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A century's worth of great architects' work is rejuvenated in a Washington, DC, mansion-turned-museum.

Project: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Harvard University, Washington, DC

Architects: Oehrlein & Associates Architects, Washington, DC; Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Philadelphia, PA

Contractor: Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., Baltimore, MD

By Eve M. Kahn

Dumbarton Oaks has an impressive quantity of great designers' work per square inch. Trailing down a hillside in Washington, DC, the Harvard-owned mansion-turned-museum originated as a farmhouse in 1801 and has undergone a dozen expansions at the hands of celebrity architects and artisans. The roster so far for the 77,000-sq.ft. spread includes McKim, Mead & White, Armand Albert Rateau, Samuel Yellin, Allyn Cox, Philip Johnson and Robert Venturi.

The wide spectrum of additions has never looked more cohesive and rational. Washington, DC-based Oehrlein & Associates and Venturi, Scott Brown have overseen a three-year restoration that entailed practically dismantling the house within its brick shell. During the reassembly, no mechanical or ADA-compliant route was left unimproved, and every surface was refinished.

"I'd warned the curators in advance how bad it would look in the thick of things before it got better, as if it could never be put back together again," says firm founder Mary Oehrlein. "But now the building makes sense. There's finally a logic to the flow."

The Georgetown property's most proactive past owners were Robert and Mildred Bliss. He was a diplomat, she was a patent-medicine heiress, and both obsessively collected art and antiques, including Pre-Columbian statuary, Byzantine icons, Old Master paintings, Renaissance tapestries and Gothic furniture. They bought the 53-acre site in 1920, although "the house had no particular charm," as Robert later put it. The couple named the estate after its oak groves and the Rock of Dumbarton (the Scottish birthplace of the neighborhood's Colonial-era owner). The Blisses brought in local architect Frederick H. Brooke – best known as the designer of Washington's colonnaded World War I memorial – to transform the existing Italianate into a brick Georgian.

Amid Brooke's pedimented doorways carved with acorns and oak leaves, Philadelphia master ironworker Samuel Yellin installed curlicue railings teeming with squirrels and birds. In the late 1920s, McKim, Mead & White partner Lawrence White further expanded the house, subcontracting murals of Classical ruins from Allyn Cox, who later became the U.S. Capitol's staff muralist. White commissioned woodwork from Parisian designer Armand Albert Rateau, who ran couturier Jeanne Lanvin's interior design department and specialized in historically flavored yet slightly surreal décor. Rateau lined the Blisses' walls and ceilings with gilded faux-bamboo strips, pilasters shaped like palm trees, mirrored shutters, and scrollwork-painted beams based on 17th-century French precedents. "No other interiors by Rateau survive in America, and very few survive anywhere," explains James Carder, the house's curator and archivist.

In 1940, the Blisses turned over the house, its contents, and lush terraced gardens designed by Beatrix Farrand to Harvard, Robert's alma mater. While keeping the rooms furnished much as the Blisses intended, and letting the public stroll the grounds, Harvard added galleries and reading rooms and converted servant quarters into offices for researchers (mainly in Pre-Columbian, Byzantine and landscape studies). In 1963, Philip Johnson created Pre-Columbian galleries with curved glass walls and cylindrical limestone columns. In 2005, the Venturi firm added a library in their signature patterned brick. The main house, meanwhile, was maintained but never deeply rethought.

"There were some relatively new mechanicals when we started, and some from the 1920s and everything in between," Oehrlein recalls. One tiny Bliss-era elevator and a temporary ramp near the entrance were the only ADA concessions. Offices and storage spaces were cramped, climate control and fire-suppression systems were spotty and visitors' circulation routes unclear. Masterworks by Yellin, Rateau, Cox and White were at least grimy if not outright peeling and water damaged. And Johnson's glass walls, Carder adds, "weren't tempered and had no UV filtering. They were a hazard to people and objects, and there were vertically striped drapes always pulled across them, like in a motel."

Oehrlein and Venturi, Scott Brown have not only undone the deterioration and better protected the collections but also enlarged and streamlined the house without compromising the historic fabric. New offices and collection-storage areas – each with a different temperature and humidity, depending on the contents – have taken over a basement that used to contain "a nightmare of conduit," says Carder. One basement hallway's floor was lowered to create an ADA ramp, he adds: "The space had to be hand-excavated, we couldn't have brought in earthmovers. The crews filled pails of dirt and raised them on ropes, like monks building a cathedral foundation in 13th-century Europe."

On the upper floors, yet more offices have been carved out of former servant quarters and fitted with salvaged walnut and mahogany doors. In the ground-floor galleries, Carder says, "we reclaimed space for more exhibits wherever we could, and we created an open, inviting gift shop – we'd only had a very, very, very small, and I mean closet-sized, shop in a hallway." New elevators have been tucked behind the passageways' salvaged woodwork, and long-blocked doorways have been reopened to maximize sightlines. The house's airiest spot now is the Pre-Columbian wing; jade and gold objects seem to float in their plexiglass cases, text panels are translucent, no sprinklers mar the domed ceilings and no drapes cover the curved, laminated, UV-filtering windowpanes.

Carder was also able to dramatically brighten the Music Room, which Rateau and White had based on an armor gallery at a 17th-century French château and hung with Old Master and Renaissance paintings and tapestries. New York-based EverGreene Painting Studios has restored the ceiling's painted scrollwork and putti, which began to fail soon after installation. "There was a bizarre mixture of incompatible original materials," including gesso, clay, glaze, varnish and paints laced with fatty-acid soap," explains EverGreene founder Jeff Greene. After a new sprinkler system was threaded into the beams, EverGreene restorers heroically cleaned and saved some 60 percent of Rateau's paint and maintained his laboriously induced patina. According to EverGreene's condition report, Rateau had the beams "distressed by a random pattern of chips and splits carved with sharp knives and chisels."

Other Rateau surfaces in the house required EverGreene's respectful approach: in the Blisses' dove-gray living room, the firm had to paint, partly scrape off the paint, then texture and glaze the walls. In a hallway and stairwell that Allyn Cox covered with Classical vistas and deities and trompe-l'oeil coffers and statuary, EverGreene stripped off varnish, re-created missing details and occasionally peeled off entire Cox canvas to eradicate mold lurking in the plaster.

Carder calls the house-wide transformation "astounding and pleasing," as well as a boost to attendance: "There'd been a lot of pent-up demand to get back into the museum." Its three-year closure, Oehrlein adds, "is not bad, considering the amount of work that had to be done. I had such a great time with the whole experience. It was a rare delight to focus on one building with such variety inside."  

 

 

 
 

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