You are here:Home/Research/ Library and Archives/ Institutional Archives/ Historical Records/ Oral History Project/ Astor Moore

Astor Moore

Edited Oral History Interview with Astor Moore, conducted by David Keil and Suzanne Mercury on May 14, 1998, in the Dumbarton Oaks cabinet shop. At Dumbarton Oaks, Astor Moore did contract cabinet and exhibition work between 1964 and 1971 and was cabinetmaker between 1971 and 1998, when he retired.

DK: May 14th 1998, Astor Moore interview. Okay, we’ll start –

AM: Ready to drill?

DK: Yeah. Well, let’s see. First of all, how did you get into this carpenter business, Astor? [Laughter] To quote Angeliki. [Laughter] How did you start with that?

AM: Well, when I was – I went to – I went to junior high school. Well, it was in junior high school, because they teach shop in junior high school, and they would introduce you – can you hear me?

DK: Huh?

AM: Can you hear me?

SM: We can hear you.

DK: Yeah, but actually you could talk a little bit louder, for the –

AM: Okay. I used to – in junior high school, you had woodshop one semester, you had metal shop a semester, print shop. And then you had Latin. But, so, I just fell in love with wood. And they were always building something – thought I was building something. And so, when I went to high school, my mother wanted me to go into business administration. So, without her knowing it, I went to a vocational high school. [Laughter] Where they offered cabinet making, and it was almost six to eight months before she knew I wasn't going and taking business administration.

SM: Was that in Baltimore?

AM: That was in Baltimore.

DK: Well, you started right out with the cabinet making and sophisticated work like that?

AM: Yeah. The school that I was in was a vocational high school, and the instructor there – which obviously this is many years ago, like a half century – the – they had the – I even now remember the concept.

DK: Mmm hmm.

AM: You know, they had that divided in half, and half the school was in carpentry – the students would take carpentry. The other half of the school went into cabinet making. And cabinet makers did the finer work. The carpenters were building houses, and things for the other half. So, I just sort of fell in love with it. The business is really good, having good commissions from people with money, you know, buying furnishings. And we would do them, we would get paid, we would gain the experience, and they would buy the materials.

DK: Huh.

AM: Materials. It worked out fine.

DK: This is all through high school.

AM: Yep.

DK: So, then what?

AM: So, then I graduated there, and I went to the navy. And the navy had ideas about me of what they wanted. They had other ideas. They wanted me to be a steward, and I said, “No, no, no. I’m a cabinet maker.” So, of course, the navy there was insistent, and so I was just ordered to steward school. So, I was first in a class of thirty. And so when that happens, you have choices about billets, billet stations. There were thirty billets. So, since I had a choice, I could take the first – the last of the class gets whatever’s left over. And so I could choose San Diego or Newport, Rhode Island. And I didn’t much care anyway. So, I picked the U-Boat campaign on a huge ship. And so a couple of days after I got there, the ship went to Europe. And so they didn’t bother to send me to steward school and –

DK: In Europe?

AM: On the ship.

DK: Oh, on the ship.

AM: Yeah. And so I was catching my break from the steward team. They call it damage control, where you rehearse your duties to keep the ship afloat. Military duties would keep the ship afloat. These duties would be boat repair, boat building –

DK: It wasn’t a wooden ship, was it, Astor?

AM: No, no. [Laughter] It was huge. And so, they sent this crew for boat duty.

DK: Oh?

AM: And next to us was the machine shop. Two huge machine shops. They would teach classes. We had what we could call “Hobby Lobby Shop,” because it was after the working hours, when we got to go in the shop and do things – make coffee tables and that sort of thing. And I learned that way. So, after that, I wasn’t going to make a career out of the navy. I says, “Well, I’ve gone as far as I could.” Got all my three stripes within four years, so I says, “Well, I could do that in the navy despite the conditions.” Well, I did write letters to two presidents.

DK: You did what?

AM: Wrote letters to two presidents, Eisenhower and Truman, about the conditions –

SM: – for blacks.

AM: Yeah, for blacks. And they answered. We got to do something about it. And that’s why I was trying to not go to steward school. So anyway, I left there. So, I went back to school and took drafting – architecture and drafting. And I also took other courses.

DK: At this point, you’re out of the navy?

AM: Yeah, out of the navy. Oh, yeah, when I left the navy, I went to work for the army.

DK: Mmm hmm.

AM: It was in the cabinet station, a junior officer, as a box maker. So, the box making was horrible. I learned a lot, but it was boring. We made hundreds of boxes that were shipping boxes. The army –

DK: You’ve seen one box, you’ve seen them all!

AM: Oh yeah. [Laughter] It was awful. So, I think I was there for a year. And so, I got this call from Ft. Myers. And so, after the phone interview, personnel called and says, “Well, you got the job.” So then, I show up and the man says, “What are you doing here?” I says, “I got a call from personnel.” [Laughter] So, they had nothing –

DK: They what?

AM: Nothing they could do with me, and so I had to go off the program.

SM: They had fired you, and so –

AM: Yeah.

SM: You didn’t know the reason was that they thought you were the wrong color? They – is that –

AM: No.

SM: – is that when you found you that you were listed?

AM: Listed on my DD214?

SM: Yeah.

AM: No, I didn’t find that out until several years later.

DK: What do you mean listed?

