Mildred Barnes Bliss
On September 9, 1879, Mildred Barnes Bliss was born in New York City. Her parents, Demas Barnes and Anna Dorinda Blaksley Barnes, were influential, accomplished, and well-known. Demas Barnes (1827-1888) served as a U.S. Congressman from 1867 to 1869. Through a series of smart investments in patent medicines like the immensely popular Fletcher’s Castoria, he built the family fortune. Mildred’s mother, Anna Dorinda Blaksley Barnes (1851-1935), was Demas Barnes’s second wife. She brought to the marriage her own wealth and a distinguished bloodline tracing back to the American Revolution.
During Mildred’s childhood, Mrs. Barnes ran a fashionable “salon” out of their New York home, and her daughter grew up surrounded by the city’s intellectual elite. Mildred’s formal education included violin, piano, and French lessons, rounded out by finishing school at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut. Like many young people of her social class, Mildred departed from school on a grand tour of Europe, particularly England and France. During her time in Europe, Mildred’s burgeoning interest in art collecting began to mature. She spent her life building a library of rare books and objects, including a Stradivarius viola, but it was in Europe that her collector’s passion first blossomed. While overseas, Mildred purchased a number of etchings and engravings, as well as an Opus Anglicanum textile fragment.
In 1894, the widowed Anna Dorinda Barnes married William Henry Bliss (1844-1932). As a result of her mother’s remarriage, Mildred met William Henry Bliss's son, Robert Woods Bliss. Robert was only four years older than Mildred, and the two became friends. After their parents’ marriage, Mildred returned to Europe and finishing school in Paris, while Robert attended Harvard. Separated, the two exchanged long and friendly letters. When Robert graduated, he joined the U.S. Foreign Service, and Mildred continued to write and visit him at every opportunity. By 1905, Robert’s letters began to hint at more than fondness for Mildred. She returned the affection, and in 1908, they were married.
Due to Robert’s work as a diplomat, the Blisses spent the early years of their marriage frequently moving. After just a year spent in Brussels, Robert’s job took them to Buenos Aires in 1909 and then Paris in 1912. The seven years the Blisses spent in Paris shaped the couple profoundly, developing their dedication to philanthropy and their patronage of the arts.
Mildred hosted frequent musical and cultural evenings at their Paris apartment at 4 rue Henri Moissan. Guests included such luminaries as pianist Ignacy Paderewski, composer Enrique Granados, author Edith Wharton, and art collector and historian Royall Tyler. Royall, a childhood friend of Mildred’s, encouraged the Blisses in their passion for collecting. He shared with them his extensive knowledge of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, guiding them to rare and important objects as they built their collection.
When World War I broke out in Europe, the Blisses’ focus turned from supporting the arts to the war effort. In 1914, Mildred and Robert helped found the American Ambulance Field Service, donating a fleet of 26 fully stocked ambulances. Mildred also opened and equipped a distribution service for medical and surgical supplies and clothing. When America entered the war in 1917, she served as chairman for the American Red Cross Woman’s War Relief Corps in France. After the war, France thanked Mildred for her extensive service by making her a Chevalier of the French Legion of honor.
Robert’s career took the Blisses from Paris to Washington, D.C. in 1919. After years of what Robert called “professional nomadism,” they used their return to the United States as an opportunity to establish a home. In 1920, Robert purchased 54 acres of rolling hills in Georgetown. They named the property Dumbarton Oaks, a reference to the original name for the land, the Rock of Dunbarton, given by Ninian Beall, in 1703. The Blisses immediately set about renovating the neglected Georgian mansion and grounds. Mildred particularly embraced the challenge of transforming the farmland into a classical, European-inspired garden landscape.
