Don’t Feed the Wildlife: Dumbarton Oaks and its Neighbors

Though Dumbarton Oaks may feel “otherworldly”, as Margaret Dawson, an associate of Mildred Bliss, has it—what with its self-sufficiently immured Arcadian vistas and charmingly, necessarily arcane scholarly foci—no research institute is a world unto itself; even D.O. is part of the main, in rich and vibrant commerce with its environs and neighbors.

Georgetown's M St.

Georgetown’s M St.

As Georgetowners congregate at Dumbarton Oaks proper to explore the museum, curiously attend symposia or concerts, or merely stroll in tranquil self-forgetfulness through the gardens, so too do D.O. Fellows and interns, rejuvenated after a day of immersive discovery, disperse into Georgetown. La Quercia, an apartment complex located on 30th St. NW and owned by the Trustees for Harvard University, is surrogate mother to D.O. Fellows and interns; yet also a minor but nonetheless stalwart ambassador to Georgetown at large. As the mission of D.O outgrew its facilities (to paraphrase Richard Diehl, a Summer Fellow and later the Acting Director of Pre-Columbian Studies in 1994-1995), the administrators acquired La Quercia to more comfortably accommodate its ever-growing number of Fellows. Mr. Diehl goes on to say of La Quercia’s brief but distinguished history: “[After being renovated,] La Quercia was great…a comfortable environment…adequate housing. I know people have been bitching and moaning about La Quercia, but I spent several years of my life living in trailers, so La Quercia can’t be that bad.” What’s more, with La Quercia acting as a kind of basecamp, the D.O. Fellows have immediate access to what former D.O. Fellow and author Susan Toby Evans calls “Washington’s cultural resources…wonderful people who would remain close colleagues and friends.”

But who, exactly, are these wonderful people, our neighbors? No less than politicians (including Senator John Warner), Supreme Court Justices, diplomats, philanthropists; and even, for a while, Elizabeth Taylor (Senator Warner’s ex-wife) — indefatigable devotees to culture. Ms. Lois Fern, Editorial Associate in the Garden and Landscape Architecture (now Garden and Landscape) Studies program, suggests that, in the time of the Blisses, Georgetown’s citizens came from

old family, and the diplomatic community was very socially elite. I would say a lot of diplomats lived in Georgetown. Georgetown was the place to live if you had social connections, when we moved here in 1961…. A great many of [the Blisses’] friends would have served in diplomatic posts, not just as ambassadors, but as chiefs of mission.

Ms. Fern adds, though, that the Georgetown demographic was, even in her time, diversifying. Oleg Grabar, another D.O. affiliate and member of the Board of Scholars for Byzantine Studies and a Senior Fellow, also observed as early as 1972: “This is the establishment of the Georgetown rich, old aristocratic Georgetown families that would meet [at Dumbarton Oaks] for a concert or for a lecture [or] symposia. Usually they didn’t stay very long, because symposia bored them.”

Unfortunately, Dumbarton Oaks didn’t always have such a tranquility-inducing effect on its neighbors. D.O. Director Giles Constable fielded letters of grievance; neighborhood committees in Georgetown impeded the construction of a new library planned to be built under the North Vista, such that Director Ned Keenan could joke “about wanting to put up a monument in honor of the tree that died that allowed there to be space in a part of the grounds that the conservation people wouldn’t object to, because he had struck out in his previous two attempts” — this according to Bill Flash, former Senior Fellow and current member of the Administrative Committee. Elizabeth Taylor herself (allegedly) alleged that the D.O. gardeners made something of a barbarous din in the mornings that was hardly conducive to her sleep, and she wrote a note (a rather sweet one), asking D.O.’s very own staff photographer, Joe Mills, to move his inconveniently parked car so that her maid could park closer to the Warner house (the original is affectionately framed and hanging in Joe’s office). In addition to reminiscing at length on the wild D.O. pool parties, at which some of the revelers would drink and “just fall down,” D.O.’s “little guys” (as they said they were be called by some D.O. staff members), Silvio Luciani and Tony Pereira, also claim that, one time, Ms. Taylor “killed raccoons with poison. She poured poison around and killed raccoons”—raccoons, no doubt, otherwise harbored in D.O.s private Arcadia. Richard Diehl filed a counter-complaint against what came to be known as the Elizabeth Taylor House: while walking through during an auction, Mr. Diehl says he saw “the tackiest stuff I’ve seen in my life.” Dumbarton Oaks would later acquire the property and use it as the director’s residence.

Ms. Elizabeth Taylor

Ms. Elizabeth Taylor

I give the last word on D.O.-Georgetown interaction to my supervisor, James Carder of House Collection fame:

I was in my twenties when I was a Junior Fellow, and the parties and the swimming pool activities and going into Georgetown for impromptu, on-the-cheap dinners and beers was great fun. Do Fellows still do this today? Probably. I think when you interview some of the younger Fellows or staff, that’s an interesting question to ask. I see Fellows being very serious here. They’re very nice and when I interact with them on a social level I always enjoy that, but I see them being very serious, and I have a feeling that was always the case. That hasn’t changed, but possibly the pressures of the world and the paucity of job openings in academic humanistic professions and just the need to spend your money wisely and move on and get your research and your dissertation done or your next book done and so forth leaves you little time to have a beer and a pizza.

Bars longa, vita brevis.

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One comment

  1. sorrellucille@gmail.com · · Reply

    this is so amazing! who knew D.O. had such a rich history with its neighbors?! the post itself seems to hint at even more intriguing stories from the past, as well — hopefully we’ll be hearing more soon!

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