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A Serendipitous Cache of Vintage Photographs

A Serendipitous Cache of Vintage Photographs

Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss in the Orangery at Dumbarton Oaks, ca. 1944. AR.PH.BL.068.

James N. Carder

The Archives is gearing up to help celebrate the seventh-fifth anniversary of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in 2015–16. Dominique Luongo, a Harvard summer intern, is researching the early years of the institute’s past and is writing vignettes on significant people and events to post during the anniversary year. To make her narratives more immediate to readers, she is on the lookout for pertinent images to illustrate her posts and to help recapture the formative years at Dumbarton Oaks.

Only days after Dominique’s arrival at Dumbarton Oaks, another newcomer, the museum’s exhibition technician Colin Kelly, discovered a cache of twenty-nine vintage photographs while cleaning out an overstuffed file cabinet. Taken in 1943–44, these photographs serendipitously depict several of the people, places, and events that Dominique wanted to research. There are images of the founders, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, and of the scholars, Fellows, and staff who were at Dumbarton Oaks at the time. Among the notable medievalists seen in the photographs are Milton Anastos, John Baker, Robert Blake, Sirarpie Der Nersessian, Albert Mathias Friend, Jr., George La Piana, Charles Rufus Morey, Edward Kennard Rand, Michael Rostovtzeff, Paul Underwood, Alexander Vasiliev, and Kurt Weitzmann. These photographs came from the estate of Margaret Ames Alexander, who as a Junior Fellow is also depicted, along with Peter Charanis, Elizabeth Sgalitzer Ettinghausen, Josephine Harris, and Sister Monica Wagner, and staff members James Bryce, Ethel B. Clark, Matthew Kearney, and John S. Thacher.

These photographs also provide an unexpected but invaluable record of the Fellows Building’s kitchen and house keeping staff of the time: Bernice, Josephine, Rosa, and Trollie. These women prepared and served lunches and suppers for the Fellows and scholars—communal meals that are often remarked on in the Archives’ oral history interviews by those who were at Dumbarton Oaks in the 1940s. For example, Oleg Grabar, who periodically visited his father André Grabar during this period, remembered “the lunches and dinners [that] were prepared at the Fellows Building. Now you fix your own sandwiches or whatever. But there was a whole group of staff—black staff from a sort of formal American servants’ class—were there to cook and do the bedding.” Happily, these photographs and others provide some faces for these memories of the early history of Dumbarton Oaks.

In preparation for celebrating Dumbarton Oaks’ 75th anniversary, the Dumbarton Oaks Archives would greatly welcome any reminiscences, images, or artifacts significant to the institution’s history that readers of this page might wish to share. Please contact the Archives via

Among the photographs in this cache are these two group portraits.

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