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The Pre-Columbian Collection Pavilion

James N. Carder
“Striking and ultramodern.”

By the date of the construction document set, May 19, 1961, the size of the building had been reduced from the design development phase: an overall square plan of approximately 68 feet rather than 81 feet with eight cylindrical galleries with 20-foot rather than 25-foot diameters (fig. 23). The columns also were decreased in size to a three-foot rather than three-and-a-half foot diameter. Approximate measurements. See note 6. This change in scale likely had been imposed from the Dumbarton Oaks side, and Johnson alluded to this on March 6 when he wrote Thacher: I am sure you realize that it will be necessary to reduce every single one of the sheets we have already drawn.” Philip Johnson to John S. Thacher, March 6, 1961. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence. Additional changes were made. The gallery floors were to be made of wood rather than Belgian black marble as originally specified—a change that was made on August 1, 1961. Teak rather than oak for the flooring was specified on January 3, 1962, “Addendum No. 1,” January 3, 1962. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence. The Peterson Company, Rockville, Maryland, supplied the teak flooring, a shop drawing for which is dated October 3, 1961. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, architectural plans, Johnson, Philip. possibly on the recommendation of Mildred Bliss, When asked in 1994 whether it was Mildred Bliss who had chosen the finishes, Johnson replied: “No, no, I did. But she was very much in on all of the decisions. Since my memory is a self-serving tool, it’s possible that she had even more input. I think she could have changed things from oak to teak or something like that.” Lewis and O’Connor, Philip Johnson, 58. and the teak was to be laid in a radiating, spoke-like pattern from a central disc (fig. 24). At the perimeters, the wood flooring was to be bordered in polished Vermarco verde antique marble (05-3488 V) procured from the Vermont Marble Company of Rutland, Vermont. Johnson had wanted a “green marble with gold markings” for the perimeter trim. However, this could not be located, and the recommended substitute was Vermarco verde antique from the Vermont Marble Company. Earl J. Young, Vermont Marble Company, to George A. Fuller Company, September 11, 1961. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Fuller documents 6, Pre-Columbian pavilion. The verde antique marble was selected so that no white streaks over a quarter inch would appear on the finished floor. George A. Fuller Company, “Completion Report,” June, 1963, 8. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Fuller documents 10, Pre-Columbian pavilion. Verde antique also was used on the exterior around the entirety of the building as base trim for the windows and columns (fig. 25). The columns and exterior deck were to have revetment in what was alternately called Egyptian Vein and Agatan Buff Vein “sand finish” marble (05-3150 V) procured from the same source. A memorandum of November 15, 1961 from Philip Johnson and Associates to the George A. Fuller Company, directed that the columns would be "eight feet two inches in height, three feet one inch in diameter, having three courses high and horizontal veining." This Illinois marble occasionally has been misidentified as travertine. This Illinois marble, similar in look to both Egyptian marble and travertine, also was to be used for the connector flooring and sills. Statuary bronze was to frame the curved glass walls and be used in the upper entablatures, or fasciae, In a letter of December 15, 1961, Thacher wrote Johnson: "Both Mrs. Bliss and I independently selected the same bronze as you did, so with this agreement it must be the perfect one!" John S. Thacher to Philip Johnson, December 15, 1961. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence. which were to have soffits of Agatan marble rather than three-eight-inch square mosaic set in a “broken pattern,” as originally specified, a change that was made on December 13, 1961. The roof and exterior domes were to be clad in lead-coated copper. The open-air “court” at the center of the building was to have a single fountain jet and a basin of water, lined with rough-cut, black Buckingham Virginia slate set on edge in a radiating pattern (fig. 26). A memorandum of November 7, 1961 from Philip Johnson & Associates to the George A. Fuller Company requested samples of the slate finish in the pool area. “The idea is to duplicate the slate finish that has been installed at the British Embassy Court, Washington, D.C.” Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence. At Dumbarton Oaks, the slate was three inches wide and a quarter inch thick and of varying lengths between six and twenty-four inches. George A. Fuller Company, “Completion Report,” June, 1963, 8. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Fuller documents 10, Pre-Columbian pavilion. The interior domes were to be lighted by a ring of lights set in the cove, and exhibits were to be lighted by a few canister spots suspended from the bronze ring base of each dome.