AM: Well, when you’re discharged from the service, they call it a DD214 form. And all of your information is on that form. I was – they had discharged me from Newport. There were about six hundred of us. And – we were herded into a gymnasium or something. So, they gave us these forms. We filled out some of them. And the people in charge filled out the rest of them. But later on, I discovered the reason I was hired at Ft. Myer was that personnel had my DD214 file, and where it had race, it had “CAU.” And I didn’t discover that until twenty years ago. So, “CAU” means Caucasian.

DK: Oh.

AM: They had hired ninety-five people, which was –

DK: That’s why they were surprised when you walked in there.

AM: Yes. [Laughter] They couldn’t argue with personnel, but – so, in Ft. Myer, I – well, I still continued my cabinet making courses, and then I did my freelance work. We were always doing freelance work. And so I used to end up building first for the generals and all the officers at Ft. Myer.

DK: You were a civilian at this point.

AM: Yeah, I was a civilian. And so that’s all I did, was just build furniture and please the Misses of the officers.

DK: So, how’d you get to Dumbarton Oaks?

AM: Well so, I got a call from the Smithsonian. I had stayed at Ft. Myer about four years, three or four years –

DK: For an interview?

AM: Yeah. So, I went over, interviewed, and he says, “You’re hired.” And there again, the shop – the cabinet shop was all white. [Laughter] It was strange. So the – so, I was at the Smithsonian until I came here.

DK: What were you doing over at the Smithsonian?

AM: Cabinet making and displays.

SM: You were ­– were you working at the American History Museum? Was that what you were?

AM: Yeah. That was opening – yeah, it used to be called the the Museum of History and Technology.

SM: Yeah.

AM: They changed the name.

DK: You made all those cabinets in there?

AM: Not all of them. [Laughter]

DK: A number of them.

AM: Yeah – a few of them in the clocks hall.

DK: Uh huh.

AM: Some are still in the history hall – First Ladies’ hall.

DK: Mmm hmm. I’ve wondered – do you ever stamp your name somewhere underneath there, at any of those places?

AM: I think I did.

DK: Did you sign it anywhere?

AM: I think I did sign it. [Laughter] But the Smithsonian was this sort of – this government place, a lot of bureaucracy. So when – so, my friend, Jim Mayo, he says, “Well, they need a cabinetmaker at Dumbarton Oaks.” And I spoke to John Thacher.

DK: What year was this?

AM: This was the year ’64.

DK: ’64? Mrs. Bliss had died at that point.

AM: No, she was still alive.

DK: Oh, he died. He died.

AM: He died, yep. He died – yeah, just about –

DK: You never met Mr. Bliss, then?

AM: No, I never met him.

DK: So, he died, then.

AM: So, John Thacher – so I worked here part time for a year, because I was doing work at the Smithsonian.

SM: How many people were working in the shop at that time? You hired on a bunch of people to help with –

AM: Oh, that was during the – one of the exhibits with –

SM: Pre-Columbian?

AM: Pre-Columbian and – part of the Pre-Columbian and part of the – and all of the Byzantine. Then I was paid full time, because there was so much work. John Thacher was the one who hired me. So, we came to some agreement over the salary.

DK: When you came here, were the – all the cases finished in the Pre-Columbian museum?

AM: Some of them.

DK: Did you have to work on them then?

AM: Some of them were.

DK: Some of then were? Well, who was working here – who was the woodworker when you came – that you replaced?

AM: Well, there was the – they didn’t really have a wood – they had someone they called a carpenter. I forget what his name was. He used to live in the house next to the guest house.

SM: Yeah.

AM: Next to the guest house. And he was called a carpenter – still a carpenter. And – there are some funny tales they told me about that. Evidently, he did a little gambling. [Laughter]

SM: Running a gambling place up there, in the guest house?

AM: Yeah. [Laughter]

DK: He’s running a gambling place.

SM: I love it.

DK: At Dumbarton Oaks, you think?

AM: Oh yeah. At Dumbarton Oaks. And he really wasn’t – he wasn’t doing very much. And then there was no one. And the – so Thacher said to me, “Will you do anything?” “Yep.” “Okay.” So, what we did – Jim Mayo and I worked on several of those projects together. And we hired people from the Smithsonian – you know, after they finished their work – from five o’clock until two o’clock in the morning, three o’clock in the morning.

DK: What were you making?

AM: Mounts.

DK: For the Pre-Columbian museum?

AM: For Pre-Columbian and the –

DK: And the Byzantine?

AM: Byzantine, yep. We worked seventeen, eighteen hours a day to get that thing open in time.

DK: You talk about mounts. What do you mean exactly?

AM: Well, you know the objects collection?

DK: Right.

AM: The things that hold the objects. All those things.

SM: So, you’re not talking about the big stands, the big plexi-stands.

DK: No, he’s talking about interior things.

SM: The big cases? Or were you working on those too?

AM: Yeah, working on those also.

DK: Were you working with Plexiglas or Lucite at that point?

AM: Yeah.

DK: Oh, you started out that way?

AM: Yeah. Jim Mayo showed me. He used to be – he’s dead now, so – but he used to do – the Smithsonian had a special separate Plexiglas shop, which was near the cabinet shop, so everything’s made in Plexiglas. And I think a lot of them are still that way. And so with the – for example, with the Byzantine collection, a lot of the metalwork, the ironwork, the glasswork, that had to be designed here.

DK: How about the rare book room? Did you work in there too? Did you build the shelves?

SM: The garden library?

DK: Hmm?

SM: The garden library?

DK: The garden library, yeah.

AM: The garden library, the exhibition cases. I built those.

DK: You built the exhibition cases?

