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The History of Dumbarton Oaks

“There was a need in this country, we thought, of a quiet place where the advanced students and scholars could withdraw, the one to mellow and develop, the other to write the result of a life's study.”
Robert Bliss, 1940

Dumbarton Oaks was created by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, collectors and patrons of art and scholarship in the humanities. Robert Bliss was a diplomat in the US Foreign Service, and the Blisses traveled and lived in South America and Europe. After a long search for a permanent home in Washington, they purchased the 1801 Federal-style house and property in June of 1920. Throughout their lives they were enthusiastic collectors of art and books and ardent supporters of music and the arts.

After buying the property, the Blisses altered it significantly. Mildred Barnes Bliss worked closely with renowned landscape designer Beatrix Farrand to transform the land surrounding the house into terraced gardens and vistas. The Blisses renovated and expanded the original structure, adding the Music Room in 1929, and the wing to house the Byzantine Collection in 1940. As early as 1932, the Blisses had begun planning to convey the institution to Harvard, Robert's alma mater; the property was transferred in 1940. The Blisses remained very active, continuing to shape the institution, the collections, and the gardens, until their deaths in the 1960s. The Pre-Columbian Pavilion, designed by architect Philip Johnson to house Mr. Bliss's collection of Pre-Columbian art, which had been on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Art, opened to the public in 1963. The Garden Library was added in the same year, to house and display Mrs. Bliss's collection of rare and modern books related to all aspects of the history of gardens. Dumbarton Oaks continues to respond to the need for change; in 2005 scholars were welcomed into the new library, and in 2008 the extensive renovation of the Main House and Museum was completed.

 

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