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Last Concerns: Installation of the Collection, Landscaping, and “the Acoustical Problem”

James N. Carder
“This is a building to be seen from the inside only.”

Philip Johnson was concerned about the installation of the collection and wrote Thacher on August 30, 1962: “On the interiors, Lincoln [Kirstein] says you are going to take over the installation yourself, which of course couldn’t be better. All I have done is design a sample curtainThe curtains and curtain rods of the Pre-Columbian Gallery were removed during the renovation of the Museum in 2006–2007. Their function, to retard direct sunlight, was made unnecessary with the installation of tinted, UV-filtering new glass. Two panels of the Philip Johnson–designed curtains, which are of a loose, open-weave beige silk fabric, have been retained in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives. and a sample display case.” According to Johnson, this case was round and very light (presumably, visually speaking), without a heavy base or capping. It could be made in any diameter, depending on the objects to be displayed and it had a completely adjustable lighting system. He ended his description by saying: “It has been a lot of work to develop and I only hope it meets with your favor, at least for some of your things.”Philip Johnson to John S. Thacher, August 30, 1962. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence. Although the sample case is not preserved, a shop drawing dated August 1, 1960, by Klaus Grabe of South Norwalk, Connecticut, exists for a circular case.Klaus Grabe, “Display Case,” August 1, 1960. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, architectural plans, Johnson, Philip, not accessioned. Round display cases also can be seen through the windows in Helmut Jacoby’s elevation rendering (fig. 19). Elizabeth Benson recalled that Philip Johnson had made a mockup of a round case to be located in the center of each gallery. However, neither she nor Michael Coe liked this placement. On John Thacher’s recommendation, they decided to use clear acrylic cases, to be located mostly at the perimeters of the galleries, where typically the exhibition deck and bonnet were supported by acrylic legs or trestles and which were transparent on all sides. James Mayo, who fabricated casework for the Smithsonian Institution, was engaged to design the new cases.Presentation by Elizabeth Benson to the Dumbarton Oaks Museum docents, Dumbarton Oaks, January 19, 2007.

Another concern of Philip Johnson was the designed landscape around the building. As early as his first elevation and model of 1959 (figs. 7 and 9), he significantly had closely surrounded the exterior of the building with evergreen trees. In his letter to Thacher of August 30, 1962, he queried whether they should be “giving some thoughts to the garden and the interior?” He hoped that “it will be thickly planted enough.”Philip Johnson to John S. Thacher, August 30, 1962. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence. In the July 1962 issue of Architectural Record, he illustrated the building with a plan very densely surrounded by trees and other plantings. The article that accompanied this plan described the building as having planting “brought directly against the glass infilling to make visible walls of solid greenery and create, as the architect describes it, a ‘green museum.’’”“Recent Work of Philip Johnson, Dumbarton Oaks Wing, Washington, D.C.,” Architectural Record 132 (July 1962): 120. In his letter to Thacher, Johnson had concluded: “After all, this is a building to be seen from the inside only.” Johnson would reiterate this interesting statement several times.In 2001, he stated: “The museum that we built is not an ‘outside’ building. It is to be seen from the inside. Why does the space seem bigger on the inside than it does from the outside? It is because of the glass walls, because you judge the space you are in by the nearest vertical element that you recognize, and in this case that is, of course, the trees in the Bosque. The trees give you the measure.” Philip Johnson, “Foreword: The Pavilion in the Garden” in Susan Tamulevich, Dumbarton Oaks, Garden Into Art (New York, 2001), 18. In a 1963 article, he was quoted as saying that the dense planting always had been part of his plan, that from the very beginning he had conceived the building as almost hidden in greenery: “I wanted the garden to march right up to the museum displays and become part of them. . . . This building is to be enjoyed from the inside. The bushes brushing against the glass walls and the architecture. So is the sound of the splashing fountain in the center.”Wolfj Von Eckardt, “Dumbarton Pavilion’s Scheme is Inside Out,” Washington Post  (December 8, 1963). Later, in a 1994 interview, when asked, “Were you more concerned about what the museum felt like on the interior than on the exterior?” Johnson replied, “It is only an interior.” He continued by stating, “the whole trick here is an interior building surrounded tightly with woods. I didn’t know enough about horticulture in those days to realize that the trees won’t grow up tight to a glass wall; they tend towards the sun, so there is a little light around it. It’s meant to be in a forest like that. But you never get just what you want. The idea I was after was woods enclosed, because the worst thing in a museum is glass. The last thing you want is for your eyes to keep wandering away from the art. That’s why I like the greenery to grow as close to the building as you can possibly persuade it to grow.” Lewis and O’Connor, Philip Johnson, 52. The planting plan for the Pre-Columbian Gallery probably never was as dense as Johnson would have liked. In 1963, Thacher and Mildred Bliss commissioned a planting plan for the area around the Pre-Columbian Gallery from the landscape firm of Robert Zion and Harold Breen.See Zion and Breen, “Museum Wing, Planting Plan,” February 19, 1963. Dumbarton Oaks, Rare Book Collection, architectural plans, LA.GD.S.4.02. This planting plan of existing hollies and under plantings of narcissus naturalized in ivy is, with some exceptions, the landscaping that exists today.

