- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

A husband and wife named Bliss bought 10 acres near the heart of this nation's capital back in 1920, at a point in Georgetown where 32nd Street rises to the top of a hill. For a century beforehand, that forlorn parcel of land beside Rock Creek had remained a farm, with its barn and cow paths still presided over by a wandering peacock. The old mansion itself had recently served as Washington's Home for Incurables. Over the next 50 years, however, Mildred, the philanthropist, and Robert, a diplomat, converted it into "America's most civilized square mile," according to the celebrated city planner Carl Feiss.
Because the couple still roamed Europe and Latin America, Dumbarton Oaks was at first just meant to be their resting place in America, a place for Robert to put down his roots; but because they were members of the leadership class, it also became their showcase, less than two miles from the White House, for proving what they had always known or recently acquired from the world of high culture.
"There was a time when an invitation there was the epitome of social success," reported the Washington Daily News during the final year of World War II. "The hostess, a great beauty, with magnificent figure, Titian hair, perfectly gowned, and always wearing pale lemon-colored suede gloves, received her friends in the huge drawing room of Washington's most beautiful home … "
Susan Tamulevich's new book has salvaged many of Dumbarton Oaks' long-forgotten notes. Sketches and scrapbooks accompany the reminiscences of loyal staff members and craftspeople who invested decades of loving labor there. The Thai photographer Ping Amranand slowly assembled his portfolio of 90 new pictures through 10 autumns, 10 springs and every other glory of a calendar. Blossoms of white azalea, blue scilla, magnolia, wisteria, wild violet, cherry, crab apple, tulip and dogwood spread like clouds from one page across to another.
In the finest scenes, the estate combined a heavenly blend of Nature's chaos with the much more deliberate symmetry of Ancient Greece. In perhaps the book's only shortcoming, Mr. Amranand's point of view is often so dispassionate that neither Mildred's emotions nor his own are much revealed.
The tale of Mildred Bliss the bold, complex, unorthodox patrician who made it all happen is at least as arresting as the house she assembled. In 1879, she was born into one of the wealthiest families in America. Her father, New York congressman Demas Barnes, helped underwrite the Brooklyn Bridge and made a fortune from having invested in "Fletcher's Castoria Oil," a vegetable-based laxative for children.
As a 27-year-old newlywed, Mildred wrote a personal guide for living that included her principles on duty and character: "To inculcate a love of Beauty so true and so deep that passion, caprice and public opinion can never pervert it … should be the aim of all of us … Accumulation is a danger; and the collecting of treasures a vain waste. To know, instead of to have, should be our rule … In the intolerably superficial existence our 'career' obliges us to lead … I pray constantly for the strength to hold my inner self intact."
In the Paris of 1912, Mildred blended into the diplomatic world right away, already well equipped with the charm, brains and a fluency in six languages. There Mildred met the American expatriate Edith Wharton, writer and aesthete, who became her role model in the appreciation of European manners in general and landscape gardening in particular. At the same time, Robert bought his first Pre-Columbian treasure, an Olmec jadite statue, in an antique shop on the Boulevard Raspail. "That day the collector's microbe took root in it must be confessed very fertile soil. Thus," Robert later confessed, "were sewn the seeds of an incurable malady."
At their new home in Washington, winding paths tied together terraces that Mildred dreamed up with the landscape artist Beatrix Farrand, along with her protege Ruth Havey and the French decorator Armand Albert Rateau. This Bliss family never knew the blessing of a child, but instead, poured their hopes and indulgences into Dumbarton Oaks, making as fertile as they could the grand Rose Garden, Forsythia Hill, Green Garden, Herbaceous Border, Bowling Green, Star and Melisande's Allee. Memories of palatial gardens outside Paris, Florence and the Vatican fueled Mildred's desire. When Robert retired from the Department of State in 1933, the Blisses finally came home to The Oaks to make it their year-round address.
In 1940, Dumbarton Oaks ceased to be a home, and was donated along with all of its collections and libraries to Robert's alma mater, Harvard University, so as to be reopened to the public for educational purposes. Then came a time for America to invite Great Britain, Russia and China for talks about some future thing called the United Nations, and the most conducive place in 1944 for all their delegates to sleep and think things out was at the Bliss house.
The Blisses remained intimately involved with the property even as their Federal-style mansion was turned into an academic research and study center, including throughout 1958, when a museum pavilion was commissioned from Philip Johnson for the display of Robert's pre-Columbian and Mildred's Byzantine artifacts.
To make sure beforehand that all would be perfect, a life-sized model of the museum was first built out of wood, and literally placed inside the mansion's concert hall just so it could be contemplated for line and shadow. Mr. Johnson recalls how he insisted that the architects be listed as "Bliss and Johnson." The Pavilion became his first postmodern building, and what the celebrated American architect thinks may become his best known legacy.
Even through Robert's death in 1962, Mildred maintained her commitment to Dumbarton Oaks, commencing one last round of improving the gardens right up until her own demise seven years later. The Bliss coat of arms, a simple bursting sheaf of grain, still crowns the iron gate for all who care to enter. Their family motto, which appears over and over throughout the grounds, reads Quod Severis Metes, meaning "As you sow, so shall ye reap."

J. Ross Baughman is photo editor of The Washington Times, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and an educator.




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