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Dumbarton Oaks: The Backstory

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 10:27 am | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

The land and residence of Dumbarton Oaks have a rich history, and Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, the founders of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, wanted to learn as much as they could about their property. In 1922, they engaged J. C. Fitzpatrick from the Division of Manuscripts at the Library of Congress to undertake initial research. They returned to this investigation in 1959, when they hired two historians, Peter G. Van der Poel and Meredith B. Colket Jr., to conduct further research and prepare a draft text on the history of the Dumbarton Oaks property. Their text became the basis for Walter Muir Whitehill’s 1967 book, Dumbarton Oaks: The History of a Georgetown House and Garden, 1800–1966. The following is a summary of the essential facts about the backstory of Dumbarton Oaks.

The Rock of Dumbarton

Colonel Ninian Beall (1625-1717)
Colonel Ninian Beall (1625–1717).
Cecil Calvert, 2nd Lord Baltimore (1605-1675)
Cecil Calvert, 2nd Lord Baltimore (1605–1675).

In 1632, King Charles I of England provided Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, with a charter for land that would come to be known as Maryland and the District of Columbia, including modern-day Georgetown and the Dumbarton Oaks estate. It was Cecil's father, George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, who had initially sought to obtain the charter. George died, however, before his efforts bore fruit; the charter was granted to Cecil, who had inherited his father's estate and title, less than three month's after his father's death.

In 1636, Cecil Calvert outlined a policy for land allotment in the new colony in an attempt to entice individuals to settle on and develop the land. One individual, Colonel Ninian Beall, who arrived in America in 1652 as an indentured servant and rapidly rose in the ranks to become a member of the Maryland House of Burgesses, was responsible for the immigration of around two hundred people and was granted seven thousand acres according to the provisions of Lord Baltimore’s decree.

In honor of a landmark close to his birthplace in Scotland, Beall named a nearly seven-hundred-acre tract “The Rock of Dumbarton.” Situated in what is now Georgetown, Washington, D.C., the land remained in the possession of the Beall family for nearly a century, until 1800, when the most desirable twenty-two-acre portion, upon which Dumbarton Oaks would come to be situated, was sold to William Hammond Dorsey, a real estate speculator.

William Hammond Dorsey (1764-1818)
William Hammond Dorsey (1764–1818).

Dorsey, nicknamed “Pretty Billy” due to his handsome face, was the son of Colonel John Dorsey, an industrialist who developed a lucrative anchor production company and shipping firm after capitalizing on iron deposits along Curtis Creek. In 1801, Dorsey built a house on his portion of the Rock of Dumbarton, which is the central core of the present Main House. Within months of the house’s completion, tragedy struck: Dorsey’s wife died, leaving five children in her widowed husband’s care. This blow, coupled with financial troubles emerging from failed real estate ventures, led Dorsey to sell his portion of the Rock of Dumbarton to Robert Beverley on April 19, 1805, less than five years after he had purchased it.

Robert Beverley needed the property to satisfy the stipulations of an agreement drawn up between himself and his mother, Maria Beverley. Maria agreed to turn over her claims to her late husband’s property in exchange for the guarantee of support and “a comfortable and convenient” home, complete with a “genteel coach [and] pair of suitable horses.” Inspired by the wooded hill and his Greek education at Cambridge, Beverley renamed the Rock of Dumbarton “Acrolophos” (Grove on the Hill). He also constructed the orangery, an enclosed, fenestrated winter garden pavilion, to the east of the original house.

Edward Magruder Linthicum (1797-1869)
Edward Magruder Linthicum (1797–1869).

John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War and Vice President (1782-1850)
John C. Calhoun (1782-1850).

