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Planning the Museum Addition, Phase 1

James N. Carder
“It is hard for me to ‘dream’ properly unless I have the facts.”

In 1958, the Blisses revisited the idea of a museum addition and entered into a new planning phase. On January 25, 1958, then director John S. Thacher announced to the Dumbarton Oaks Administrative Committee that the Blisses had created a fund “to make possible an addition to Dumbarton Oaks on 32nd Street, to house the Garden Library and Collections of seals, coins and textiles and Mr. Bliss’ collection of Pre-Columbian art, which he is considering giving to Dumbarton Oaks.” What was envisioned was a museum addition that could accommodate almost everything that was not presently on exhibition. Thacher explained that preliminary discussions had been held with an unnamed architectural firm in Alexandria, Virginia [sic for Charlottesville ?] and mentioned that the possibility of creating underground library stacks to the north of the main building was being considered. He stated that it was hoped that by the next meeting tentative plans and elevations would be ready. Minutes of the Meeting of the Administrative Committee, January 25, 1958. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, administration files, administrative committee, 19401959. Indeed, in February 1958, the office of the architect Milton LaTour Grigg of Charlottesville, Virginia, submitted two drawings for a proposed museum addition (figs. 5 and 6). Milton L. Grigg, “Proposed Addition to Dumbarton Oaks for Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss,” elevation and plan, February 1958. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, architectural plans, Grigg, Milton. L., AR.AP.MW.GL.114-115. The elevation and plan showed what is effectively a tripartite structure located along 32nd Street between the Byzantine Collection and the Bowling Green. It was designed to accommodate a new exhibition hall, two smaller rooms for a library (on one copy this is inscribed “Pre-Col. Library”) and for Byzantine coins, and a large room for the Garden Library, arranged with bookshelves at right angles to the walls in a design very similar to that which would eventually be built by the firm of Wyeth and King. The elevation was of neo-Palladian style, undoubtedly to be built of brick and limestone, with ocular windows and Georgian detailing that was likely intended to harmonize with the exterior of both the Music Room and the Byzantine Collection gallery, the new addition’s nearest neighbors. However, once again, nothing came of this plan.

Almost exactly two years later, on January 21, 1960, Thacher reported to the Administrative Committee that he and the Blisses had consulted with Grigg, “a year or so ago,” and with Philip Johnson of New York, “during the past summer and autumn,” but that neither of these architects had submitted plans which were satisfactory either to the Blisses or to Thacher. The Blisses’ consideration of both Milton LaTour Grigg, a noted Colonial Revival and preservation architect, and Philip Johnson, a noted modern architect of the “Mies van der Rohe school,” is somewhat surprising, but informative. Grigg (1905–1982) was born in Alexandria, Virginia, and attended the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia between 1924 and 1929. He worked for the architectural firm of Perry, Shaw, and Hepburn on the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg until 1933, the year he established his own firm in Charlottesville. Between 1937 and 1940, he was in partnership with Floyd Johnson, and both men later became fellows of the American Institute of Architects. Grigg later worked with William Newton Hale, Jr. (1920–1954) on the design of residential architecture in Charlottesville. Grigg was a noted preservation architect and did restoration work at Monticello (1936), Edgemont (1939), and other historic properties. He designed the Thomas Jefferson Inn (1951), now known as the Federal Executive Institute, and the Virginia Angus Association building (1952), both in Charlottesville. K. Edward Lay, The Architecture of Jefferson County: Charlottesville and Albemarle County (Charlottesville, 2000), 283. He concluded that the idea of the museum addition was still being studied and considered. At the same meeting, Robert Bliss announced his intention to permanently house his collection of pre-Columbian art at Dumbarton Oaks, but he stated that he wished this matter to be considered entirely confidential. Minutes of the Meeting of the Administrative Committee, January 21, 1960. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, administration files, administrative committee, 19601969. By the date of this meeting, Philip Johnson had submitted a plan, dated August 27, 1959 (fig. 7), Untitled plan for the museum addition. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, architectural plans, Johnson, Philip, AR.AP.MW.PC.001. The original pencil drawing study for this plan, “Study – Proposed Museum / Dumbarton Oaks,” dated August 25, 1959, is preserved in the Philip Johnson section of the drawings and archives collection of the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York. I am grateful to Cammie McAfee for bringing this drawing to my attention. for the museum addition, three additional drawings of plans and an elevation (fig. 8), dated September 1959, Philip Johnson Associates / Architects, “Site & General Floor Plan,” “Lower Floor Plan,” and “Elevation,” September 1959. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, architectural plans, Johnson, Philip, AR.AP.MW.PC.002-004. and a three-dimensional model of the building (fig. 9), Foam core and other materials on wood in pasteboard and imitation leather case, 78.7 x 69.2 x 20 cm (31 x 27 1/4 x 7 7/8 in.). Dumbarton Oaks House Collection, HC.AE.1959.001. which arrived at Dumbarton Oaks in late October. The design for Johnson’s curved, glass-walled building—essentially the design that would eventually be built Of note, however, are these differences: (1) the enclosed planter areas are not yet part of the program and these areas are unroofed and open to the fountain court; (2) the columns are not articulated with large-format stone revetment; and (3) the domes appear to have ocular openings rather than uninterrupted vaults. (see below)—was radically different from the designs for museum additions previously submitted by Patterson and Grigg. Johnson employed eight domed cylindrical gallery rooms, each defined by eight large-scale “columns” and glass walls, with an open-air space for a fountain and a pool in the center. Johnson sited the building to the south of the institutional entrance on 32nd Street, employing an additional cylindrical room as an off-axis entrance or connector at the northwest corner of the existing entrance pavilion. Of note is the fact that in both the first drawing and the model much of the building’s exterior is sheathed by plantings of unspecified variety and height.

