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Pool Party! Academics Go Aquatic

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

Dumbarton Oaks Swimming Pool.

Nestled between the expansive North Vista and the stately Pebble Garden is an oasis from the heat of the Georgetown summer. Filled to the brim with cool, crystal-clear water, the swimming pool at Dumbarton Oaks offers as much aesthetically as it does practically. Originally constructed in 1922, the swimming pool has offered generations of staff and fellows a casual place for exercise, stimulation, and socialization.

In her plans for renovating the Dumbarton Oaks estate in the 1920s, Mildred Bliss specifically requested that a swimming pool be constructed on the property. Like the attached loggia bathhouse and the tennis courts, the pool was no doubt built in the hope that it would provide the Blisses and their guests entertainment and relaxation. Today the pool provides an informal setting for discussion and interaction among fellows and staff. As former Byzantine Fellow Eurydice Georganteli laughingly quipped, “Barriers come down. You can’t possibly be nasty to someone . . . when you see them in their swimsuit, right?”

Mildred Bliss and friend at the Dumbarton Oaks swimming pool
Mildred Bliss and friend at the Dumbarton Oaks Swimming Pool

The pool also offers fellows a place for comfortable conversation with scholars of other disciplines. Betty Benson, former curator of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art and director of Pre-Columbian Studies, mentioned that the pool was the way that she best got to know individuals working on Byzantine studies.

Summer interns relaxing at the Dumbarton Oaks swimming pool
Summer interns relaxing at the swimming pool

Before long, intruders began to sneak onto the estate to use the pool. Even after several pools were installed within a few blocks of Dumbarton Oaks, youths still opted to scale the fence and venture through the gardens at night to go swimming—an exploit that former superintendent of gardens and grounds Donald E. Smith believed the intruders considered more of a tradition than anything else. During the 1960s, grounds workers became accustomed to finding trash, kegs, and miscellaneous clothing scattered around the pool. Having to deal with the frustration of these intruders (in addition to the attention needed to keep the pool in working order), John S. Thacher, the first director of Dumbarton Oaks, became a proponent of paving over the pool. Margaret Dawson, who helped catalog the Blisses’ correspondence and documents, even went so far as to call the pool the “bane of Thacher’s existence.”

However, the consensus among the staff and fellows (always eager to advocate on behalf of the pool) was that the facility was a “delightful” thing to have—whether or not they opted to use it. It was perhaps inevitable that the pool would serve as one of the more popular venues for throwing parties. Michael McCormick, former research associate and visiting scholar in Byzantine Studies and current Francis Goelet Professor of Medieval History at Harvard, reminisced fondly on the festivities that he was a part of during his time at Dumbarton Oaks, describing all-day pool parties, complete with barbecuing, drinks, and dancing, held when the gardens were closed on the Fourth of July and Memorial Day.

Indeed, many Fellows cite the pool as being an excellent place, in the words of Richard Diehl, former acting director of Pre-Columbian Studies, to “interact with each other on an intense basis,” an advantage that resulted in a “synergism” that to Diehl “was extremely important” to both research and the emergence of a spirit of camaraderie among the fellows. Richard Fraser Townsend, former Bliss fellow and member of the senior fellows committee of the Pre-Columbian Studies program, expressed this candidly:

And in the months that it was possible to use the pool that was also a great gathering place and a source of relaxation—just informal talking with people that helped to make a kind of relaxed form of communication. Not too many people were just talking footnotes to each other all the time, if you know what I mean.