This dense planting probably would not have been possible with the building’s original siting to the south of the entrance pavilion (where Frederic King’s Garden Library eventually was built). The decision to locate the building in the Copse was amplified by an obituary remembrance of Mildred Bliss of January 23, 1969, written by her friend, the journalist Joseph Alsop (1910–1989). He offered this recollection:

[G]o to see [the] pre-Columbian collection and you find it housed in a dream-pavilion designed by Philip Johnson, the leading modern architect whom the Blisses chose because, as Mildred Bliss put it, “we think it’s time for us to do something really new.” It was the Blisses, moreover, who had the wise inspiration to tell Philip Johnson that he could design the little museum as a sylvan pavilion, from which every window looks outwards into the fine shrub garden that surrounds and largely isolates it. “Otherwise,” as Mildred Bliss remarked, “Mr. Johnson would have had to be tactful toward the things we’d built earlier. We wanted him to be wholly free, instead; so we thought of the surrounding shrub garden as a little device to make Johnson’s design entirely independent of everything else that was there already.”

Alsop concluded by stating, somewhat anachronistically: “And in just the way they went to Philip Johnson for the pre-Columbian museum, when it came time to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary, the Blisses went to Composer Igor Stravinsky to commission the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto.”Joseph Alsop, “An Astonishing, Fruitful Life,” Washington Post (January 23, 1969).

Figure 27
Figure 27. Mr. and Mrs. Eric Boissonnas House, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1954–1956.

As was true of the “wallpaper” views of his own Glass House, Johnson intended that the views from the interior “be illusive, like a cyclorama that represents infinity,” having changeable “organic” forms generated from unpredictable natural elements—light and shadow, mist, rain, and snow, and, above all, trees—rather than the stationary linear and geometric forms of traditional architecture.Blake, Philip Johnson, 89. Despite the massive columns, which anchor the building and suggest mass, the curved glass walls dissolve the interior into the Copse landscape. Creating this sense of fluidity between interior and exterior was an effect that Johnson, like the architect Frank Lloyd Wright before him, often employed in residential architecture where the inhabitants could feel that they lived in the landscape. This was true of Johnson’s design of the house of Mr. and Mrs. Eric Boissonnas in New Canaan, Connecticut, 1954–1956, which like the Dumbarton Oaks Pre-Columbian Gallery and unlike the Glass House had massive piers (here made of brick) that framed the bronze-encased glass and, again, both anchored the structure and afforded a sense of mass (fig. 27). Also similar and closer in date and design concept was Johnson’s design (with Richard Foster) for the house of Mr. and Mrs. David Lloyd Kreeger (now the Kreeger Museum) in Washington, D.C., 1964–1968 (fig. 28). The main core of the house was designed on a nine-square plan (3 x 3) (three squares were integrated as a living room/gallery), the Great Hall (fig. 29) at the center of which was a landscaped court or atrium. Each square was, in fact, a twenty-two foot cube, and each of the eight perimeter cubes was vaulted with a shallow groin vault rising above “eyebrow”-arched sections (which were clerestory windows on the exterior walls). The vaulting and the modular plan strongly alluded to ancient Roman architecture, especially cross-vaulted basilicas, an allusion that was reinforced by the choice of travertine for the revetment. Again, heavy piers—here cruciform in section—were used to suggest structural solidity while at the same time the window walls opened the interior spaces into the landscape and the vaults seemed to buoy like sails, providing a sense of fluidity to the spaces. While appropriate for residences, Johnson’s transparent walls were unexpected in a museum where art objects were meant to be the principal attraction. Johnson recognized this and stated in 2001: “As a museum curator, which I was at the time, I should have realized that the building should have been a background to the objects. But the way I built it, all you see is the outdoors when you are inside the museum.”Johnson, “Foreword,” 18. As an architect, Johnson clearly was more interested in the way the building looked and the way it looked in its setting. Blake, Philip Johnson, 38. Or as one architectural historian put it: “The appearance of the building, not its function, is what gets Johnson going. This is the opposite of ‘form follows function.’”Stephen Fox, The architecture of Philip Johnson, foreword by Philip Johnson, essay by Hilary Lewis (New York, 2002), 94.