AM: I built those and designed them. But the –all the mounts were made right here. All the Plexiglas work was done right here. Cause they had brought in some Plexiglas people from New York, and John Thacher didn’t like them.

SM: Oh. Whose idea was the Plexiglas, I mean, in the Pre-Columbian especially? Was that Philip Johnson’s idea, that we want Plexiglas, we want this sort of see-through thing going on there?

AM: Yeah, that was his idea. But he cannot design.

DK: No.

SM: Right.

AM: He’s a terrible designer.

DK: That’s another thing. We raised that question a little earlier. When you had a piece, an object, and you decided you wanted to make a mount for it and so forth, was it your artistic ability that did this, or did they give you – somebody give you a plan? For instance, this new mount you made, this marble case with that goddess, you know, the woman?

AM: Yeah, the birth mother.

DK: What happens there? Do you –

AM: What happens there is that they “do something with it.” [Laughter] As John Thacher used to say, “Do something with it!”

DK: Okay. [Laughter] So, you’re the one that did it.

AM: Yeah. So then – usually, what I do, I would talk it over with them. And they would just give me the object. And I would come up with the idea.

DK: You still work that way.

AM: Yeah, I still work that way.

DK: Mmm hmm. Did you make a drawing? Or did you make –

AM: Yeah. I made drawings of a lot of them over there.

DK: I see.

AM: I made some drawings. And the – like the Pre-Columbian, I could talk with the – first, I talked with Carol, and then I talked with someone else.

SM: Meg Craft?

AM: Meg Craft?

SM: The conservator –

AM: Meg Craft, yeah. I speak to the conservators and say, “What do you want? What do you want to happen with this piece?” So, she said, “Well, we just want to get it under cover so that we can protect it.” And so then – and that’s about it.

AM: And so I told her what I thought.

DK: Mmm hmm.

AM: She says, “Fine.” And then I – those things are like that with me – it takes a little while to develop, to get it, look at it, think about it, do little rough sketches, and then – then I, you know, work it out.

DK: Well, you – you worked with Thacher, but did you have any relationship with Mrs. Bliss? I mean –

AM: Yeah.

DK: Do you have any stories about her?

AM: Yes, I did. I helped her while she was alive. By the way, I think I told you I did the balustrade over at the top of the mail room.

DK: Mmm hmm.

AM: That’s one of the things that she’d want. She’d say, “There’s something wrong, but we can still do something.” [Laughter] So, I thought about it, and then I did a mock-up.

SM: Yeah.

AM: I think one of the pillars are still there. But it was – I did a full-scale mock-up, got the proportions and put it up there, and people looked at it down here and said, “okay,” which means it was fine. We gave the whole thing to the limestone people. It was David and Fred Coles at that time. So, we just gave them the whole thing, and they copied that. And so, that’s how they got it.

SM: Mrs. Bliss was big on full-size mock-ups, wasn’t she?

AM: Yeah.

SM: I mean, you told me about the gatehouse. Wasn’t the little ticket booth at the gatehouse – hadn’t they – I think they did a mock-up for that little thing. Something – Maybe Don Smith told me that. They started building the thing, and she wanted it torn down. She didn’t like it, or something like that.

AM: Yeah, she’d always do things to full-scale, even trees. [Laughter] Even a full-scale mock-up of trees, sitting there. They’d sit there for several days until she came by to look at them.

SM: And benches?

AM: Yeah.

SM: I saw pictures down there of some benches that were just cardboard and wood.

AM: Yeah, if you go through the garden archives, some of the drawings are in there. You’ll see where there were mock-ups. She used to call those “dummies.” She used to call them “dummies.” And so I did – was it – Pre-Columbian – because, I think I did told you, she’d taken care of its location.

DK: Yeah, you told a story about – something about the tree that you’d moved, or removed. What – how did that go?

AM: Well, so this is a story that my colleague Matt Kearney told me.

DK: Oh, I see.

AM: Well, he told me a lot about the Blisses. She was still alive when I was here, because she used to come every day, around four thirty or around three thirty, something like that – she would do her business in the garden library, buying old rare books, and still adding to the garden library, objects on sale. And she would come – we would chat every now and then. And after, she would have tea every day at five thirty in the Founders Room.

SM: That wasn’t anyone’s office, was it?

AM: No. It was theoretically supposed to be her office. His office was where –

DK: This was one of those required teas? This was a required tea? Everybody had to go to tea?

AM: No. These were –

DK: Just her personal tea.

AM: Personal tea.

AM: There were people who I didn’t know where they came from. But they – so then after that, she’d come down here, because Ms. Havey was working on this other garden outside of the garden library, by the brick pathway?

DK: Mmm hmm.

AM: They were working on that. So, she would come – after she’d left the tea, she’d come down here, and Ms. Havey – Ms. Havey used to be over here in the laundry room.

SM: No kidding.

AM: Yes.

SM: Oh, right over there.

AM: Yeah.

DK: She’d do what?

SM: Her office was over here in the laundry room.

DK: Oh, really?

SM: Well, now it’s now the –

AM: Ms. Havey. You know, she was –

SM: Was she a landscape architect?

AM: Yeah. She was the assistant to Beatrix Farrand. I understand she used to do a lot of the drawings. And so we became very friendly, because my studio is here, and her studio was up here. And when I first started, I worked something like five thirty to nine thirty, right, so that’s when I began to chat with Mrs. Bliss and Ms. Havey.

DK: We’ve never been able to find any history on Ruth Havey. There’s no – nothing written on here. What was she like? Was she –

AM: She was a – just a – hard to describe. She’s –

DK: How old was she?

