As early as 1924, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss began planning a music room addition to Dumbarton Oaks. They engaged Lawrence Grant White (1887-1956) of the New York City architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White to provide plans and design suggestions, and White and Beatrix Farrand, the Blisses’ landscape architect, oversaw the planning and construction of the room. White and the Blisses had some difficulty deciding on a siting for the Music Room, considering and rejecting locations on the sites of the present orangery and loggia-bathhouse in the swimming pool area [as late as April 29, 1926: blueprint, New-York Historical Society, McKim, Mead & White Papers, Bliss House]. Finally, on July 17, 1926 Farrand wrote to White about “the news of the possibility of the music room at the northwest end of the Bliss house in Washington.” John W. Davis, who Farrand brought to Dumbarton Oaks, served as general contractor, and the room was constructed between 1926 and 1928.
The Blisses planned the Music Room to be essentially Renaissance in character (or “Mediterranean,” as White called it in correspondence of December 4, 1924 to Mildred Bliss). Robert Bliss had already envisioned the character of the room by August 25, 1926 when he wrote to White: “We see marbré-stucco wainscot in music room; rough plaster walls; a very good polychromed ceiling (shall it be old or copied?); the best big mantle we can find, and we want a fine floor.” In responding on September 17, 1926, White wrote: “The plaster walls must not be too rough. An old ceiling by all means if we can find one.” On December 29, 1926, Robert Bliss again wrote White: “All things being equal, we do not want modern mechanical and structural details to intrude themselves on the impression of the whole, which we hope to make mellow and old-fashioned.” The Blisses considered adding a double- or triple-arched window on the south wall to the right of the fireplace. Robert Bliss wrote to White on January 20, 1927: “This was very successfully done in Italy and Spain and we do not think it would be inharmonious with the rest of the music-room, which, after all, is a delightful medley of Italian renaissance, French eighteenth century, Georgian and American colonial!” After seeing White’s model for the Music Room [no longer preserved], Bliss wrote in the same correspondence: “It shows that you sense just what we want--simplicity, broad lines, large space. We know that it is a darned nuisance to have to deal with clients at a distance, especially those who go into details as we do, and we are therefore very glad that you like our suggestions as we do yours. It is all bearing fruit.”
The Blisses worked closely with White and Farrand in deciding on the design and the architectural elements used in the room. Although they had wanted an antique Renaissance ceiling and flooring for the Music Room, in 1926 they commissioned the Parisian designer Armand Albert Rateau (1882-1938) to fabricate reproductions (see HC.AE.1929.003). It was also Rateau that eventually suggested the acquisition of the French Renaissance chimneypiece that is in the room (see HC.AE.1929.002). The Blisses acquired in Paris two Italian “Red Verona” marble Renaissance arches which were employed on the east wall (see HC.AE.1927.001.b). The Blisses and White had wanted to use “Rose St. George” marble for the staircase leading into the Music Room, the cheek pieces to the sides of the staircase, and the floor at the foot of the stairs and a border around the room. This scheme was adopted, but Red Verona marble was substituted for Rose St. George in order to match the antique arches. White, in correspondence of September 15, 1927 to Robert Bliss, mentions “reproducing the detail of the two antique archways at the east end of the room,” [New-York Historical Society, McKim, Mead & White Papers, Bliss House] most likely for the Red Verona Palladian bay of the west wall, which Robert Bliss had approved on December 9, 1926. On a plan of the Music Room, dated April 1, 1927, the designation of Rose St. George marble has been changed to Red Verona.
It was probably Lawrence Grant White who suggested to the Blisses that the American artist Allyn Cox (1896-1982) be engaged to paint murals for the walls of the Music Room corridor and entrance staircase (as well as the swimming pool loggia). In correspondence of August 25, 1926, Bliss wrote to White: “Our visit to Mr. Cox was full of promise and he is to visit Washington within the coming week.” On January 9, 1927, Cox delivered sketches for this project and estimates of $4,000.00 for the corridor and $5,000.00 for the staircase. He had not begun work on the murals by October 6, 1928, however. [Correspondence from White to Robert Bliss, New-York Historical Society, McKim, Mead & White Papers, Bliss House.] Cox later, in 1948, signed the oil-on-canvas murals at Mildred Bliss’ request.
The staircase murals, the more ambitious of the two projects, has a vault compartmentalized by trompe-l’oeil Baroque-style architectural frames of simulated white and variegated red and green marble stone work. The lower frames are of simulated polygonal variegated green molding interlaced with white stone work of cornucopias and S-scrolls. Within a frame to the north is a mural of classical architectural ruins, including, to the left, piers and arches of a once-vaulted white marble building and, to the right, an aqueduct of red stone with white marble revetment and a large arched opening and a sculpture niche. Through this arch is seen a body of water and other buildings in the background, and behind the ruined building is a partially verdant rocky hillside inhabited by goats. On platforms of ruins stand three human figures, one of whom is about to dive into the water. The scene is illuminated by bright sunlight with a partially cloudy blue sky.
