As you may know by now, I absolutely love traveling and exploring historical places! In recent years, I’ve been increasingly drawn towards lesser known ones that are rarely crowded and thus easily explored at leisure, more lenient towards allowing you to take as many photos as you’d like and generally, require only an afternoon of your time. The more I visit smaller museums and libraries, the more I find them freeing and less overwhelming. And if they have beautiful gardens to get lost into, I am smitten!
The place we are visiting today is just such a place: a haven of culture, history and art, with some impressive gardens to explore and wander in.
Dumbarton Oaks is a Research Library and Museum with an extensive Park and gardens located in the historic Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC. I visited the place a couple of years ago and because I spent such a lovely time there, I wanted to tell you all about it!
Currently, the entire estate is closed to the public but check back here for new developments and re-opening times.
He was a diplomat and philanthropist with a penchant for collecting Byzantine, Pre-Colombian and European artwork and furnishings. She, a dedicated and steadfast lover of flowers and garden landscaping. Together, they traveled the world and collected quite an impressive and distinguished art collection. They ultimately gifted their property, including their art collection, to Harvard University in 1940. Generously, they continued to purchase and donate various objects to Dumbarton Oaks until the rest of their lives.
This is what Robert Woods Bliss said in 1947 about the items that caught his attention and ended up being added to this expansive collection:
I have collected objects which gave me pleasure: a sculpture boldly conceived; a gold object delicately wrought; a fabric of good design, well woven; ceramics with interesting iconography; metal work of quality – a rhythm here, a form there.
Dumbarton also fosters learning and exploration.
The three main study ares are Byzantine, Pre-Colombian and garden landscape, as well as archeological research. Through their fellowship program, the institute invites scholars from around the world for an academic year, or over the summer, to study its books, journals, documents and artifacts. What an incredible opportunity to explore at leisure its impressive collection!
At the time of my visit, the library was sadly, closed, so here is the ONLY glimpse I got of the library:
And when I say “impressive”, I mean it! just the Byzantine Collection comprises more than 1,000 objects dating from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries.
The variety is fascinating: from large-scale mosaics from Antioch and relief sculpture, to more than two hundred textiles, coins and seals, to six manuscripts dating from the period. For anyone interested in this field and a lover of medieval times, visiting the museum is like discovering a hidden gem.
The collection also includes Greek, Roman, and western medieval artworks and objects from the ancient Near East and various Islamic cultures.
A very interesting thing that I discovered when I visited the Museum was that it was at Dumbarton, in 1944, due to a series of conferences orchestrated by Robert Woods Bliss that the basis of an organization responsible to safeguard and promote peace in the world was formed. The final outcome will be the United Nations with its charter adopted in San Francisco in 1945.
A glimpse into the Music Room – concerts, lectures, art displays and informal discussions, all have occurred and are still happening here.
Another fun fact is that In 1937, Mildred Bliss commissioned Igor Stravinsky to compose a concerto in the tradition of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos to celebrate the Blisses’ thirtieth wedding anniversary. The Concerto in E-flat was subtitled “Dumbarton Oaks 8-v-1938,” and the work is now generally known as “The Dumbarton Oaks Concerto“. Igor Stravinsky himself conducted it at Dumbarton sometime in 1947 in the room above.
The Research Library contains more than 200,000 items that support the three study areas mentioned above. In 1964, it acquired both Robert Woods Bliss’s personal collection of 2,000 rare and important works and Mildred Bliss’s garden library, which now includes 27,000 books and pamphlets.
Not only did Dumbarton Oaks opened its library and museum to the public, the Music Room to lectures and concerts, but its lovely Park and gardens as well.
In 1921, Mildred Bliss commissioned Beatrix Farrand to design and plan the surrounding estate and thus began a collaboration that would last almost thirty years.
Working closely together, they designed the garden(s), planned every detail and transformed the existing farmlands surrounding the house into terraced garden rooms and vistas, a pool, a tennis court, orchards, vegetable beds, and at the outskirts of the property, a wilderness of meadows and stream.
The most surprising discovery when I researched about Dumbarton was Beatrix herself! Niece of Edith Wharton, self taught gardener and landscape architect (there were no formal schools of landscape architecture in the 1890s), she designed roughly 110 gardens for private residences, estates, country homes, public parks, botanic gardens, college campuses, and even the White House. She also toured Europe, her travels and subsequent discoveries influencing her work and style.
Eventually, she became recognized for her diligence, commitment and hard work and was one of the founding members (and the only woman at the time) of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
Some of her notable garden and landscape gardening projects include: the initial site and planing of the National Cathedral‘s garden in Washington, D.C., designing the East Colonial Garden (now redesigned as the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden) and the West Garden (now the White House Rose Garden) at the White House, and even the grounds of the Morgan Library in New York City, where she continued as a consultant until she retired.
Unfortunately, many of her private gardens no longer exist. Dumbarton Oaks, however, is considered to be her most complex and complete garden project. For more detailed descriptions of the Garden’s areas, see here.
Together with Mildred, she designed, planned and integrated a multitude of features, both American, as well as English and Italian. Beatrix had enough foresight and sensibility to allow, from the very beginning, space for the Park and its gardens to evolve and change over time, leaving room for future innovation and renovation.
During my research, I found out about other female trailblazers in landscape gardening, on British soil this time, and I invite you to discover them here.
If visiting the museum or library is not something that appeals to you, then just a stroll through its Park and gardens is absolutely worth doing!
To allow yourself a moment of respite, to enjoy the sounds and vistas of a beautiful garden in the midst of the city’s noise, gives our minds and souls a chance to daydream, to wonder, to disrupt the incessant flow of thoughts, worries and daily stress. This is the beauty and magic of well preserved and well loved gardens, just like this one is.
I loved so much Mildred’s thoughts about the future legacy and preservation of Dumbarton, as well as her views on the importance of humanities, nature, free speech and art, that I had to share them with you:
“Those responsible for scholarship at Dumbarton Oaks should remember that the Humanities cannot be fostered by confusing Instruction with Education; that it was my husband’s as well as it is my wish that the Mediterranean interpretation of the Humanist disciplines shall predominate; that gardens have their place in the Humanist order of life; and that trees are noble elements to be protected by successive generations and are not to be neglected or lightly destroyed. I charge those responsible for carrying forward the life at Dumbarton Oaks to be guided by the standards set there during the lifetime of my husband and me. The distinction of the scholars themselves as well as of their writings; the interpretation of the texts and the arts; the quality of the music performed; the free discussion within the limits of good deportment, and the whole tempered by the serenity of open spaces and ancient trees; all these are as integral a part of Humanism at Dumbarton Oaks as are the Library and the Collections. The fulfillment of this vision of high intellectual adventure seen through the open gates of Dumbarton Oaks will add lustre to Harvard, to the academic tone of our country and to scholarship throughout the world.”
I LOVED visiting the museum and discovering the Park and I hope you did too! I am forever grateful and in awe to be able to visit these places that hold space for art, culture and history because up until 100 years ago, most of them were not open to the general public, but reserved for the wealthy and the elite.
Again, how lucky are we to have access to so many great houses, mansions, castles and libraries, all over the world? If Jorge Luis Borges, a renowned Argentine poet and short-story writer is attributed with the saying, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library”, well, to that I say, why wait until then?
Visit Dumbarton, its library and museum, when it will be safe to do so and its doors will be open again! and please share this post if you enjoyed it.