William Hammond Dorsey built the first structure on the land now occupied by the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, and that structure comprises the core of the main house. Dorsey, a lawyer and member of the Maryland senate between 1796 and 1801, was an active speculator in the booming real estate market of Georgetown, Maryland, and the new Federal District. He bought numerous Georgetown lots from Thomas Beall, including, for his own residence, twenty acres (July 12, 1800 for 2,000 pounds sterling) and a contiguous two-acre parcel (August 25, 1801 for $100.00) on the north side of Road Street (now R Street) at Valley Street (now 32nd Street). The land afforded “the finest view in Georgetown” and was located near other large estates, including Evermay and Tudor Place. Dominating the site was a magnificent stand of oaks. Dorsey continued to call his estate the “Rock of Dumbarton,” the name given to it by Ninian Beall, Thomas Beall’s grandfather. Probably in 1801, he began building a two-story, five-bay, brick Federal-style house. It had a slightly recessed entrance bay, recessed stone panels between the first and second floors, and a central stair hall running front to back which separated two drawing rooms on the ground floor and two bedrooms on the second. The Dorseys inhabited the house by October 24, 1801
Dorsey occupied the house for less than five years. In 1805, financial reverses forced him to sell the Rock of Dumbarton estate on April 19 for $15,000.00 to Robert Beverley, a member of the landed gentry of Virginia’s Northern Neck. Beverley renamed the Rock of Dumbarton “Acrolophos,” meaning “Grove on the Hill,” in reference to the oaks. It was probably Beverley who added the brick orangery east of the house, which is still extant (see HC.AS.1927.002). On April 1, 1823, Bradshaw sold Acrolophos for $10,000 to Mrs. Floride Bonneau Calhoun, who wanted it as a summer home since it stood on high ground, somewhat removed from the heat of the city. She registered the house in the name of her son, James Edward Calhoun, an unmarried naval officer, though he would seldom live there. By July 1823, Mrs. Calhoun, her daughter, and son-in-law (and cousin), Secretary of War and later Vice President John C. Calhoun, had moved into the house. In August 1823, John C. Calhoun wrote James Edward: “We are on the heights of Georgetown, and find the residence delightful. The health of the children is very much improved by the fine air and the abundant exercise in the Grove.” John Calhoun appears to have made few changes to the house, although he renamed it “Oakly.”
In August 1829, Calhoun sold Oakly to Brooke Mackall, Inspector of the Georgetown Customs Office, for $8,000. Mackall occupied the house for seventeen years, but appears to have made few, if any, material improvements. In July 1846, he sold the house at a profit for $11,500 to Edward Magruder Linthicum, a prosperous hardware dealer. He briefly called the estate “Monterey” before in 1860 renaming it “The Oaks,” in tribute to the large oaks which still surrounded the house. Linthicum enlarged and altered the house considerably, refashioning the exterior in the Italianate villa mode and adding an elaborate entrance, an eastern L-shaped wing that connected the house to the orangery, and a mansard roof. Along the rear of the main house, he built a long hall or gallery with a pair of staircases that replaced the staircase in the entrance hall. At the center of this gallery he added a polygonal turret which was open to the second floor and had a steep, Second Empire-style mansard roof. Behind the house he erected a large brick barn, and along R Street he built a stone wall topped by an iron fence. A new semicircular carriage drive led up to the entrance. Linthicum also added a hip roof with a monitor window to the orangery. A friend, George A. Gordon, described the changes thus:
The house, which has been changed, but not improved in appearance, by the addition of a mansard roof and other alterations, was a large two-story brick, with hall from front to rear “wide enough for a hay wagon to pass through,” on either side of which were great parlors beautifully proportioned. The east parlor opened into a bright, sunny dining room, which in turn looked out upon a well-filled greenhouse, with flower gardens on the east, wooded lawn in front, grove of forest trees on the west, and gently sloping well-sodded hills in the rear, all of which were kept in perfect order. During the life of Mr. Linthicum, “The Oaks” was the show place of the District.
Edward Linthicum died in 1869, leaving an estate valued at a quarter of a million dollars. Linthicum’s widow remained in the house until her death in 1884. The property then passed into the ownership of 23-year-old Edward Linthicum Dent, Linthicum’s son-in-law. On October 5, 1891, Dent sold the Oaks with six acres of land to Mr. and Mrs. Henry Fitch Blount for $105,000.00. Blount was a wealthy, retired Indiana manufacturer of farm equipment. In Washington, he became Director and later Vice President of the American Security and Trust Company. Blount made only a few changes to the exterior of the house, notably a porte-cochère on the west side of the house. Henry Blount died in October, 1917. His wife remained in the house until October 15, 1920, when she sold it, with most of the land, to Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. In 1922, Mrs. Blount sold the Blisses the remaining land.
When Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss acquired the estate in 1920, they described it as “an old-fashioned house standing in rather neglected grounds, encumbered with farm buildings.” In 1921, they initiated a complete remodeling of the house under the direction of the Washington, D.C. architect Frederick H. Brooke (1876-1960). Between 1921 and 1923, Brooke removed the later nineteenth-century porches, bays, and windows, and renovated the house in the Georgian or “Colonial Revival” style, creating a west wing to match the redesigned nineteenth-century wing at the east. Similarly, Brooke created a neo-Georgian interior. After Brooke left the project in 1923, the Blisses further improved the estate between 1923 and 1929 under the direction of Lawrence Grant White (1887-1956) of the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White. White oversaw the design and construction of the 1926-1928 Renaissance-style Music Room addition off the west wing (see HC.AI.1929.001). As early as 1932, the Blisses combined two of the property’s former names and called their estate “Dumbarton Oaks.”
In November 1940, the Blisses formally created the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, giving their property, collections, and gardens to Harvard University. To facilitate the change from residence to research institution, in 1938-1940, the Washington, D.C. architect Thomas T. Waterman (1900-1951) built two new wings connected by a loggia west of the main building to house the Byzantine Collection and Library. In the following year, Waterman renovated the second floor rooms to house the library and its users, and in 1946, he connected the Byzantine wing to the main house by extending the first-floor gallery.
Whitehill, Walter Muir. Dumbarton Oaks: The History of a Georgetown House and Garden, 1800-1966. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.
De Lay, Maureen, Kay Fanning, and Mark Davidson. Cultural Landscape Report: Dumbarton Oaks Park, Rock Creek Park, pt. 1: Site History, Existing Conditions, and Analysis and Evaluation. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Interior, 2000.
Tamulevich, Susan. Garden into Art. New York: The Monacelli Press, Inc., 2001.
Carder, James N. "Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss and the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection" in Sacred Art, Secular Contxt, Objects of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Accompanied by American Paintings from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. Asen Kirin, ed. Athens, Ga.: Georgia Museum of Art, 2005, 22-37.
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.