Dumbarton Oaks: A serene spot to enjoy spring
The tucked away Dumbarton Oaks Gardens in Georgetown rest on 10 acres of lush, green plots, meandering brick pathways, wooden benches hidden among the trees and sweet-smelling wisteria hanging from the vines.
"Once you walk through these gates, you don't feel like you're in the city anymore," says Sarah Kelley, the docent on a recent tour.You may not feel like you're in the 21st century either. (Is that Captain von Trapp over there on the lower terrace of the North Vista stealing a kiss from Maria?) There's a fairy-tale quality to the gardens: An image of a faun points you toward Melisande's Allee, a small path beyond the Lovers' Lane Pool that disappears into the verdant foliage. An American Beech tree that is about 60 years old shades Beech Terrace, where a covered bench in the corner bids you to sit.
This is not an arboretum, Kelley is quick to say at the beginning of the tour. Therefore, the trees and plants are not marked. "The idea was to have the gardens be as close to how they were in 1940," she says.
In 1920 Robert and Mildred Bliss bought the land, and a year later hired Beatrix Farrand, one of the first woman landscape architects, to design the property. (She also designed the grounds at Princeton and Yale universities.) "There are English style, French and Italian style gardens here," Kelley says to a tour of mostly locals. "I always feel like I'm on a different continent when I come to Dumbarton Oaks."
Because the estate is on a hill, terraces are a mainstay of the gardens, which are divided into "rooms." The "Green Garden" near the house overlooks a swimming pool. You can almost feel the ghosts of partygoers sipping cocktails and laughing at its edges. Speaking of ghosts, the Blisses' ashes are buried in front of the Rose Garden, their favorite spot on the property.
On a recent sunny day, only about a couple of dozen people roamed the grounds, sitting on various marble seats. There is a library-like quiet to the place. This is not where you let your little one blow off steam. The gardens are classy and a little solemn. Even though the sound of a nearby crane or an airplane flying overhead may shake you from any reverie, Dumbarton Oaks is a lovely place to spend a few hours walking, thinking and just feeling the spring air.
-- Moira E. McLaughlin (April 30, 2010)
Note: There is one tour daily at 2:15 p.m. at the front gate, and it runs about 30 minutes. Expect a line on weekends. For a more extensive 1 1/2 -hour tour for groups of more than 10, call 202-339-6409. The house is not open to the public.
Dumbarton Oaks Museum Reopens, With an Elevated Purpose
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008
It's good to have the old biddy back. Dumbarton, donated to Harvard in 1940 by the wealthy collectors Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, is one of the more eccentric places in the city. For eight bucks, you can revel in the splendor of Georgetown's finest garden. For free, you can walk through the small but sumptuous collection of pre-Columbian and Byzantine artifacts. For the cost of a PhD, or other exquisite credentials, you might get to spend serious time in its inner sanctum, where scholars study the museum's collections and use its library in quiet, leafy splendor.
The Blisses were collectors with a need for academic legitimacy. They didn't want just a house stuffed with beautiful old things, but a collection that had some scholarly gravitas. So they evolved into informed, targeted collectors, willing to take guidance from men like Royall Tyler, a blue-blooded Brahmin who held various jobs to which one can only be appointed, and who was also a serious historian of Byzantine art.
But there is a tension throughout the collection between the Blisses' not entirely suppressed urge to shop wantonly and their disciplined pursuit of Byzantine and pre-Columbian pieces. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a short hallway that allows access to the music room. There, in a lonely case, are the fruits of their impulse buying, including a small Degas.
And an Egyptian figurine.
"However, some of their finds, such as an ancient Egyptian wooden statuette, met with Royall Tyler's strong disapproval as they lay outside the Byzantine focus," reads the caption, explaining the odd jumble of priceless objects sequestered from the rest of the collection. The poor Egyptian statue is missing what appears to be a shock of hair on its right side, almost as if it's been shorn, like a slave or a servant, excluded from the sacred precincts of Tyler's favor.
Fortunately, Tyler was capable of enthusiasms as rapturous as his disapproval was withering.
