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Dumbarton Oaks

Dumbarton Oaks is the name that Mildred Barnes Bliss and Robert Woods Bliss gave to their residential property in Washington, D.C. The land of Dumbarton Oaks was formerly part of the Rock of Dumbarton grant that Queen Anne made in 1702 to Colonel Ninian Beall (ca. 1625–1717). In 1801, William Hammond Dorsey (1764–1818) built the first house on the property (the central block of the existing structure) and an orangery, and in the mid-nineteenth century, Edward Magruder Linthicum (1787–1869) greatly enlarged the residence and named it The Oaks. The Oaks also was the Washington residence of U.S. senator and vice president John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) between 1822 and 1829. Mildred Barnes Bliss and Robert Woods Bliss acquired the property in 1920, and in 1933 they gave it the name of Dumbarton Oaks, combining its two historic names. The Blisses engaged the architect Frederick H. Brooke (1876–1960) to renovate and enlarge the house in 1921–1923, thereby creating a Colonial Revival residence from the existing Linthicum-era Italianate structure. Over time, the Blisses increased the grounds to approximately fifty-four acres, and they engaged the landscape architect Beatrix Farrand (1872–1959) to design a series of terraced gardens and a wilderness on this acreage, in collaboration with Mildred Bliss, between 1921 and 1947. The Blisses’ architectural additions to the estate included four service court buildings (1926), a music room (1928) designed by Lawrence Grant White (1887–1956) of the New York City architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, and a superintendent’s dwelling (1933) designed by Farrand. Later renamed the Fellows Building, this building is now known as the Guest House. After retiring to Dumbarton Oaks in 1933, the Blisses immediately began laying the groundwork for the creation of a research institute. They greatly increased their already considerable collection of artworks and reference books, forming the nucleus of what would become the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. In 1938, they engaged the architect Thomas T. Waterman (1900–1951) to build two pavilions to house their Byzantine Collection and an 8,000-volume library, and in 1940 they gave Dumbarton Oaks (which included about sixteen acres of land) to Harvard University, Robert Woods Bliss’s alma mater. At the same time, they gave a portion of the grounds—some twenty-seven acres—to the National Park Service to establish the Dumbarton Oaks Park.

James N. Carder, "The Architectural History of Dumbarton Oaks and the Contribution of Armand Albert Rateau," in A Home of the Humanities: The Collecting and Patronage of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, ed. James N. Carder (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010), 92–115.

Susan Tamulevich, Dumbarton Oaks: Garden into Art (New York: Monacelli Press, 2001).

Walter Muir Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks: The History of a Georgetown House and Garden, 1800–1966 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967).