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About the Swimming Pool and Loggia

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When Robert Bliss purchased “The Oaks” from the Blounts in 1920, the land was a working farm. The area immediately north of the Orangery served as a stable yard. The stable yard ended where the ground sharply sloped away from the house, dropping over forty feet. Into this hillside, the Blounts built a “bank barn” with a high northern wall and a low, overhanging loft to the south with a driveway passing beneath. The area directly behind the barn, on its northern side, was the manure pit.

The Blisses chose this unlikely hillside as the location for their bathhouse and pool. The architect Frederick Brooke planned and built a bathhouse on the site of the barn, and the manure pit was replaced with a pool. In 1923, the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White took Brooke’s place, and they collaborated with Beatrix Farrand to renovate the bathhouse and integrate the pool area with the rest of the garden. Farrand focused on creating a space with retaining walls that disguised the steep and variable grades of the land, and she added classical, European-influenced elements in keeping with the overall garden concept. The majority of changes to the pool area were carried out between 1926 and 1935. The pool and bathhouse, which became the loggia, took on a unique blend of distinctly Italian and French design elements.

One of the first major changes in 1927 involved lengthening the pool, extending it west. The western retaining wall of the pool area proved a particular challenge for Beatrix Farrand. In addition to providing support and decoration, the wall needed to distract the eye from the higher elevation of the North Vista landscape in the distance.

Farrand knew a straight horizontal wall would exaggerate the awkward drop between the North Vista and pool. Between 1929 and 1931 she experimented with various mock-ups, testing silhouettes and textures for the final design. After toying with the idea of a lattice finish, Farrand settled on a curved, Rococo cast-stone wall with cream-colored rocaille ornamentation. Into the high central arch, she placed a fountain with a red marble basin to catch the falling water. The pool at the base of the basin was planted with blue nymphae water lilies during the 1930s. The other plantings along the western wall served to soften the lines of land and ornament. Creeping vines draped over parts of the rocaille wall, and two Weeping Higan Cherries (Prunus subhirtella) framed the fountain from above.

Frederick Brooke’s original bathhouse also underwent serious changes. Architect Lawrence Grant White and Beatrix Farrand worked together and transformed the building into an Italian-style Loggia. They added windows, wooden doors, and an intricate cut-limestone paving design that carried around the pool. The artist Allyn Cox (1896–1982) painted colorful canvas frescoes for the interior walls and ceiling of the Loggia. Cox, the painter responsible for the murals in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, chose the myth of Diana and Actaeon for his canvas frescoes. Unfortunately, his work almost immediately deteriorated due to the damp environment. Cox attempted to repair the paintings, but in 1948 they were deemed unsalvageable and the murals were removed. In the late 1950s, Cox collaborated with a New York mosaic studio to recreate a simplified version of the original design in Portuguese tile. Three mosaics remain in the interior archways of the Loggia.

The influence and suggestions of multiple artists and designers affected Farrand’s final design choices for the pool area. In addition to Cox and White, Farrand consulted with Armand Albert Rateau. At the request of Mildred Bliss, Rateau sketched various possible designs for garden ornamentation and the western wall of the pool enclosure. Farrand incorporated elements of his sketches into her final designs for the Pepperpot and the shell fountain in the Horseshoe Steps. The Horseshoe Steps enter the pool area at the southwestern corner; opposite them in the northwest, another set of stairs lead from the pool to the orchard. At this gate, the Blisses installed a stone inscription that brought a verse of poetry into the garden area. They chose a verse from the fourth stanza of Joseph Auslander’s “Reprieve.” Auslander, the first Poet Laureate of the United States, was a close personal friend of Robert and Mildred Bliss. The poem references azaleas, which may have led to the choice to transplant overgrown white azaleas from the Star Garden to the northern side of the inscription gate in 1946.