AM: Uh, she looked like she might have been in her fifties then – looked like she might have been in her fifties. And she was just, you know, plain Jane. You know, she didn’t dress fancy. She was very down-to-earth, and –

SM: And she was here in the evening.

AM: Yeah.

SM: After her – Mrs. Bliss’s tea, she would come down here, and Ms. Havey would still be here?

AM: Yeah.

SM: Oh.

AM: Because Ms. Havey would be there, and Matt Kearney, after he finished work, she would always have him –

SM: The gardens superintendent at the time.

AM: And the three of them would be in the – discussing what Ms. Havey had worked up for, you know, the garden library, that brick pathway.

DK: She kept her finger right on the pulse, didn’t she?

AM: Yep. The Ellipse, where the fountain is? Around it was lead. It was round, and so the water trickled down along the scales. And this is what she used to say. She says, “I hate that tractor tire. Before I die, this has got to go.” [Laughter] So sure enough, it went. And so that statue that’s down there now used to be down here somewhere in the gardens, just sitting there.

SM: The lead tire? The tractor tire was down here?

AM: No.

SM: Or the –

AM: The one at the present fountain.

SM: Oh. Oh. Yeah, right.

AM: So, they ripped that tire out of there, and the guys were taking everything out. But she was really nice, and she would – the chauffeur – I’m trying to think of his name. She used to get up kind of late. She’d have lunch, and then she’d tell the chauffeur, “Let’s go down to see the hippies!” [Laughter]

DK: There was a story you told, Astor, about – talked about – you started to tell the story that Matt Kearney told you about that entrance to the Pre-Columbian museum.

AM: Oh, yes.

DK: How did that go?

AM: Yeah, well, according to Matt Kearney – I used to talk to him a lot. He took me under his wing; he’d tell me all these stories. According to him, when they were building the Pre-Columbian, they had this entranceway. But this oak tree was in the way of the entranceway, so they wanted to take it down. Mrs. Bliss said, “No. If you can’t build it without bothering the oak tree, then don’t build it at all.” So, according to Matt Kearney, one morning, one day, one of the superintendents from the construction crew came, and they started digging around the tree. And you know an oak tree has big roots. So, they – and meanwhile, Philip Johnson had been busy working trying to change the entrance. Well, by that time the tree was dying – so they had to take the tree down. My gosh, they then fired the superintendent of the building, of the construction crew. And so they had to take the tree down, and that upset Mrs. Bliss; she didn’t want it to be removed. So, then they got their way, but she ??? to get what they want. But that’s ??? And while I was here, while she was here, she came only once to the Pre-Columbian. And that was just to see when they put his name up there, as you go through the Pre-Columbian.

DK: Over the entrance?

AM: Over the entrance. So she just walked in the door, turned around again, and walked back out.

DK: That was purposeful, just because of the tree, you think?

AM: Yeah.

DK: Oh, yeah? That’s interesting. It was that big? What was it like, a three-hundred-year-old-er?

AM: I don’t know how old it was. It’s like the one in the music room. That’s another one.

SM: Yeah. It’s not as big as the one that we cut down.

AM: Oh, no. No. From what I understand, yeah.

SM: But sort of intermediate-sized, yeah.

AM: But that’s – according to him, that’s what she – it upset her. And so she never really loved to go in there, except to look at it and see if it was all right. I was there when she said, “Okay.” Turned around and walked out.

SM: You designed the benches for the Ellipse.

AM: For the Ellipse, yeah.

SM: And Steinbraker built them?

AM: Yeah, Steinbraker built them. Because the tops of them, because of the molding going around the top, they have to be milled to get the right curves. There’s supposed to be one on each end; then there’s supposed to be two on the side, with the more gradual curve, taking up the curve of the Ellipse itself.

DK: There’s a bench just above the fountain terrace, where underneath there’s a plaque to Kearney.

AM: Mmm hmm.

DK: Did you do that, or is that – was that bought, or is that a copy of any Farrand’s work?

AM: You mean the plaque?

DK: No, the bench.

AM: The bench was here. The bench was here. I’ve done some restoration on the –

DK: Do you know anything about it?

SM: You worked on the canopy or something, right?

AM: Yeah, the canopy, I restored that quite a few years ago.

DK: Oh, yeah? But that bench was there?

AM: Yep, that bench was there.

DK: Do you know whether that’s a copy of Farrand’s work?

AM: I don’t know.

DK: No?

AM: Sorry. I restored the four seasons plaques in the Orangery.

DK: Oh, you did? Is that the original teak?

AM: Yeah, it’s the original teak. I kept as much of it as possible. It was the original teak when I came here, but it was falling apart. And what I did was reinforce the back, using all the original teak, pulled it all back together, bolted the – those figures are lead.

DK: Yeah.

AM: And I designed these hanger hooks.

DK: Did you have to do anything with the lead part?

AM: Well, I secured it.

DK: Was it all there intact?

AM: No. I put a couple of holes in it to hold the lead – 

DK: Oh, I see.

AM: In other words, tying the lead to the back panel, to the supports in the back. If you look very closely, you might see a little tube. If you looked at it very closely, you don’t know they’re there. But the – so I designed the stainless steel brackets.

DK: Did you sign that, too, Astor? [Laughter]

AM: I forget.

DK: Put your signature on it? [Laughter]

AM: I know they were here before I got here, and they were falling apart.

SM: Do you have any favorite pieces here? – cabinetry that you really love to look at and admire?