Soon after the Blisses purchased Dumbarton Oaks, the State Department sent Robert to Sweden and then Buenos Aires. Although they arranged visits to their Washington, D.C. home, the Blisses did not move to the property until Robert retired in 1933. Undaunted by distance, Mildred oversaw the house renovations, construction projects, and garden design through constant correspondence with her landscape gardener, Beatrix Farrand, and architect, Lawrence Grant White. Descriptions, blueprints, mock-ups, photographs, and drawings traveled back and forth between Mildred and her designers. She consulted on every detail. By the time the Blisses took up residence at Dumbarton Oaks, the former farm was transformed into a Georgian Revival mansion surrounded by a series of terraced garden rooms, a suitable framework for the garden that Mildred Bliss envisioned.
The Blisses only lived at Dumbarton Oaks for seven years, but the time was well spent. Under Mildred’s exacting eye, the garden design continued to grow, mature, and evolve. She commissioned a number of plaques and inscriptions to be placed around the property. One of the first, a Greek inscription in the Green Garden, was dedicated to Beatrix Farrand. In her newly renovated home, Mildred resumed the musical and cultural evenings she began in Paris. For their thirtieth wedding anniversary, the Blisses celebrated with the performance of a concerto by Igor Stravinsky, commissioned for them. All the while, the Blisses continued adding to their Byzantine and Pre-Columbian collections and libraries.
Change came to Dumbarton Oaks in 1940. For years, Mildred and Robert had discussed donating their gardens, collections, and library to Harvard University as a cultural and educational institution. They intended to make the gift after their deaths, but with World War II looming on the horizon, they decided to establish their legacy immediately. Late in 1940, Dumbarton Oaks changed hands and came under the administration of Harvard. Mildred and Robert Bliss moved to a smaller house in the same Georgetown neighborhood, but they remained intimately involved with their former home. Mildred especially retained creative control over the gardens. She continued to work with Beatrix Farrand and later landscape architects to draft and carry out new designs. Ruth Havey provided many of the major redesigns of the 1950s, including the Arbor Terrace parterre (1954-55), the Pebble Garden (1959). Mildred Bliss tasked landscape architect Robert Patterson with planning a Byzantine Garden, a Garden for the Blind, and a Garden Library, none of which were realized. Alden Hopkins also worked for Mildred Bliss, and his Hornbeam Ellipse with Provençal fountain (1958, 1967) proved satisfactory.
Upon her death in 1969, Mildred Bliss gifted Dumbarton Oaks one last time. Inspired by her decades-long collaboration with Beatrix Farrand, Mildred began in the 1940s to begin to acquire a comprehensive library of rare and respected garden and landscape texts. In building the collection, she consulted with Beatrix Farrand, the Houghton Library at Harvard, and librarians at the Harvard School of Architecture, among others. In 1963, she oversaw the installation of her collection in the new Garden Library, designed and built by Frederick Rhinelander King. By 1969 the collection consisted of manuscripts, books, photographs, prints, and drawings representing botanical illustration, architecture, herbals, floras, and more. Mildred turned over the library in her will, which established not only a renowned library but also endowed a fellowship program in Garden and Landscape studies. This program joined the established Byzantine (1940) and Pre-Columbian (1963) fellowship programs at Dumbarton Oaks. With this final act, Mildred completed Dumbarton Oaks’ transformation into the multi-faceted institution it is today. Her ashes now rest with her husband’s in the Rose Garden they loved so well.
A Home of the Humanities: The Collecting and Patronage of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. Edited by James N. Carder. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010.
Carder, James N. “Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss and the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.” In Sacred Art, Secular Context: Objects of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., Accompanied by American Paintings from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, edited by Asen Kirin, 23-37. Athens, GA: Georgia Museum of Art , 2005.
Karson, Robin S. A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007.
Special to the New York Times. "Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, 89, Ambassador's Widow, Is Dead." New York Times (New York, NY), January 19, 1969.
Tamulevich, Susan. Dumbarton Oaks: Garden Into Art. New York: The Monacelli Press, 2001.
Whitehill, Walter Muir. Dumbarton Oaks: The History of a Georgetown House and Garden, 1800-1966. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1967.