Purchased in 1920 by Mildred Barnes Bliss and Robert Woods Bliss, Dumbarton Oaks has expanded and transformed over time from a private home to a key research center within Washington, DC. The house was originally constructed in 1801. The Blisses began their long ties to the house as collectors and researchers of pre-Columbian and other ancient artifacts, which were then transferred to the care of Harvard University in 1940. At this time, the property was transformed into a research center, museum, and library. The Federal style home underwent major renovations and expansions in order to house the collections the Blisses had amassed. The couple collaborated with numerous architects for each expansion, and the additions were designed to display the collections. The most famous addition is the Pre-Columbian Pavilion, completed in 1963, and designed in a contrasting modernist style by Philip Johnson.
The Blisses’ reach extended far and wide, and these connections greatly influenced the house’s use during World War II. Relief organizations, as well as the federal government, used the house for the war effort, with the Blisses advocating for the protection of at-risk art and sites across war-exposed areas. In addition to these efforts, in 1944, the house held initial negotiations between multiple countries that would result in the formation of the United Nations the next year. Robert Bliss had voiced his support to open the house to any purposes the federal government needed, and this greatly influenced the decision to hold the meetings at Dumbarton Oaks.
Today, the house connects directly to the museum, and still displays the extensive collections that the Blisses had begun a century prior. The collections span multiple fields of interest and time periods, with each playing into each spouse’s research interests. The house has undergone extensive renovation and restoration since the Blisses’ deaths in order to maintain the property’s unique character.
DC Inventory: November 8, 1964 (Joint Committee on Landmarks)
Within Georgetown Historic District