Thacher’s avowal to the Administrative Committee in January 1960 that the submitted plans for the new museum wing were unsatisfactory may have been, at best, cautious, and very likely reflected the Blisses’ continued indecision over the scope of the addition’s exhibition program and its location at Dumbarton Oaks. The Blisses may well have been trepidatious about building a highly visible modernist glass structure at the west side of the front yard of the historic mansion. Nevertheless, the preserved correspondence of 1959 Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence. shows that, although Grigg’s plans were no longer under consideration, Philip Johnson’s plan was very much given serious discussion. On May 28, 1959, Johnson had written Thacher to thank him for sending plans of the existing architecture at Dumbarton Oaks. Johnson asked for additional detailed plans of the Byzantine museum and the Music Room and stated that it was hard “to ‘dream’ properly” unless he had the facts. These plans as well as photographs of the north façade of the Music Room were sent on June 6. The inclusion of the photographs of the Music Room suggests that at this point in the negotiations the proposed addition was to be located north of the Music Room and Byzantine Collection, where Grigg had sited his proposed addition. However, one month later, on July 6, Thacher sent Johnson additional photographs “taken of the Dumbarton Oaks property at the corner of ‘R’ and 32nd Street,” the site where, eventually, the Garden Library was built. He wrote: “Several days ago we mailed to you a group of topographical plans of that area, so that now I hope you have all the information you will need to assist you in the preparation of sketch plans indicating your suggestions for the development of that area along the lines about which we have talked.” John S. Thacher to Philip Johnson, July 6, 1959. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence. Having received these materials, Johnson tellingly wrote Thacher on July 7, remarking: [I]t strikes me that we will have to sit down together on the program for several more times and that I will have to see the whole collection before anything really sensible can be worked up.” Philip Johnson to John S. Thacher, July 7, 1959. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence.

On August 4, 1959, Frederic Rhinelander King returned to Dumbarton Oaks and met with John Thacher at his invitation. Correspondence between John S. Thacher and Frederic R. King, July 27 and 29, 1959. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Wyeth & King correspondence. The Blisses, who were in Europe at the time, do not appear to have been involved in or consulted about this visit. As no detailed correspondence survives regarding King’s return to Dumbarton Oaks, only speculation can be offered as to the nature of the visit. It is possible that Thacher wanted King to provide an alternative proposal to the one being worked on by Johnson. However, it is also possible that Thacher saw the utility of dividing the program of the new museum and creating two additions, one for the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art and another for Mildred Bliss’s Garden Library. Indeed, this is what eventually came to be, and by September 1960, King was beginning a preliminary design phase of the Dumbarton Oaks Garden Library. He wrote Thacher on September 15: “I shall be in Washington fairly often in the next month and shall make an appointment to see you when I have developed some ideas. The problem is a most interesting one and I hope we can find a satisfactory solution in due course.” Frederic R. King to John S. Thacher, September 15, 1960. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Wyeth & King correspondence. His reason for being in Washington fairly often was that he had designed the Phillips Collection annex wing, which would open on November 5. A review of the new building in the April 9, 1961 issue of The Sunday Star called it a “small masterpiece of modern museum design and a rare example of quiet brilliance in the installation of art for public view.” http://www.phillipscollection.org/docs/research/library/chronology.pdf (accessed August 14, 2011).