Figure 28
Figure 28. Mr. and Mrs. David Lloyd Kreeger House, Washington, D.C., 1964–1968.

Figure 29
Figure 29. Kreeger House, Great Hall (Living Room/Gallery).

Not of concern to Philip Johnson was the discovery of an “acoustical problem” that became apparent after the gallery domes were constructed. The architect Bernardo Rostad, who served as Thacher’s assistant during the building of the two additions, wrote Johnson already on March 27, 1962: “After several meetings with Mr. Thacher and Mr. and Mrs. Bliss I am in the position of having to make the following comments for your consideration: 1. The acoustical problem as it stands now is of deep concern. Several suggestions have been made, all of which I think will be handled by your competent judgment. One was to install an acoustical material, an air space and acoustical plaster on top. Another one was to get an acoustical consultant that would study the problem in great detail and come up with a report for consideration. Another was to change the acoustical plaster to a more sound absorbent material.”Bernardo Rostad to Philip Johnson, March 27, 1962. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence. However, there are no revisions to the construction documents that suggest that any of the changes were made. And the problem did not go away. After the opening of the collection to the public on December 10, 1963, Thacher wrote Johnson on January 20, 1964: “Have you any suggestions as to a pertinent statement that might be placed in your wing regarding the echoes in the domes? Visitors naturally discover it and think they are the first to do so, and question the guards and talk to other visitors, all of which is detracting from their enjoyment of your building. What do you suggest, and is there anything that can be done to overcome this nuisance?” According the Thacher, Harvard president Nathan M. Pusey had suggested that there was a way to remedy the problem.John S. Thacher to Philip Johnson, January 20, 1964. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence. Johnson later recounted: “The president of Harvard said, ‘Oh, I’ll send my engineers down; we’ll fix all that. meaning the echo caused by the domes.”Lewis and O’Connor, Philip Johnson, 58. Johnson wrote back:

At last I have in hand your letter concerning the echo and, in spite of what Dr. Pusey says, there is no possible way it could be fixed. Perhaps a neat little sign:

The fascinating echo that you will experience by standing in the center under each dome is a natural phenomenon heard in all domical structures.

If two persons standing at opposite edges of the dome talk to each other, a ‘whispering gallery’ effect can be achieved.

The day I was there, the galleries were full and no one seemed to be in the slightest bothered.Philip Johnson to John S. Thacher, February 14, 1964. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Philip Johnson correspondence.

When Johnson was interviewed later about the acoustical problem in the galleries, he replied: “Oh, isn’t that marvelous? I knew that would happen. It was mostly criticized: ‘How could you build a building when you knew it was going to have terribly bad acoustics?’”Lewis and O’Connor, Philip Johnson, 56.