guardroom of the historic Château de Cheverny near Paris.Of particular importance in the room’s furnishings are several significant masterpieces, including the Flemish tapestry The Prince of Malice (ca. 1470–80), Tilman Riemenschneider's early sixteenth-century lindenwood sculpture Virgin and Child on the Crescent Moon, and El Greco's early seventeenth-century Visitation.

The Friends of Music at Dumbarton Oaks concert series, which was inaugurated by the Blisses in 1946, continues to this day. These concerts, as well as a popular lecture series, are held in this room. It is a delight to hear chamber music in a setting for which the compositions were composed, by candlelight enhanced by the soft effects of table lamps. No modern concert hall can convey such an atmosphere.

An event of international significance took place at Dumbarton Oaks. In the late summer of 1944, Dumbarton Oaks hosted the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, an international meeting that laid the groundwork for the creation of the United Nations.

The magnificent gardens, designed by Beatrix Farrand, are the most visited attraction at Dumbarton Oaks. The gardens are open daily from 2 pm, except Mondays. Admission is charged from March 15 through October 31 (free during the winter season). Entrance at R and 31st Streets.