"The thought of your having it intoxicates me," he is quoted saying, in the newly published catalogue, when the Blisses decided to purchase an exquisite silver paten, or platter used for holding the host during the Eucharist.
It's not clear that the thought of the Blisses having a sacred silver plate once used for the holiest of Christian rites in 6th-century Syria or Constantinople would intoxicate its original Byzantine owners. But the Byzantines no longer speak for themselves. That privilege is now maintained by scholars such as the ones who gather in the little hive -- a campus including a library by renowned architect Robert Venturi, and "refectory" for communal dining -- that the Blisses started to assemble decades ago. Say what you will about the rest of the collection, about the vulgar assemblage of Italian arches (probably from Ravenna) and a French, 16th-century fireplace jumbled together in the Rape-the-Old-World music room, the Blisses' Dumbarton has emerged as a major academic center for Byzantine studies.
Not that most people will know that, just passing through the public spaces. The curious thing about collections such as the one at Dumbarton -- though it's by no means a problem exclusive to Dumbarton -- is how much it emphasizes the almost unbridgeable gap between scholarly-looking and amateur-looking.
To most people, the collection of observations that can be made about Byzantine art doesn't range far from the horizons of the obvious: That the detail on a bracelet is very fine, that the expression on the face of a saint is poignant, that a 7th-century necklace depicting a sexy Aphrodite seems a little risque for a society that often seems enigmatically pious on first exposure. Getting visitors from there to the next level of understanding is the great desiderata of good museums, and it rarely happens.
Fortunately, the catalogue published to accompany the newly reinstalled collections makes a solid effort. It is denser than most, offering details about historical context, materials and religious usage. Reading it in the museum is recommended. And Dumbarton is the rare museum that is quiet enough and unhurried enough that one can actually look, read and look again, without distractions.
Although the so-called museum experience has been improved throughout, with better lighting, ramps and elevators, and elegant presentation of the art in transparent Plexiglas cases, the place where Dumbarton comes together in all its glorious contradiction is Philip Johnson's wing, which houses pre-Columbian art. Johnson designed the extension in the early 1960s. It consists of eight circular spaces with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, arranged in a circle around a fountain; light floods the space, which particularly flatters the gold artifacts. And the gardens surround you on all sides.
The pure "beauty-ness" of the place is dazzling. One is greeted at the entrance by an Aztec stone mask mounted on an almost invisible Plexiglas stand. It seems to hover in space, invitingly open to be touched (if you dare, and you dare not because the guards are watching), or worse, bumped into. Like most of the other pieces in the pavilion, it has an almost ethereal presence. Gold jewelry, seen against the glass, seems to be floating in the trees.
Unlike the Byzantine collection, these pieces have been thoroughly decontextualized by their arrangement and by Johnson's architecture, which flatters them into glorious nonsense. Ceremonial objects, decorative pieces, jewelry, carved bowls for chocolate are converted into pure, almost meaningless beauty. Johnson, canny as always, seems to mock the basic circularity of museums devoted to things that are outside the parameters of the Western aesthetic tradition: Are they here because they're art? Or are they art because they're here?
And so you circle about, looking at other people circling about just like you, and you begin to question the whole premise of museums, and collecting, and even beauty. What impulse drove the Blisses to want Flemish tapestries, Mayan limestone panels and gold reliquaries? And whatever it was, is that impulse all that different than the one that drives squirrels to lay in nuts for the winter? Or is it even more degraded -- acquisitiveness not for survival, but purely for the sake of acquisitiveness?
No wonder they wanted their home and their collections to have some scholarly importance. The scholarly element is a kind of benediction on human rapaciousness, it purifies it and elevates it.
It is good to have the old museum back, looking fresh. Dumbarton is essential to Washington. But no other museum in Washington feels so emphatically private, so uncertain about what face it wants to put to the world. The public is invited in to admire and to covet and to wonder what it must be like to be a Bliss, blissfully surrounded with the best that money can buy. You can almost feel the old lady heave a sigh a relief as you leave: There they go, the common rabble, who will never possess these objects as I once did, and as my scholars yet may.