The architectural space of the Oval Room was first reconfigured as an oval-shaped salon by the Washington, D.C. architect Frederick H. Brooke (1876-1960), who worked on the house between 1921 and 1923. His design is responsible not only for the oval shape of the room, which undoubtedly was created to conceal the elevator shaft in the north-west corner or this space, but also for its hidden connection to the Study (Library) in the north-east corner, its hidden closet with window in the south-east corner, and the two recessed book shelves on the western face of the oval. To the west of this oval space, Brooke also created an entry foyer with four curved glass corner cabinets, a coat closet to the left of the foyer, and a telephone room and toilet complex to the right.
In late 1928, the Blisses commissioned the Parisian designer Armand Albert Rateau (1882-1938) to redesign the room. Rateau fabricated trompe-l’oeil painted wall panels (boiseries), hidden doors with leather faux-book spines, and painted boiseries and doors in the room’s entrance foyer. The Rateau firm also provided the French Régence, ca. 1720, royal gray marble mantelpiece (HC.AE.1932.001), and fabricated draperies (now replaced) from antique gold-striped silk fabric provided by Mildred Bliss. The Rateau redesign of the room required an oval plan of reduced dimensions due to Mildred Bliss’s 1926 acquisition of an oval Savonnerie carpet (HC.T.1926.10.[R]) that she wanted to use in the room but which did not match the oval proportions of the room as designed by Brooke. Correspondence of December 28, 1928 from the Blisses’ architect, Lawrence Grant White, to Rateau states: “I am sending you herewith…the pattern of the walls of the oval salon, and the pattern of the curve of the oval wall. Photographs will be sent to you in Paris as soon as they are ready.” [New-York Historical Society, McKim, Mead & White Papers, Bliss House.] The room ensemble was completed in 1930 and installed at Dumbarton Oaks in 1931.
Rateau’s trompe-l’oeil decoration of the wall paneling was French Neoclassical in inspiration and was painted en grisaille to simulate an egg-and-dart cornice molding, pilasters with Ionic capitals supporting a plain frieze entablature, arches over the window and passageway niches, and arched lunettes over the fireplace mirror and entrance doorway. The arched lunettes were each decorated with en-grisaille paintings of three putti playing in an outdoor setting. The areas over the bookcases and over the vestibule doorway were decorated with drapery swags.
Thompson, Arthur P. "Inventory and Appraisal of the Personal Property Owned by the Hon. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss." Washington, DC: typescript, 7/29/1938, 9-16.
Carder, James N. "The Architectural History of Dumbarton Oaks and the Contribution of Armand Albert Rateau" in A Home of the Humanities, The Collecting and Patronage of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss James N. Carder, editor. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010, 98-103.
Commissioned in 1929 by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss from Armand Albert Rateau, Paris, through the architect Lawrence Grant White for installation at Dumbarton Oaks, 1931.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, DC, 1931-11/29/1940.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, DC.