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75 Years Ago this Month: The First Month of Official Business

Posted On November 20, 2015 | 13:43 pm | by jamesc | Permalink
James N. Carder (December 2015)


Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss in the Dumbarton Oaks Orangery. Dumbarton Oaks Archives (AR.PH.BL.068).

Although the inauguration of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection occurred during the first three days of November 1940, the legal transfer was realized only on November 29. At that time, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss deeded Harvard University sixteen and a quarter acres, including the house, the library and museum buildings, and their contents. At the same time, they gave the U.S. National Park and Planning Commission twenty-seven acres to create what they asked to be called Dumbarton Oaks Park. News of the transfers was withheld for a few days but appeared in many major newspapers on December 1, and these clippings, preserved in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives, offer interesting details of the event. The Washington Post, for example, quoted Mildred Bliss:

We are glad that [the National Capital Park and Planning Commission] could accede to our desire that it be named Dumbarton Oaks Park. It is now our earnest hope that this park in the center of Washington, on which we have endeavored to preserve the trees and the beauty of the land, may be cared for with the same solicitude that we have always had for it.

Our wish that this land shall not be used otherwise than as a pedestrian park is with a view to the preservation of its present rural character, which gives it so great a charm.

We are content in conveying this land in the thought that the natural beauty of a small tract is being preserved and made freely available to the people of the District of Columbia.

Dumbarton Oaks Park
Dumbarton Oaks Park

The Post also reported that William Royall Tyler, Mildred Bliss’s godson and the future second Director of Dumbarton Oaks, was one of the witnesses to the land transfers.

The Times Herald valued the gifts at $1,315,000, although asserting that the “actual value of the donation was stated to be considerably higher.” The Times Herald reported the value of the gift to Harvard as $885,000 and the gift to the Park and Planning Commission as $430,000.

The Boston Globe quoted Harvard’s president, James B. Conant:

The gift serves as a reminder that in these days of trial and stress there falls on our colleges and universities an obligation to maintain steadfastly their positions as custodians of the cultural treasures of our civilization. This duty falls particularly on American colleges and universities existing in one of the last free lands of the world.

The Bliss gift is an important contribution to the resources of the nation in the field of art and humanities.

Edward W. Forbes and Paul J. Sachs with Bust of Victor Hugo
Edward W. Forbes and Paul J. Sachs with Bust of Victor Hugo

President Conant’s first official action on behalf of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection was to invite Henri Focillon to be the first Research Fellow in Residence at Dumbarton Oaks, from December 1, 1940, to December 1, 1941, at a salary of $5,000 (see post). He next appointed an Administrative Board with Fogg Art Museum Associate Director Paul J. Sachs as its chairman. The Board members were Edward Waldo Forbes, Fogg Art Museum Director; Charles Holt Taylor, Harvard Professor of Medieval History; Elmer Drew Merrill, Harvard Professor of Botany and Administrator of Botanical Collections; Wilhelm Koehler, Harvard Professor of Medieval Art History and Dumbarton Oaks Senior Fellow in Charge of Research (see post); and George Chase, Dean of Harvard University, as an ex-officio member. They had their first meeting on December 20 at Sachs’s Cambridge home, Shady Hill. (By 1942, this Administrative Board would be divided and enlarged into both an Administrative Committee and a Board of Scholars.) By the end of the month, the Administrative Board had approved a proposed annual budget of $173,253.24 for Dumbarton Oaks’ first fiscal year, 1941.

On December 3, 1940, a few days after the legal transfers of Dumbarton Oaks and its land, Robert Bliss wrote the following to his wife, Mildred:

At Dumbarton Oaks you have created something very beautiful, very special both in the garden and inside the house. It will remain a monument to your taste, knowledge and understanding—a delight to all who visit it and a great resource to those who are fortunate enough to work there.  And it is all due to you—to your inspiration, insight and foresight and may you reap the satisfaction and comfort you deserve.