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Michael Steen

“Dumbarton Oaks: That House that Mike Built.” This is a transcription of the audio portion of a video produced by Michael Steen for Jacobs Facilities, Inc. on August 29, 2007. Mike Steen was then Project Manager of the Dumbarton Oaks Capital Construction and Renewal Program on contract from Jacobs. The project included the renovation and restoration of the Refectory, the Greenhouses, the Operations Building (also known as the Gardener’s Cottage), the Main House, and the Guest House (then known as the Fellows Building) and the new construction of the Library and the Gardeners’ Court. Mike was Director of Facilities at Dumbarton Oaks (2008–2013). The video also includes sections narrated by Page Nelson on office relocations and John Howell on the data center in the Operations Building.


MS: Hello, my name is Mike Steen; I’m Project Manager for Dumbarton Oaks.  We are now coming up the drive to the Main House at Dumbarton Oaks and I would like to describe to you from the outside what you are experiencing. You are now viewing the Orangery that was built approximately 1805 to 1812, the date uncertain. You are now panning into of the main body of the south elevation of the Main House.

What we did, in this project, was to renovate the 70,000 square foot house by putting in all-new heating/cooling systems, electrical systems, security, data – telecommunications. All of the equipment in this house was replaced and every square inch of it was touched in some degree – all new finishes. We did restore three historic rooms: the Founders’ Room, Oval Salon, and the Music Room. We’ll talk more about that inside. But, the big challenge and opportunity for this reconstruction here was what we would do with the people. And I’d like for you to welcome Page Nelson.

PN: Thank you. In order to start the renovation we had to clear about thirty people out of the house here into swing locations. We used two locations. One is a house right around the corner on R Street, a historic mansion that was once a summerhouse for President Ulysses S. Grant. We used it for office space, incorporating offices in bedrooms, sun porches, parlors, libraries, and other spaces, and it actually turned out really well. There were some challenges working around the fireplaces and the bathrooms and other architectural features, but the customers were very happy with the space – especially having come out of less than excellent space here in the building. They’d been in basements and whatever. We also moved another fifteen people over into the Fellows Building, which is another residential space with public dining room and parlor areas, and we accommodated them in unique ways in all of those spaces. One of the occupants actually moved into what was once a kitchen, but again, I think they were all pleased with how it all turned out. We had to get a bit of new furniture, but mostly we just used existing furniture at this point since, actually, when they were moving back into their final space here in the Main House, they would get their new furniture. It was quite a fun and challenging project.

MS: Actually, Page, a lot of people did not want to move back from R Street; it’s such a beautiful site.

PN: Yeah, it is beautiful.

MS: Let me tell you then that the Publications Department is occupying the third floor that you see. You have the Financial Department is back on the east end of the second floor. The curators have their offices on the second floor on the west end. And the administration is directly in your sight here, the office on the left is the Director’s office, and the few administrative staff that have come. And the basement, below, in fact just below the double doors – the docents and then the Friends of Music, that provided services to the community, occupy those spaces. So, follow us and together we will go to the inside of the house.

Welcome to the Music Room at Dumbarton Oaks. We did spend quite a bit of time, money, and effort in this room in order to restore it back to its grandeur. This Music Room was constructed in 1929 from a McKim, Mead & White design, and it was one of the first additions that the Blisses performed on the house, one of many additions. You see the French limestone fireplace, and as we pan the room you will see the mural hall stairs that go up to the mural hall painted by Mr. Cox, Allyn Cox. To the middle of the back room, back wall, you will see the audiovisual room. This room is used for symposia that houses 200 plus people, for events held by all three study disciplines here at Dumbarton Oaks. It’s also used by Friends of Music to entertain the community, for people that subscribe to Dumbarton Oaks and their music program. You will see or notice the decorated ceiling, which is a complete restoration – it was determined that the base – there was no bonding component to the material that it was installed on the beams, therefore it was deteriorating. All of the painted decoration was removed, scraped off. This gave us an opportunity to conceal the sprinkler system in the beams, which we would have not been able to do knowing that we weren’t going to do the work. Knowing that we were going to redo the work, redo the painting, we were able to conceal the sprinklers, which is a great feature for this room. The chandeliers are converted oil-burning chandeliers. This room is well done and well appointed, and is very typical of the big urban houses of the twenties. Dumbarton Oaks is very proud of this. Also, this is one of the meeting rooms in which the Dumbarton Oaks Conferences were held prior to and leading up to the formation of a permanent United Nations. We had two sections of two separate sessions: first one with the United States and U.K. and Russia, and then later on in the fall they brought in another group of people that continued the talks. Shortly thereafter, the creation of the United Nations took place, but it all initiated here.