With his son Bradshaw’s intention to marry in mind, Robert Beverley decided to sell the congenial, though unprofitable, Georgetown property. Listed at much more than its worth, Acrolophos remained in the Beverleys’ possession for seven more years, until it was finally sold at a third of the asking price. The buyer was Floride Bonneau Colhoun, mother of James Edward Calhoun (in whose name the deed was registered) and mother-in-law of John C. Calhoun, then secretary of war. Floride, together with her daughter and son-in-law, moved into the Georgetown property early in the summer of 1823. By fall of the same year, Calhoun had rented the property out for the winter months. In his role as secretary of war, Calhoun traveled frequently, and he found himself unable to settle down at Acrolophos, which he renamed “Oakly,” until he was elected vice president in March 1825.

The Oaks

Realizing that the expenses of living at Oakly were too great for his vice presidential salary, Calhoun attempted to rent out the estate shortly after moving in. This proved successful for a time, but he sold the property to Brooke Mackall in 1829. Mackall, a customs officer and native of Georgetown who had grown up down the street, lived on the property with his wife, Martha Jane Simpson, who gave birth to five children in the house. Eventually, financial hardship due to unemployment and the death of his father forced Mackall to sell the land and house to Edward Magruder Linthicum in 1846.

The Oaks, ca. 1850
The Oaks, ca. 1850.

The Oaks with Changes Made by Edward Magruder Linthicum
The Oaks, with changes made by Edward Magruder Linthicum.

Linthicum, who had amassed a fortune in his Georgetown hardware business, renamed the estate twice—first to “Monterey,” in response to a battle in the Mexican-American war, in which his son was killed; and then to “The Oaks,” as a tribute to the magnificent old-growth oak trees on the property. Linthicum extensively renovated the house to highlight his business success. Among his additions were a kitchen and dining wing to the east side of the house, connecting it to the formerly free-standing orangery; a two-story stair-hall or gallery on the north side that spanned the house from east to west; and a Mansard roof, which created a third floor and maximized attic space. He updated the main entrance to meet the fashion of the time, built a stone wall and iron fence around portions of the property, and erected a brick barn behind the house. An avid horticulturalist, Linthicum also restored the orangery, which he used as a greenhouse. A fig planted during Linthicum’s residence at the Oaks still grows in the Orangery, its magnificent branches covering the walls.

Fig Vine in the Orangery at Dumbarton Oaks
Fig vine in the Orangery at Dumbarton Oaks.

Linthicum died in 1869, followed by his widow in 1884, after which their adopted grandson Edward Linthicum Dent inherited the Oaks. Edward, who was educated in science and engineering at Columbian College (now George Washington University), fell into debt after founding the Washington Architectural Iron and Bridge Works and a steam-heating business. In response to his outstanding financial obligations, Edward was forced to sell off portions of his inheritance to repay his debts. The Oaks was split into four quarters and sold piece by piece.

Henry Fitch Blount (1829-1917)
Henry Fitch Blount (1829–1917).

Henry Fitch Blount purchased the house and the surrounding six acres from Edward in 1891, paying for the land almost ten times the price that Edward Linthicum had paid for the entire property forty-five years earlier.

Blount, a successful manufacturer of plows and other agricultural equipment, sought a place were he and his second wife, Lucia Eames, could retire with their five children and pursue their interests in organizations such as the National Reform School and the National Geographic Society. In their various renovations of the house, the Blounts notably transformed the third-floor attic into “The Little Theatre,” with a stage, a box for notable guests, and seating for approximately two hundred. Two artists, Sydney R. Burleigh, director of the Providence Art School, and Chevalier Gaetano Trentanove of Florence, Italy, painted wall frescoes on the themes of Music and Dance as well as wall stencils of Egyptian motifs. These decorations have not survived.

Henry Fitch Blount lived at the Oaks until his death in October 1917. His wife remained in the house until she sold it and much of the property to the Blisses in 1920. She retained a small house at the corner of the property, where she lived for two years before selling it to the Blisses, who were already well underway with the renovation of the house by the architect Frederick H. Brooke and the creation of the gardens by the landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand.

In 1933, the Blisses united the historic names of the property, “Rock of Dumbarton” and “The Oaks,” in the estate’s new name: Dumbarton Oaks. With their gift of the property and its contents to Harvard University in 1940 for the creation of a research institute, the estate was renamed the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.