Dumbarton Oaks owned by Harvard University is known for its rare books and magnificent gardens

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Marija Georgievska
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Built by the diplomat Robert Woods Bliss, Dumbarton Oaks and its gardens make up one of the most beautiful estates in Washington D. C. The mansion which was once the residence of Bliss today is today partly a museum in which valuable collections of Pre-Columbian and Byzantine art can be seen.

He was a famous art collector, and together with his wife, they purchased various rare items from these periods and kept them in their home. At the beginning of the 19th century, they bought the mansion that had previously been a house built in the Federal style owned by Colonel Ninian Beall. Over the next two decades, they made significant changes to the whole property.

His wife, Mildred Barnes Bliss was responsible for the landscape, and together with the most prominent landscape designer of that time, Beatrix Farrand, she created the magical gardens which are perfectly preserved to this day. Robert Woods Bliss was the son of U. S. District Attorney William Henry Bliss, and like his father, he also worked for the U. S. Service but as a diplomat. His first job was in Puerto Rico where he became the private secretary of the island’s governor.

After a few years, Bliss was working in many different countries including Russia, Sweden, and Argentina and collected many rare items which can be seen in the first-floor museum in the mansion. The fascination with collecting items came from his wife who as a teenager collected many textiles, paintings, and books. After they got married, they continued to purchase rare items together.

The Dumbarton Oaks mansion, today owned by Harvard University.

Besides Pre-Columbian and Byzantine art, the Blisses were admirers of French Impressionists, and the collection includes an original painting from the famous artist Edgar Degas known as Song Rehearsal, which was bought in 1918 when his estate was on sale. There are also some Renaissance items and the most important piece in the collection is the painting Visitation from the Spanish painter El Greco.

The Music Room with Renaissance tapestries on the walls.

These paintings are housed in the music room, which is the only place from the former residence of the Bliss family that has been kept in its original state. Other valuable items are the English furnishings from the 18th century and the unique medieval tapestries which were bought by Bliss on his many travels around the world as a diplomat.

The gardens are filled with many flowers, trees, fountains, and benches. Author: DC Gardens. CC BY 2.0

The work on the gardens lasted for almost thirty years, and Mildred and Beatrix worked together on every little detail. Many different types of trees and flowers surround the fabulous marble fountains, and around them, there are benches for the visitors from where they can admire this perfect arrangement.

A Sunroom in the gardens. Author: Mike Norton. CC BY 2.0

The most visited part of the mansion is the research library. It was established after Robert donated the estate to the Harvard University in 1940. Because of the many Byzantine and Pre-Columbian artifacts, the purpose of the library is to encourage more students to enroll in studies for the same periods and also to learn gardening and landscape design.

Part of the garden known as the Fountain Terrace. Author: Passionvine. CC BY-SA 3.0

The vast collection of materials is significant for posterity so there is a great effort to work on the rare books and preserve them. After WWII, there was a meeting in the mansion known as the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which eventually led to the creation of the United Nations.

The mansion is important also for the Dumbarton Oaks Conference which led to the creation of the United Nations. Author: NCinDC. CC BY-ND 2.0

According to the History Learning Site, after the war, delegates from different countries came to the mansion to discuss the possibilities of creating an organization on an international level for maintaining world peace. Today, the estate houses many events such as weddings, conferences, and tea parties. There are strict rules about bringing food and beverages inside, and entry to the mansion is only through the museum.