We are now in the Orangery, as I earlier stated, built somewhere between 1805 and 1812, and then renovated, as you can tell by the new structure in the roof. Right now all the doors and windows are being replaced because of the deterioration due to the moisture content in the air here. We now have ways to ring that water out. You can see that there is a fig vine all around the superstructure here; it’s over a hundred years old. It’s been able to survive through the construction, and it emanates from one point in the corner and has been trained to go over all the superstructure and all the walls. It’s quite an interesting plant.

[Views of the gardens and pool]

We are now at the entrance of Dumbarton Oaks Service Court, which is the former Gardener’s Court. This is where the gardeners where housed, where the Director was housed, where all of the back of the house garden equipment was stored: the fertilizers, pesticides, and the greenhouses were back here in this location. It’s always known as the West Property or the back of the house.

OK, now we are at the bottom of the service area that we call the Gardener’s Court. This is actually the old Gardener’s Court, and now it’s called the Service Court. The drive that I’ve just walked down, as you can see the blue stone edging and the cobbles that are embedded – this is quite a hefty roadway, there’s an eight-inch concrete slab and three inches of embedment above with the cobbles. All this was removed, however, when we built a connecting tunnel that connected not only the library to the Main House for utilities. It’s eight feet wide and ten feet tall inside. It also carries books – the book conveyor – to the Main House where the Fellows – the fellowship program is being maintained there as well. The stones were numbered – the blue stones were numbered and reinstalled in their locations, their original locations. All the walls were rebuilt and the cobbles were rebuilt.

Now let’s move around in the court here. This next building that you will see is known as the Refectory. The lower level contains a large meeting room, and we used it for temporary purposes, for research reports that were given weekly by the Fellows. Now that will be conducted at the Main House. The kitchen, the commercial kitchen is also on this lower level and the dining hall is on the upper level, and there’s a nice den – well, it’s a sitting room, it’s very well appointed. We continue to go around. I do want to say, however, that the gardeners once occupied the lower level in this building, and this building was originally built as a chauffeurs’ house. And the Blisses had six rooms for chauffeurs and three-four bays for their cars. There was a debate, and two schemes drawn where the question whether or not to build this as a motorcar garage or a livery. And I think after they developed both schemes and got to looking around what’s happening in the world they thought that they should build it for the motorcar. And I think that was a pretty wise move. You can see now we are looking at the west, from the west property to the, into the garden gate that takes you to the back of the gardens, of the ten-acre formal gardens that we’ve talked about. I must tell you that we are standing in a courtyard that was – the greenhouse forms the northern boundary, the refectory forms the southern boundary, the garden wall is the eastern boundary, and the cool house, which is another greenhouse or orchid house was a McKim, Mead & White construction project. And this was in the mid twenties, ’26-’27. This greenhouse was totally restored, all new glazing, watering systems, fertilization systems, ventilation, protection, ventilation and all, and as well as the pit house, the greenhouse behind it. Now, if we keep panning around the circle here and we come to what I just referred to as the orchid house on the west end of this court. This building was converted into a reading room for the library, and is about 1,200 square feet. And it attaches or appends to the 47,000 square-foot, five level library. It’s very well done and we were able to preserve the McKim, Mead & White quadrangle here. We’ll go ahead and pan on around. And I don’t know if you saw the building at the top of the drive that I just walked down, but that is also a McKim, Mead & White building that is known as the Gardeners’ Court [Cottage]. And that’s where the security staff resides, the servers and all of the security equipment is; it’s actually the heartbeat, the hub of the campus for security and telecommunications. Facilities is located there, and the IT folks are located there as well. And my office is in there too and I’ve enjoyed that space immensely. Now we will continue our trip by going into library to see what’s in there.

And we are now panning into the reading room described from the exterior as the old, former orchid house, that’s been converted into a reading room. It’s now very nice, integral part of the library. You see the pre-Columbian statuary there. We have several artifacts in all of the buildings in addition to the museum space. We continue to pan around, and I wanted you to see that we have the stacks. I would go ahead and add that this is a Robert Venturi design – Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates has done this. We’re on level four. Levels three, four, and five are similar to this level. And then on level one we have stacks down there that contain primarily most of the volumes of the library. Level two is the level that contains the technical support for the libraries and the area that they call the photo archives. And most of the staff is housed on the second floor. Each of the floors five, four, and three do however have offices for six fellows that study from the library, that’s eighteen offices, plus a couple of offices for visiting scholars, and then the librarians have the other offices and the Directors of Study of the study programs are all housed in the [fade] –

We are now going to look at the library, this imposing sight. We have exposed four and a half levels on this elevation of the five levels, so there’s a half level below ground here. Only two levels are exposed on the courtyard side.

