Skip to Content

Seventy-Five Years Ago this Month: The Inauguration of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

Posted On October 19, 2015 | 15:11 pm | by jamesc | Permalink
James N. Carder (November 2015)


Mildred Bliss and Robert Woods Bliss in the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room, 1938. Dumbarton Oaks Archives (AR.DP.BL.033[cropped]).

Seventy-five years ago, on November 1, 1940, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss hosted a black-tie reception in the recently completed pavilions housing the Byzantine library and collection at Dumbarton Oaks. The reception celebrated the promised transfer of the property from the Blisses to Harvard University as well as the inception of a research study program in Byzantine art and culture. The following day the Washington Post reported:

One of the most distinguished gatherings in Washington this season had a preview of an unusual library and art collection last night given by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss in their Georgetown home. The occasion was the inauguration of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, housed in two recently completed buildings adjoining the Bliss residence. Scores of notables from out of town and a sizable section of social and official Washington were on hand to enjoy the event.

The library, on view for the first time last night, contains well over 16,000 volumes, and the collection of objects represents thirty years of interest in art on the part of Mr. and Mrs. Bliss.

After tomorrow the museum will be open to the public on Mondays and Thursdays—under certain conditions. Application for admission must be made to the curator of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection at 1703 Thirty-second Street, Northwest.

Inaugural Invitation, Interior Page Left
Inaugural Invitation, Interior Page Left
Inaugural Invitation, Interior Page Right
Inaugural Invitation, Interior Page Right

In follow-up articles in the Washington Post and Boston Herald on November 3rd, excerpts from Robert Bliss’s inaugural remarks were offered:

"Dumbarton Oaks is now ready to increase its contribution to the intellectual life of the country," Mr. Bliss said in making public the disposition of the collection and library. "This end can best be accomplished by its being guided and administered by Harvard University. In this way," Mr. Bliss added, "we shall be able to enjoy the full realization of our hopes during our lifetimes."

The owner of the collection said they chose to emphasize the medieval and Byzantine period "not merely because of the beauty and interest of its many-sided art, but essentially because the forces then forming the world of men are important for the study and understanding of our own era."

The Blisses’ friend, the art critic Royal Cortissoz, reported more of Robert Bliss’s remarks in an article he wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, published on November 10th:

"It is not always," Mr. Bliss said, "that dreams become realities. There was need in this country, we thought, of a quiet place where advanced students and scholars could withdraw, the one to mellow and develop, the other to write the result of a life’s study. Dumbarton Oaks could become such a place. We could make the beginning and give it the nucleus of a research library and study collection."

Copies of newspaper articles pertaining to the 1940 inauguration of Dumbarton Oaks are retained in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives, as well as the text of an unattributed poem written for the opening of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.