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Then and Now: Midday Meals at Dumbarton Oaks

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 13:59 pm | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

Lunch in the Fellows Building, ca. 1977-1978.

Midday mealtimes have always played an important role in the culture of Dumbarton Oaks, providing an opportunity for fellows and staff to both socialize and strengthen interdepartmental bonds. For over sixty years, midday dining took place in the Fellows Building (now the Guest House; see post) until the Refectory was opened in the fall of 2006, occupying a space that had once been the director’s house. Dining, however, did not always include the entire institution. Prior to the directorship of Giles Constable, from 1977 to 1984 (see post), only the faculty and the Fellows dined together; the general staff were excluded. Constable, in an effort to “democratize” Dumbarton Oaks, both opened up the midday meal to all staff and fellows and switched the dining style from a formal, served affair to buffet-style, allowing diners to come at their convenience and sit where they wanted. Constable remembered this change in his oral history interview:

Of course, when I went there, the memory of Mrs. Bliss serving tea and Sirarpie Der Nersessian presiding at the lunch table and ringing the bell for the servants to come in was still there. And there was this rather strong and not altogether bad sense of being one large family with a number of family retainers. But that is not the basis upon which a serious scholarly institution can run. And on the straight-forward level, one of my first initiatives was to open up the Fellows Building. But even so, the feelings of resentment were so great that some of the staff would never come to lunch. Above all, Irene Vaslef, who is my dear friend, still is, she absolutely refused to come to lunch because she had so bitterly resented being kept out for so many years. And I absolutely sympathized with that.

Today, fellows and staff continue to enjoy the midday dining tradition at Dumbarton Oaks in the Refectory, sharing in chef Hector Paz’s delicious and eclectic preparations. Following are some images of the midday meal at Dumbarton Oaks.

Fellows Building Dining Room, 1953
Fellows Building dining room, 1953
Lunch in the Fellows Building
Lunch in the Fellows Building, 1962

Fellows Building Dining Room
Lunch in the Fellows Building, ca. 1977-1978
Midday meal
Midday meal in the Refectory, Summer 2015
Refectory Food
Lunch in the Refectory, prepared by Chef Hector Paz, August 2015
Sitting Room, Refectory
The Refectory's coffee and dessert room

Refectory Exterior
The Dumbarton Oaks Refectory (formerly the Blisses' male staff quarters and, later, the Director's House)