AM: It’s…It’s hard to say. One of my favorite pieces is the bookcase. It’s in the Rare Book Room. It’s in front of the mirrors. It’s an amazing piece.

SM: Is it that secretary?

AM: Secretary. Yeah.

AM: It has a name. The Bennett cabinet.

DK: Oh, no, the guy – Roentgen.

SM: That’s – that’s the other one.

DK: That’s the Roentgen piece.

SM: No, that’s the French piece.

DK: Yeah, that’s what he’s talking about.

SM: No, we’re talking about the English one. It was the secretary of –

DK: Roentgen ­– Roentgen was the German piece.

SM: No, not the bookcase cabinet – the one right inside the door, on the right-hand side. It’s against the mirror there with the books in it. It’s the secretary.

DK: Oh, I see.

SM: I haven’t been in there in so long.

DK: You mean the English piece from 1700?

SM: Yeah.

DK: The one that has all the manu – first editions in it?

SM: That’s the one.

AM: Yeah – yeah, that’s the one.

DK: That’s the one that was her desk.

AM: Yeah, that used to be in the Founders Room.

DK: Yeah. I saw pictures.

AM: Back in the corner.

DK: I thought your favorite piece would be the podium you made out of that big oak.

AM: Oh! [Laughter]

DK: That’s our favorite!

AM: Yeah, that was fun. It was fun to make the piece.

DK: Did you design that at all?

AM: Yeah. Again, you know, it’s the symposium podium. We need a podium for that room. So…

DK: Here’s a tree, do something with it, huh? [Laughter]

AM: Do something!

DK: Did you kiln dry that – that oak, or was it air dried?

AM: Oh, it’s been – that tree was cut down in ‘93?

DK: So, it was cut down since we were here.

AM: I have a record of the day it was cut down.

SM: Oh yeah, Philip Page was here.

DK: Mmm. Oh yeah, see, must have kiln dried it.

AM: It was ‘92 or ‘93. And then I left the logs for a year, then, a year later, I sent it to the mill, had them cut it.

DK: Oh, you didn’t dry it – kiln-dry it?

AM: No.

DK: Just air-dry it?

AM: Yeah, air-dry it. We were going to kiln dry it but the kilns – there are only a couple of them around here. It was such a small amount that they said it wasn’t worth it to deal with such a small amount – didn’t want to be bothered. So, I says, “We’re fine.” So we left it lying down there for a little over a year. Then brought it up, then run it through the planer. Broke the planer.

DK: I was looking at the front of that. It’s pretty wide board. Is that glued together, or is that one solid wide piece?

AM: It’s glued together.

DK: Glued?

AM: Yeah.

DK: Okay.

 SM: Did you work on the gates to the Fellows Building – the front gates to the Fellows Building?

DK: Mmm hmm.

AM: Oh yeah, I built those. The gates in front of the Fellows Building open. Did that about seven or eight years ago – the same design that was there.

SM: Those were according to the original design?

AM: Yes, I copied the design of the visible – one of the pieces down in the dump here –

SM: We just saw them the other day. I said, I bet that’s what they are.

AM: Yeah.

[DK]: One – one question I have – Philip Johnson designed the Pre-Columbian Pavilion, and his idea was to put all the cases in the center, and you walk around them, walk all the way around, and what happened to change that idea into what we have now?

AM: John Thacher. He didn’t like it. [Laughter]

DK: Oh he didn’t like it?

AM: No, it was – I saw a couple of his mock-ups, Johnson’s design. He had one thing looking like a table, with – it was almost like a piecrust table that was all going to be Plexiglas with the base coming down like that. And as I said before, he had somebody in New York to do these things. And John Thacher didn’t like it. That’s when he called the Smithsonian. He says, “We’ve got to do something.” [Laughter] ‘Cause the round things didn’t work in a round building.

SM: Plus, if you plan your objects around the very center, and you walk around them, there’s this big jumble you’re looking at.

AM: Yes.

SM: You know, you’re seeing through the case, and the next case –

[DK]: Well I think it works very well as it is, the only criticism I have is that all these kids who have been here, they like to look up and shout. [Laughter] But it lends itself to the cabinets. The cabinets look beautiful.

AM: No, that was all John Thacher’s doing. John Thacher, he had a very good eye. We worked very well together. There was one tale, though, another one of those tales about Kearney that was back in the early fifties, when John Thacher wanted to get some Byzantine collection, so he went to the Music Room in order to take one of the paintings, to take that to trade or sell to buy this little Byzantine collection. Mrs. Bliss found out about it, told him, “If you need money, you come to me. Don’t you take anything out of here yourself.” [Laughter] But that’s the story Matt Kearney tells, so since then, any time John Thacher needed money he’d go to her, and she would give it to him.

DK: What’s the story about – you know, you go into the greenhouse, you know where the greenhouse is, it’s attached to a sort of a building which we heard at one time was used originally as a teahouse.

AM: Yeah, according to Matt Kearney there used to be this really fancy dome.

SM: Yeah. That used to be a little teahouse?

AM: Yeah.

DK: Not – not in your time, though.

AM: No, not in my time.

SM: So, those two – those – you have main front doors, and the two side doors were originally exterior doors?

DK: Before they put the glass up, yeah.

AM: No. They built on the ends. I think the ends were there, but in order for the girls to have tea and enjoy the plants.

SM: Oh.

DK: It wasn’t a separate building. It still had the greenhouse part on it?

AM: Yeah, from what I understand.