JH: Behind me is Gardeners’ Cottage, formally a duplex for visiting scholars, experts in residence here at the facility, and other guests. It’s now the data center, voice and security key point and coordinating distribution point for the whole campus. What we had to do when we did have Verizon under contract was to take the services while maintaining them from the main house, move them, get them alive in this building, and then distribute them. Part of this entailed getting the services into this building and what we had to do was coordinate, not with Verizon, but with a contractor we wished to have under our control and under our contract to do the work under the sidewalk. Due to the fact that we were renovating an active, live museum and moving artifacts out of great value, we wanted to control the schedule and the sequence of when the sidewalks would be dug up while installing the duct bank. Because we are on this side of the hill in Georgetown, there’s really no other services on this side of the street, we had to bring services from the other side of S Street, necessitating about a 500 foot dig up of the street, bringing services into the Gardeners’ Court. What we were able to do is successfully transition this, coordinate the delivery of the voice and data services, feeding the security systems as well, and our alarms. And what I’ll do is I’ll take you into this – what we call the Gardener’s Cottage and we’ll take a look at the data center that we were [fade] –

The result was to relocate all of Dumbarton Oaks’s copper, and fiber, telephone and data infrastructures into this room, one of the nicest data centers I’ve been in. We had to transition this from the old Main House, keeping those circuits active, while bringing in the new circuits. The customer was very happy that we were able to clearly label and segregate as we upgraded as we transitioned from new infrastructure. We kept alive and brought over various circuits from Harvard University, security, tie-ins to the BMS system, and other circuits, kept them protected in this room. He was then able to build out his network infrastructure, with plenty of room for expansion, plenty of cooling, and something they wanted to do was to upgrade their voice system to a Cisco voiceover IP system, which rides over the IT backbone. This room, like I mentioned, has room for expansion and can accommodate all the research and archival documents [fade] –

MS: Here we are at the new Gardeners’ Court location, which is on the west side of the library and the old Gardeners’ Court.  We recreated the courtyard just to keep that theme. We have included bins for mulch and fertilizers and other products that the gardeners use and provided three bays for their trucks and vehicles and all of the equipment that they use. And then on the second floor we built some nice offices, a lunchroom, and some nice amenities there for the gardeners. Well, this is also the receiving space, the receiving room for anything that is delivered to Dumbarton Oaks, including the mail. The mail is sorted here and then taken to the other buildings and distributed to the mailrooms in each of the buildings. This is a Venturi design project, and we are proud to have two buildings on site that were designed by them. You can see the small building that has already been panned by; it’s very complementary to new construction. It houses the stand by generator system. Now this building also, in its basement, contains the central plant. The central plant has a redundancy, in as much as it has an extra boiler, an extra chiller, and two pumps for each pump operation, and it also has a double-ended sub station and it takes both feeds to fail before the generator comes on. So we feel like we’re pretty secure here, utility wise – heating, cooling, and electrical. We have such sensitive materials in the libraries and on site in the museum so we felt like that was an important feature to incorporate in the project.

We will now move up to the Fellows Building that you see before you now that is under interior renovations, and you can see the contractor’s trailer behind it. This is the rear or north elevation of the Fellows Building. We will move over to the other side of the building and resume from there.

Here we are on the other side of the Fellows Building that we saw from the backside, this is the front elevation, which is the south elevation. This has eight rooms, sleeping rooms, on the upper floor. They are being modernized for fire alarms and also for a sprinkler system, we’re upgrading for code compliance in these areas as well as accessibility. I used to live in the West Cottage here, on the lower level, about an eight hundred square foot cottage that they furnished for me to stay in. And the Fellows used to eat their noon meal here. They had a commercial kitchen that is now moved to the Refectory as we have discussed in the past. This is one of the buildings, one of the few buildings that Beatrix Farrand actually designed and built. It’s a little bit crazy inside, but it has a real nice appearance and serves Dumbarton Oaks well.

If we can now pan to the east and up the sidewalk, I will talk to you about this particular sidewalk. This is a public sidewalk. We – under this sidewalk – we placed the utility distribution tunnel that emanates from the central plant of the Gardeners’ Court that we just discussed. It is full width, it went all the way from back of curb to the fence line, and it is eight feet wide in the interior and eight feet tall. It carries the heating, cooling, water, the normal and emergency electric power, backbone for security, telephones, all of these services to all of the buildings on site. It took eleven months to get the permit and about six months to build the tunnel so that’s an interesting feature of that. And if we keep panning we will come around to what we lovingly refer to as the Warner-Taylor house. It was occupied by John Warner and Elizabeth Taylor when they were married. And that’s now where Dumbarton Oaks is housing me – this is the Director’s house. And I am pleased to be able to stay there. It’s not really Kentucky, but it’ll do. A little small, but you know, but I’ll take what I can get. I will be signing off, must go. Enjoyed the tour. I hope you did. Thank you very much.