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Paraphenomenal Dumbarton Oaks

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 11:49 am | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink
Ghosts on the Property

Over its seventy-five year history, Dumbarton Oaks has been home to more than just the Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape Studies programs. After the last fellows and staff have left the pool for the night and sunset falls on the grounds, apparently ghosts make an appearance. Depending on one’s inclination toward rational skepticism or a belief in the occult, the following tales could leave impressions that mildly amuse or slightly unsettle. Gathered from a variety of staff who have worked at Dumbarton Oaks over the decades—security officers, gardeners, museum staff, and interim personnel such as contractors overseeing construction projects—these accounts lend credence to a paraphenomenal presence at Dumbarton Oaks.

Founders Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss are the two figures most commonly seen, although according to a number of accounts, they rarely put in an appearance together. A guard once spotted them holding hands in a corner of the Main House looking out onto the Orangery. Their ashes are in urns in the crypt in the Rose Garden, which may explain why they are often spotted nearby. Of the two, Mildred is a more common presence, presumably because she spent much of her time at Dumbarton Oaks walking through her beloved gardens. Witnesses describe Mildred as an older woman, a bit frail by some accounts, sometimes wearing a hat or carrying a parasol. Her specter might warn of late-night garden intruders, protect her cherished collection of rare books, or ring a bell to usher in the New Year. One might encounter whiffs of perfume in the gardens late at night, or hear the click of high heels in the hallways of the Main House. Robert often appears as a distinguished-looking man, sometimes wearing a white pinstripe suit. He also protects his estate, once warning a guard of the nighttime security staff that a truck in the Gardeners’ Court area had been left running by setting off a motion detector.

The third floor of the Main House, now home to the publications department and formerly part of the Byzantine library, has been a similarly lively place for ghost presences. One night, a security officer recalls, he was making his rounds in the Main House and came across an open book on a table that hadn’t been there during his previous pass. He considered the logical explanation, that one of the other officers had decided to read the book, but it was in Greek, and, in any event, none of the other officers had come through. One staff member was quite taken aback when she opened a closet in publications—a closet in which Mildred was known to keep her coats—and came face-to-face with Mrs. Bliss herself.

The artist Charles Simonds added his own "ghosts" at Dumbarton Oaks in 2009
The artist Charles Simonds added his own “ghosts” at Dumbarton Oaks in 2009 for a site installation in the Orangery.

Supernatural phenomena are not limited to ghost sightings. Security guards have witnessed doors unlocked that should have been locked, as well as motion-activated lights and hand dryers turning on and off without any people in the vicinity. Other guards swear that they can feel chilling presences sweeping through the air. Generally, ghosts were most active at Dumbarton Oaks before and during the series of renovations that took place in the mid-2000s. While ghosts are still spotted on occasion, sightings are rarer. Most believe that the Blisses, and other spirits who have been spotted, do not have nefarious aims, but instead like to maintain a presence in a place to which they dedicated much of their lives.

For Abbrial Seagle’s encounter with ghosts at Dumbarton Oaks go here.