DK: Did you – what work did you do with Don Smith?

AM: At the gardens?

DK: Yeah, I mean –

AM: I did a lot with Matt Kearney and Don Smith in the gardens.

DK: You worked – actually, you worked with Kearney, and –

AM: Yeah, because Kearney was the superintendent of gardens at that time. And Don Smith was the assistant.

SM: Oh, and – was that – it must have been Don Smith when you did – did you redo that nice wooden staircase leading down to the –

AM: Oh, yeah. That –

SM: – lower gardens. I forget what that’s called. Peonies.

DK: Where they had the mums, yeah.

AM: Yeah, I built those stairs. This is the third set.

SM: This is the third set.

AM: I did the second set. The first set was done maybe in 1930.

SM: Did you also work on the perspective?

AM: Oh, yeah, the perspective was falling apart for years.

DK: It was a trompe l’oeil. Where does the original piece come from, do you know?

SM: We have some correspondence on it. We have a letter… I guess to Beatrix Farrand, or maybe from, discussing this piece. We have a letter – I forget who it is now – but they were discussing the piece.

DK: France, you think?

SM: I really don’t remember. I do remember somebody suggesting that – when it arrived, someone thought that the colors were too garish. [Laughter] But that she thought it would weather nicely or something.

DK: But when you got it, it was kind of falling apart, so you restored it.

AM: Yeah. But Thomson, the director at the time, he didn’t like the colors; he found them too garish. I had to take it off. But that’s how I found the original colors.

SM: Did you also work on the Kennel house? Did you do the woodwork over there?

AM: Oh, no.

SM: Well, the wood part. Did you work on any of that?

AM: No.

SM: For example, they replaced the railings going up to one of the gardens three or four years ago.

AM: Which one is this?

SM: The other one.

DK: Oh, you’re talking about the stairway that you already discussed.

SM: That’s right.

DK: Going down to the – from the Plumb Walk down –

SM: Right. Did you build that yourself in the shop?

AM: Yeah. The other one was cypress. I remember Don Smith asking me if it would be all right to use mahogany.

 SM: What made you two decide on mahogany?

AM: ‘Cause it was cheaper.

SM: Oh.

DK: It won’t hold up as well. It won’t hold up as well, will it, Astor?

AM: It should. Mahogany has the same qualities as cypress and teak.

DK: Oh? I didn’t think mahogany had that same quality as they did.

AM: Yeah. Termites don’t like mahogany, they don’t like cypress, and they don’t like teak. It’s like all of these teak benches out here.

SM: Do you know whether Mrs. Bliss or Beatrix Farrand had a philosophy about that? About the benches? Did they want them to have that nice –

AM: Yeah.

SM: – tree-trunk effect?

AM: Yeah.

SM: Do you know who originally made those benches?

AM: Which ones?

SM: The benches in the gardens – there are so many. But do you know any of the companies that made any of them?

AM: No. Most of those benches were made before I got here. Some of them had plaques that fell off and disappeared.

DK: Mm?

SM: The plaques that are on the back of the teak – some of the benches and chairs – a lot of them aren’t there anymore. I mean, I know –

AM: Is there anything else you can think of?

DK: No. Anything you want to talk –

AM: Because I don’t usually talk spontaneously –

SM: You can just talk.

AM: unless something comes up.

SM: Did you have any budget problems?

AM: Budget?

SM: Yeah. Were there times when budgets were tight?

AM: No, They always gave me what I wanted. And back when I first came here, John Thacher said, “We want the best. Just do it. No worries for costs. So… so just do it.”

DK: It’s still that way.

AM: Yes. I am lucky. [Laughter] But, no, I never had any problems with budgets; they always had the money.

AM: And another thing that I understood that Harvard wanted to do when Mrs. Bliss died, was to move the library to the university.

SM: Really?

AM: And sell off the property. And one of the first things they did was sell off the Blisses’ other house.

DK: Did you ever work down there?

AM: I’ve gone down there several times.

DK: Did you do anything for them in that house?

AM: I forget. I did something.

SM: Did they have antique furniture there?

AM: The story I understand about that house – this one Matt Kearney also told me – after they gave Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard in 1940, they were – well, she wasn’t too happy about it. And so they went off to Europe. And she told him that, from what I understand, he didn’t have very good taste.

SM: Who didn’t?

AM: Mr. Bliss.

SM: Oh. [Laughter]

AM: She had all the taste So, when he bought this place, she sort of just… I guess, she just accepted it, in order not to hurt his feelings. She decided to – so evidently, there was some stipulation to Harvard, at least with John Thacher, that she use this place as a place of entertainment all the way until she died. Dumbarton Oaks. Of course, that’s a good strategy, because she still had more money to give, so you have to please your benefactor until they’re dead. But that’s the story I was told. So she really hated this house. I’ve been in it.

DK: I know Don Smith said they used to take the garden staff down there and work in the garden.

AM: Yeah.

DK: I just wondered how much work you have done there.

AM: No, I remember I did one or two things there.

DK: Mmm hmm.

AM: She got what she wanted until she died, you know, which makes sense.

DK: Mmm hmm.

SM: I always get confused. Who was the first director?

AM: John Thacher.

SM: Thacher and then Tyler.

AM: Yeah. Thacher, then Tyler, then Giles.

SM: Thomson and then Laiou.

AM: Hmm?

SM: Tyler, and then Giles, and then Robert Thompson, and then Angeliki.

AM: Yeah.

SM: The – Tyler. He was busy all the time writing his memoirs.