By August 31, 1959, Thacher was able to write the Blisses in Europe that he had “stopped in at Philip Johnson’s office to see his suggestions for the new wing. They are still quite embryonic but the general idea is terribly exciting to me. I do not want to describe it to you for fear I would not give a clear picture.” To Johnson, he wrote two days later on September 2 a remarkable letter that demonstrates just how “embryonic” and unsettled the idea of the new wing indeed was at the time:

My enthusiasm about your conception of the new wing makes me terribly anxious to see at least the floor plan which you have laid out. The dimensions of the two mosaics, about which I spoke, are: a. The long strip is: 22’8” x 10’9” (6.91m x 2.87m). Dimensions taken from publication. It can be divided into three sections, as the two end sections are of geometric designs, whereas the central section consists of dolphins, putti, etc., and is very colorful. Floor Mosaic with Erotes Fishing, Late Roman, 2nd-3rd century. Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection, BZ.1940.64. This mosaics was installed in the Byzantine Courtyard Gallery in 1989. b. This mosaic is the shallow pool, the dimensions being 6.60m x 6.20 m (mosaic) (12.80m x 11.80m-pool, outside dim.) It actually belongs to the Fogg but I think we could arrange to acquire it, if it seems advisable. Thinking of mosaics reminds me of the fact that if all of the Byzantine objects are to be in the new wing, the four mosaics now in the floors of the various corridors would have to be moved. Please do not forget that we need office space terribly, particularly as we may have to sacrifice the two offices adjacent to the present entrance vestibule. Also the demands for space for scholars are such that it will be no time at all before we will be forced to create more studies. As I told you, Miss Carpenter and I could move out of our offices, which would give enough space for Fellows for some years to come. On looking at the present exhibition room again, I do not believe that a gallery would look at all well. If one could insert windows on the north side of that room, I believe it could be made into attractive offices for me and the administrative staff; the garden library would then be without a home, unless it were put into my house. This, I fear, might give the impression that the garden library was being pushed down the hill in an isolated place. We also will have to have those unattractive necessities, such as coat rooms, lavatories, a drinking fountain, switchboard, sales desk, et cetera, et cetera. I wonder if we really need the double walls on 32nd Street. If the new curved wall were pushed right up to the line of the present wall, the boundary line of the property, then the whole building could be brought several feet nearer the Street, which would help the entrance problem. P.S. The drawing See note 5. has just arrived. Many thanks! John S. Thacher to Philip Johnson, September 2, 1959. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence.

This letter laid out a surprising museum program at Dumbarton Oaks, almost none of which was to make the final cut. It suggested:

  1. that the new wing would be located along 32nd Street to the south of the entrance vestibule;
  2. that the entire Byzantine Collection, including its previously installed floor mosaics, would be relocated to the new wing, presumably to be exhibited together with the Pre-Columbian Collection;
  3. that a new mosaic (to be acquired from the Fogg Museum of Art) would serve as a shallow pool (very likely in the central open-air court);
  4. that the Byzantine Collection gallery might become administrative offices instead of being retrofitted for Mildred Bliss’s garden library;
  5. that the garden library might instead be located in what was at the time the director’s house (now the refectory); and
  6. that non-exhibition facilities, such as bathrooms, had not yet been considered. On the issue of non-exhibition facilities, see infra and note 141.

After the arrival of the model, See note 7. which Mildred Bliss had been “very anxious” to see, Alberta Carpenter (secretary to John S. Thacher) to Philip Johnson, October 13, 1959. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence. sometime in late October, the Blisses and Thacher met with Johnson at Dumbarton Oaks on November 13. John S. Thacher to Philip Johnson, November 6, 1959. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence. Although no minutes of this meeting either were made or retained, its conclusion most likely brought to a temporary halt further development of the museum addition, no doubt in order to allow time for the Blisses to refine the program of any museum addition and to determine its appropriate location. Johnson signaled the conclusion of this phase when he wrote Thacher on December 9: “I hesitate to bill you. The work done to date, of course, has amounted to much more than the total billed, but I know that it is always very difficult to pay for projects that don’t go ahead. Needless to say, if there is more work to be done, the amount previously paid will be credited against any further contract. Let’s get together soon, in any case.” Philip Johnson to John S. Thacher, December 9, 1959. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence. Thacher wrote back on the 10th: “Thank you for your letter of the 9th, enclosing your statement to date, for which I am herewith sending you our check in payment thereof. Last evening Mr. and Mrs. Bliss dined with me and we had a long talk about the building program. The situation is far from clear and as soon as any definite program is arrived at I will let you know. Mr. and Mrs. Bliss once again asked me to tell you how ingenuous [sic] and exciting your suggestions are.” John S. Thacher to Philip Johnson, December 10, 1959. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence.


 

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