Within an identical frame to the south is a polychromatic mural of classical and later architectural ruins and buildings, including the façade of a Greek-style white marble temple of Corinthian order with a partially-damaged pediment containing sculptures of humans. At the center opening of the temple is the ruin of a later red stone addition comprising a large arch and buttressing. To the right is a crenellated wall of a red brick building, before and behind which are seen various Italian Renaissance-style buildings. In the foreground on a wall to the near side of a dirt roadway are various humans resting or engaged in work activities.
Above the murals in the vault, to either side, are pairs of green-patinated nude boys sitting on a white marble ledge above a variegated red marble plinth. They grasp the ends of two red sashes that are interlaced with fanciful white marble stonework of C-scrolls, openwork Flemish scrolls, egg-and-dart friezes and a cartouche-field above which is a pelta-field. Within the cartouche fields and two others over the arched openings to the staircase are representations of classical nude figures in raw umber coloration. At the south is a male soldier with helmet, shield, spear and mantle seen in a rear three-quarters pose with rocks and vegetation at his feet. At the north is a youth leaning against a tree trunk and holding his uplifted right leg. At the east is a crouching semi-nude female igniting a dish of incense. To her left is a burning cylindrical altar festooned with fruit swags. At the west is a semi-nude female in a Michelangelesque-contorted pose with her arms grasping a vase to her left and with her raised leg and knee turning to her right, all against a tree stump with renewed foliation.
The corridor is decorated, in the shallow-arched vault, with a trompe-l’oeil, reticulate-pattern coffering filled with various designs of rosettes, all against a sand-colored ground. The walls have variously spaced trompe-l’oeil pilasters connected at the top by a straight molding and with bellflower swags and chains connected to a central scrollate field between the pilasters. The arched openings to the staircase, the stove niche and the staff room doorway are ornamented with trompe-l’oeil white marble arches having Flemish-scroll and other Baroque-inspired motifs, all against a sand-colored ground. [When the stove niche and stove were moved from the west side to the south side of this area ca. 1945-1946, the Cox mural ornamentation was copied for the south niche by a less experienced hand.]
The room was fully appointed by the time of Robert Bliss’s retirement in 1933. The presence in the room of a Steinway grand piano, purchased by the Blisses in 1921, became the focus of musical evenings. This piano was replaced in 1950 by a 1926 Steinway grand piano--inherited from Mrs. Bliss’ mother--that had been signed by Ignacy Jan Paderewski (HC.F.1950.386). Among the many musical evenings held in the Music Room, of note is the 1938 world premier conducted by Nadia Boulanger of Igor Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (8-5-38 Concerto in E flat), which the Blisses had commissioned for their 30th wedding anniversary. In 1946, the organization known as The Friends of Music at Dumbarton Oaks was formed in order to offer a yearly chamber music series in the Music Room. In 1944, the Music Room also served as the site of the so-called Dumbarton Oaks Conversations, informal discussions on the general question of an international organization for the maintenance of peace and security, which led to the formation of the United Nations the following year.
The Music Room was appointed with a variety of art works and furnishings, some already in the Bliss collection, but most purchased specifically for the room. Although many of the furnishings are from the Italian and Spanish Renaissance period, there is, nevertheless, a wide variety of styles and periods represented by the art works and furnishings of the room. On June 28, 1929, the Blisses purchased a significant number of Italian Renaissance pieces of furniture from the Brambilla collection of the Villa Farnese, Caprarola (near Rome). Lawrence Grant White first mentioned these pieces in an undated cable to Robert Bliss: “Fine large pieces Italian furniture from Caprarola now for sale by Countess Mazzarino Fifty-one Via Torino in Milan. Especially table from Map Room.” Again on May 14, 1929 he wrote Robert Bliss: “When I was at Stockbridge two weeks ago, I saw Julia Brambilla, who showed me photographs of the furniture she and her husband had bought for Caprarola. It seemed very good, and I hope you are able to get some of it.” Selected Roman and Byzantine objects were displayed in the room; these were removed to the Byzantine Museum ca. 1940-1941 at the time of the construction of the Byzantine Gallery and the conveyance of the property and its collections and library to Harvard University. The room also served as a setting for a portion of the Blisses’ collection of master paintings, sculptures, and late medieval tapestries. Also important to the original design of the room was the employment of antique rugs. The most significant were an early fifteenth-century Spanish armorial rug, and a sixteenth-century Ottoman rug from Cairo, both purchased in 1933 and both now owned by the Textile Museum, Washington, D.C. Other rugs used in the room included three rare sixteenth-century Persian Isfahans, two of which the Blisses had purchased in 1908 and 1920 before the construction of the Music Room, and a Mogul Seven Mihrab (Saf) Prayer Rug, purchased on April 6, 1932.