DK: Constable, did he try to take care of the place, too?

AM: Yeah. Constable came in with some radical ideas. I enjoyed working with him. There was one time, we wanted to – because there wasn’t enough light in the Music Room, so he wanted to – thought it would be nice to have crystal chandeliers in there. I argued with him. I said they don’t belong in there. [Laughter]

DK: You were right.

AM: It would destroy the room. Oh, we were almost shouting. So, he – so he just – did something else to increase the lighting.

SM: He installed lights on the ceiling? You know, spotlights?

DK: Oh, you did that? To shine on the El Greco and all the other paintings?

AM: Yeah, they did that quite a few years ago. I think it was –

DK: Ever since we were here.

AM: Hmm?

DK: Since you were here?

AM: Yeah.

SM: So, you worked with – you worked a lot on the Byzantine collection?

AM: Yeah.

SM: I mean, the collection was there, I gather.

AM: Well –

SM: Objects were on the display? But –

AM: Everything in the Byzantine has changed. They used to have wooden cases. I think I pointed out the two of them that are remaining.

SM: Right.

AM: One that’s in the seals area and one at the top of the stairs. That’s one of the old cases.

SM: Yeah.

AM: And then they had a tall cases – tall ones in marble.

SM: Hmm.

AM: And all of it was wood and glass. And it was very medieval looking. No, that whole thing was needing to change.

SM: Uh huh. And so bit by bit, you would change it, kind of case by case, or something?

AM: Yeah, in the beginning, I think I told you we had about six or seven people from the Smithsonian working –

SM: So, they were moonlighting. It wasn’t as if they were –

AM: Yeah, they were moonlighting.

SM: They stayed with the Smithsonian, then, when the work kind of slowed down? And that was – a lot of work was completed up here, and then they just resumed their day jobs?

AM: Yeah.

SM: Or kept their day jobs?

AM: Yeah. They kept their day jobs.

DK: At most, how many did you have working in there?

AM: I think it was about six of us.

DK: Six?

AM: Yeah.

DK: That’s great.

AM: See, they were – a lot of them were exhibit specialists, so they specialized in cases. So we had, from March to November, to totally redo things in the Byzantine collection.

SM: ’65?

AM: Yeah, it was ’65. Because that was to mark the – which anniversary was it? Thirtieth?

SM: ’65, ’40…

AM: 25th.

SM: 25th.

AM: Yeah. It was the 25th.

SM: That’s right. That was a big deal.

AM: Yeah. It was the 25th anniversary. And so that’s why we were working all those hours, and the –because I remember when I finished it, I was tired the day of the celebrations, and all through the concert. And they had tables around the Orangery. There were cheeses, beer and other things. What was the name of the director of the National Gallery at the time?

SM: Oh.

AM: Walker.

SM: Mmm.

AM: His wife had all these festivities and festive things going on. Of course, that morning, I got home at six o’clock and showered, changed, to get back to the lectures – it was a full day. So I – that Monday, I told Thacher. I said, “I’m tired.” And he said, “Just go. Go. Just go.” And I says, “What do you mean, go?” “Just go away and rest.” And I says, “For how long?” And he says, “How long-ever you want.” [Laughter] So, I jumped on a plane and went off to Mexico for three weeks. [Laughter]

DK: He didn’t mean that, did he?

AM: Oh, it didn’t bother him.

SM: It sounded like he did mean it.

DK: Oh, yeah?

SM: Yeah.

AM: He said, “Just go!”

SM: Just go!

AM: Just go. [Laughter] But it was something else. It was kind of exciting. Fourteen to eighteen hours a day to get that deadline.

SM: Mmm.

AM: There was a grand concert. I think – what’s his name? Alexander Schneider?

SM: Alexander Schneider was –

AM: Yeah. He was performing that evening.

DK: Mmm hmm.

AM: Everybody was somebody, including me, that evening. [Laughter] That was a – it was a wonderful period.

DK: Yeah, it sounds like it.

AM: Bring their own harpsichords.

SM: I’d love to hear a few more reminiscences from you, if you have any that you forgot to tell us.

AM: Oh, the one with, what was it, Stravinsky?

SM: Igor Stravinsky?

AM: Yeah, now, who’s the – who’s the picture in the music room?

SM: There are two photos of Igor Stravinsky.

DK: There’s Schneider and Kirkpatrick and Stravinsky.

AM: Stravinsky, yeah. Originally, he was supposed to perform – now this is a John Thacher story.

DK: Oh yeah?

AM: He told me this. Well, he had performed here several times. I guess this was the late forties, early fifties? And he says that he’s supposed to be pretty good buddies with Igor. And this one evening, Stravinksy asked him for his check before he went to perform, and Thacher says, “The check is in the safe in the other room.” He says, “I want my check now.” So, he said, Thacher said, “You don’t trust Dumbarton Oaks?” And so he said he wanted his check before he performs. So, John Thacher said, “Okay. You can have it your way if you want. I’ll just tell all these people out here that Igor Stravinsky does not trust Dumbarton Oaks to pay him for the performance evening.” He said he jumped up and did a gracious performance. [Laughter] Still didn’t get his check until the next morning.

AM: Another cute one is, years ago, they used to have – the professors and doctors, the scholars used to have on their door, “Dr. So and So on,” “Professor So and So and So on,” so Thacher told me one day, he says, “Take all those – this is not a hospital. Anybody with a ‘doctor’ in their name, take it off. Only if they’re professors. That’s all I want to see on these doors.” [Laughter] I don’t know when they started putting “doctor” on the doors again or not.

