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9.5.05

Dumbarton Oaks

Dumbarton Oaks is a serious place. The jewel of Georgetown, it is ostentatious in a neighborhood where that is not all that easy. When the 19th-century Federal-style mansion came into the hands of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, they built their own additions, and Mrs. Bliss lavished her knowledge of gardens on the extensive grounds (designed by Beatrix Jones Farrand), which already had its own orangerie. She gave the terraces evocative names, of which my favorite is Mélisande's Allée.

Mrs. Bliss's inscription near the 32nd Street entrance is typical of the high-mindedness that made such a wonderful, quirky place possible. I would translate the Latin motto, QUIESCIT ANIMA LIBRIS, as "Books quiet the soul" (literally, the soul becomes quiet in books). The list of admonishments is as serious as it is motley: education is more than just instruction; let us prefer the "Mediterranean interpretation of the humanistic disciplines" (an odd way to put it); gardens are worthy of serious study; and, of course, hug a tree. (See the image of the inscription for the full text.)

Dumbarton Oaks, Music RoomIn the 1940s, the Bliss's made arrangements for their estate, willing 16 acres and the buildings to Harvard University to form the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (to house their collections of Pre-Columbian art, Byzantine art, and rare books). The gardens remain open to the public (closed only on Mondays), so if you find yourself in Georgetown one of these days, walk up 32nd Street NW to R Street and take a look. Another section of land was ceded to the National Park Service, which is now the Dumbarton Oaks Park (which joins the gardens to Rock Creek Park), and another was sold to Denmark for their embassy.

Because the Bliss's were lovers of music, they built a Music Room (shown above) and hosted private concerts there, including several by musician friends, including Jan Paderewski and the composer Igor Stravinsky. The latter's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto was premiered here, the result of a commission for the couple's 30th wedding anniversary. Not only music has been heard in this room: it was also the site of the so-called Dumbarton Oaks Conversations, in which delegates from around the world met to discuss what would become the United Nations. In terms of music history, it is one of the city's most distinguished venues, along with the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium.

A review of Musica Alta Ripa's concert in the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room will follow.

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