Sometimes the things most worth saving are the things we so easily miss.
There’s a mansion in the northeast corner of Georgetown, which goes back to Thomas Jefferson’s time in the District, on a plot of land granted by Queen Anne in 1702. Just beyond the door, you can find one of the world’s most unique collections of pre-Columbian art and artifacts, most of which are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. You’ll also find a dazzling collection of Byzantine relics, the likes of which are very much in danger today. The house, the collections, the rare book library in the next wing, and the room where the UN was created are all serenely enjoying their peace at Dumbarton Oaks. And it’s all thanks to one of the District’s most interesting power couples, Robert and Mildred Bliss.
Prior to the Great War, Robert’s postings included Venice, St. Petersburg, Brussels, Buenos Aries, and Paris. Foreign relations were unbelievably important between rapidly-expanding world powers in the early 20th Century. There were language and cultural barriers to overcome, in addition to outright fear of war plans that might or might not be under the table. The United States sent only their best and brightest to maintain good ties, and ensure peace. Unfortunately, as WWI shows, this is not always easily maintained. Sometimes the best just aren’t good enough.
The title of “diplomat” used to be a powerful thing when the world was much bigger. A century ago, it was unimaginable that trips across oceans would be a matter of hours, not days. It took a special kind of person to make regular trips back and forth, representing the government of the United States. Patience and eloquence were prized traits, but so was an open mind, and a passion for understanding other civilizations. Robert Bliss was such an individual, and he had the perfect partner in Mildred.
When the fighting broke out in 1914, Mildred served as chairman (no, not chair-woman) of the executive board of the American Red Cross’s Women’s War Relief Corps in France. She and her husband worked to not only set up the American Field Ambulance Service (now the American Field Service), but also open a distribution center for surgical and medical supplies in Paris. At the end of the War, Robert rose to chief of the Division of Western European Affairs at the State Department, and Mildred was awarded the status of Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. Make no mistake, Mildred was no housewife. Their contribution to the war effort was as a couple. She was Robert’s equal in every way, and was also the love of his life.
During their time in Paris, in between trying to maintain good relations and patching up the wounded, Robert and Mildred re-united with Mildred’s childhood friend, Royall Tyler (real name, not a typo) who got the couple addicted to art. While Robert’s fascination with pre-Columbian Mayan artifacts grew, Mildred became immersed in art from the Byzantine Empire. Along with some pieces from East Asia, and a growing library of rare books, the couple needed a place to keep their new collection.
Luckily, in the time they got serious about collecting, they also purchased Dumbarton Oaks. Renovations began in 1923, and took a decade before they were complete. The house looks remarkably like a home two world-traveled individuals would want to retire in between journeys. There’s an Italian rock garden, a mosaic-lined swimming pool, Colonial Revival windows on the house, and a Beaux-Arts foyer. Every last piece of their home, including the secret sunroom, shows off how far they’ve traveled, and how much they’ve learned, rather than showing off how much money they held.
In the years following their retirement, the Bliss couple held a number of important cultural functions at the mansion, including a notable conference in 1944, between diplomats from the United States, UK, USSR, and China. The Washington Conversations on International Peace and Security Organization, more commonly referred to as the Dumbarton Conference, was meant to be a discussion on how the largest world powers would interact and maintain peace after WWII. The conference resulted in a treaty, which was presented a year later in San Francisco, and eventually led to the creation of the United Nations.
With the house complete, the Bliss couple began work on their research institute, and additional wings to the estate. Harvard, Robert’s alma mater, helped out considerably with the creation and construction of the research library. Several departments at Harvard, including the department pre-Columbian studies, were involved in the curation of the galleries now open to the public. The museum features unique figurines that now seem small, and possibly insignificant. However, it is their plain and ordinary nature that helps paint a more detailed picture of Mayan civilization.
Mildred’s collection of Byzantine art is also featured prominently at the museum. The collection offers a broader view of life in the Byzantine Empire, including not just lavish floor mosaics and ornate, detailed manuscripts, but also humble decorations found in simple homes. Pieces like these are severely endangered in today’s world. Much of the areas that made up the commonwealth of the Byzantine Empire, like Syria, are now war zones, rife with fighting and destruction. To further complicate the situation, some of the groups are religious fundamentalists, intent on destroying pre-and-non-Islamic artifacts. Pieces like the ones in Mildred’s collection are becoming harder and harder to find, and those who try to protect them are similarly endangered.
Luckily, all of these pieces can still be enjoyed by those who choose to make the trip to the edge of Georgetown. The museum is open to the public, six days a week, and completely free. The most special part of what Robert and Mildred left behind is not what they kept for themselves, but what they wanted to give the world after the world gave them so much.