DK: You don’t hear it anymore.

SM: No, it’s just the name. It’s just the first and last name.

AM: He used to say, “This is not a hospital!” [Laughter]

DK: You know, Don Smith was talking about Elizabeth Taylor and some of the neighbors. Do you have any stories when it comes to those people?

AM: Oh, Liz and John Warner?

DK: John Warner.

AM: Yeah. John Warner, before, you know, he married her, he was married to Kathy Mellon.

DK: Mmm hmm.

AM: And they went everywhere together.

SM: Kathy Mellon?

AM: Yeah.

SM: What relation to the Mellon down the corner?

AM: That’s the Mellon.

DK: The same one.

SM: The person? The same person?

DK: She lived next door.

SM: Oh. Oh, and they were married?

AM: Yeah. John Warner.

DK: He was married to her first.

AM: They had two children.

SM: Uh huh.

AM: And when they got divorced, she gave him the house. She moved down the street. On the corner, there used to be another lady who lived in that house. The white house.

SM: Oh. On the corner – 

AM: Yeah.

DK: Mmm hmm. The house that Liz and Warner lived in, was that built new, or was that there?

AM: Yeah, that was built new.

DK: They built – he built it for her?

AM: She built it for him.

DK: Oh. Oh, yeah. Pardon me. [Laughter] Yeah, she also got him to be senator, too.

AM: Oh, that? No, Liz did that.

DK: Oh, Liz.

AM: Elizabeth Taylor.

SM: Oh, Mellon built the house.

DK: Oh, Mellon built the house for him?

AM: Yeah. Yeah, because he didn’t have any money.

DK: Yeah.

AM: Yes. Oh, it’s funny, the children used to go from this house to the house up in the corner. [Laughter]

SM: Joint custody?

AM: Yeah, joint custody.

DK: I tell that story. I said, “Now this is not part of Dumbarton Oaks’ tour, but I want to tell you” – and I tell that story.

AM: Did you know that story?

DK: Yes, I do.

AM: Yeah, so. But ???

SM: Sounds like it. Oh, I thought of one thing I wanted to ask you. When was the protest? When was the protest against digging up the North Vista?

AM: Oh. Poor Tyler.

DK: Oh, that’s right.

SM: That wasn’t at the 25th thingy, was it?

AM: No.

SM: It couldn’t have been. But there was something going on. Constable.

AM: Tyler. Tyler was the director then. You’re talking about the protest about the gardens?

SM: The Tuxedo protest? Yeah.

AM: Oh, that wasn’t about the gardens. That was Tyler. They wanted to build the library under the North Vista. I guess you’ve heard about that.

DK: Mmm hmm.

AM: Jacobson, he was the architect. He would come to the – we had meetings in the Music Room, and he would always say to start off, “This is the most civilized square mile in the middle of Georgetown. It’s the most civilized square mile in the world.” He was explaining how they were going to build the library under the North Vista, and there wouldn’t be too much change. It would only change the elevation only about five feet. Windows would be looking into the swimming pool, glass windows.

SM: Some minor changes!

AM: And there was a gardener here at the time named Petey. Petey. I forget his last name. He loved the gardens, and so he went up to start arguing with Tyler. He lost. So, he started – he quit and started gathering the Georgetown folks, and everybody who loved gardens in the United States. And they began to protest this library intruding on the gardens. So, eventually everybody got into this. It was one little guy, and then this swell, and I think it was Bok who was coming down. He was just elected to – 

SM: Oh, Derek Bok?

AM: Yeah. He was the president, and so he was coming down here for the first time to attend this grand party with the senators and so forth. It was supposed to be in the Music Room, and then the Georgetown people started protesting outside the – where this gala was supposed to be going on.

SM: Did anybody think about moving to where the front is? – on the other side of the building.

AM: No. There, again, you would destroy the architecture of the building. What Giles did, when he came – because he came right after Tyler? – they discovered all this space in the third floor. So, that was all renovated, the third floor, to make more space.

SM: Mmm hmm.

DK: Did they have a problem when the excavated the courtyard? Any problem there?

AM: No, they didn’t have any problem there. They got together the twenty-five year plan, whatever it was, and then they were not going outside.

DK: Oh, yeah, because that made the difference.

SM: So, the view didn’t really even change from the street.

AM: No, they would have very great problems out here. The reason was, Georgetown. Then the Pre-Columbian –

DK: Yeah, that was my next question, how they got away with that?

AM: Well, it was a promise that it would be hidden from the streets. That’s why all those trees, all the evergreens. If you notice, you can hardly notice it’s there from the street. So that was okay with Georgetown

SM: What about that mess across the street?

AM: Oh?

SM: No, no. Not that house. The… the Japanese-style, concrete structure – 

AM: Oh, I don’t know how that happened. They were building that thing while I was building the fence at the Fellows Building.

SM: Oh, yeah, that’s right. I mean, if anything deserved a protest in tuxedos, it was that thing.

AM: It was a cute little house.

SM: Mmm.

AM: They bought the property, tore down the house. But it was a pretty little house. And then – disaster from the beginning.

SM: Mmm hmm.

AM: Both inside, and on the outside –

SM: It’s awful, I think.

AM: I don’t know, are there any more questions?

DK: No. You did great, Astor.

SM: That’s probably it for right now.

DK: Yep, very –

SM: We’ve gotta make some more lists, probably. Keep notes for a next interview.

DK: Yeah.