The possibility of an entrance door in the connector finally was eliminated on August 29, 1961, at a meeting of Mildred Bliss, Philip Johnson, and John Thacher, and a second pivoting window was added to Gallery No. 1 in lieu of an entrance door. Memorandum, August 29, 1961. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence. At another meeting on October 17, drains and polished Japanese river pebbles The approved sample of black pebbles sent from Japan is in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives, AR.OB.Misc.011. were specified for the four small courts that would hold planters and be glazed on the court side and vaulted with translucent but opaque plastic domes. Memorandum, October 17, 1961. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence. One additional hurdle was obtaining the approval of the Washington, D.C. Fine Arts Commission. Its approval was required of all buildings designed for the “Old Georgetown” Historic District. The Commission questioned the propriety of allowing contemporary architecture in the “midst of Old Georgetown,” but they approved the plan on the grounds that the new museum would be hidden largely behind brick walls. Jean White, “Striking and Ultramodern, Museum Designed for Dumbarton Oaks Estate,” Washington Post (October 5, 1961). This article also states: “Also, the brilliant concept of Johnson’s design won over several members of the Commission. The Dumbarton Oaks expansion plans also call for a library addition in traditional design. This is being built south of the present gallery which faces 32d St. just north of R St. NW. It is to house Mrs. Bliss’ extensive collection of books on gardens and gardening.” In reviewing these two buildings in 1965, the architect Stanley Sherman wrote: “Since the latter [the Pre-Columbian Collection pavilion] is surrounded by foliage and the former [the Garden Library] has a considerable cleared space before it, the conclusion may be drawn that a building unlike the Georgian surroundings of the area can only be approved by the Commission of Fine Arts if it is hidden.” Stanley M. Sherman, “Uncommon Ground: Dumbarton Oaks Museum Designed by Philip Johnson to House the Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art,” American Institute of Architects Journal 43 (March, 1965): 37. In a Washington Post article of October 5, 1961, written when the museum was “just a big hole in the ground,” Jean White described the design as “Striking and ultramodern. A new museum in the daring style of one of the best contemporary architects.” Ibid.

On February 9, 1962, John Thacher was able to report to the Administrative Committee that “the Building Program was progressing very satisfactorily, in spite of bad weather, and that the contractor considers that both of the new additions would be completed by the 15th of November, 1962. It will, of course, take several months after that date to have them ready for public use.” Minutes of the Meeting of the Administrative Committee, February 9, 1962. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, administration files, administrative committee, 19601969. At the Committee’s meeting of May 05, 1962, Thacher was asked to present “a clear policy as to the future direction of the Collection…so that the Collection could be used to its fullest potential.” Minutes of the Meeting of the Administrative Committee, May 5, 1962. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, administration files, administrative committee, 19601969. This request no doubt was due to the fact that Robert Bliss had died on April 19, 1962. At the next meeting of February 2, 1963, Thacher reported that “the new wing to house Mr. Bliss’ Pre-Columbian Collection was virtually finished except for the installation; the wing of the Garden Library will not be completed for another few months.” He also stated that Michael D. Coe (born 1929), then Assistant Professor of Pre-Columbian Archaeology at Yale University, had been appointed to serve as the curator of the collection, but that he had declined this invitation to accept a permanent appointment at Yale. Coe, however, offered to assist Dumbarton Oaks with the installation of the Pre-Columbian Collection and give his advice in connection with acquisitions and curatorial problems. He therefore was appointed as Advisor of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art with an honorarium of $1,000 and $500 for traveling expenses. Minutes of the Meeting of the Administrative Committee, February 9, 1963. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, administration files, administrative committee, 19601969. Elizabeth P. Benson (born 1924), who as a registrar at the National Gallery of Art had worked with the Bliss Collection, was engaged to install the collection (fig. 27). At their meeting of January 25, 1964, the Administrative Committee agreed to recommend to the Trustees for Harvard University that Benson be appointed Curator of the Collection. Minutes of the Meeting of the Administrative Committee, January 25, 1964. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, administration files, administrative committee, 19601969.


 

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