Assessment / Dumbarton Oaks / Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice

First Impressions

Fall at Dumbarton Oaks means, among other things, welcoming the new batch of Fall Fellows who come from all over the world to research here at the library and at the Image Collection and Fieldwork Archive.  In 1949, Robert Van Nice was himself a new member of the Dumbarton Oaks community, arriving as a Research Associate.  At a time when so many people around us are experiencing Dumbarton Oaks for the first time, it has been interesting to look back at Van Nice’s letters to family and friends from his first days here. They reveal his impressions of a different yet also strikingly familiar Dumbarton Oaks of over sixty years ago.

The pool was and still is a favorite feature of Dumbarton Oaks, one that Van Nice was especially aware of once his family was able to join him during the summer of 1950.  He bragged to a friend in mid-July:

“And, finally, we have access to the private swimming pool here at Dumbarton Oaks, which is pretty posh.  Unfortunately, a small boy two houses down from us has just come down with bulbar polio and the kids have to be isolated for three weeks.”

The Dumbarton Oaks pool, as Van Nice would have known it. ( LA.GP.42.05, Two Men, a Boy and a Dog, Sitting in Front of the Loggia, n.d. Garden Library Collection, Dumbarton Oaks )

Van Nice’s letters reveal another important feature of Dumbarton Oaks with nearly timeless appeal.  In a different letter, he wrote that the “super establishment” to which he had moved was:

“… like the Hasty Pudding, very exclusive; it’s also air-conditioned, which I don’t think the HP is.”  

But the charm of Dumbarton Oaks stretches beyond its various abilities to relieve the heat of mid-summer in Washington, D.C.  Van Nice once gushed to William Emerson towards the end of that first summer:

“No particular news from here. I continue to muddle along with my material in these unbelieveably sumptuous surroundings.  If one must commit suicide, as I seem intent on doing in this obscure work, it would be hard to find a more pleasant place for so doing.” 

The Orangery.  Photography: Joseph Mills, Dumbarton Oaks

The Gardens. Photography: Joseph Mills, Dumbarton Oaks

The Pool. Photography: Joseph Mills, Dumbarton Oaks

Van Nice’s descriptions of the “pretty posh” pool and the “sumptuous surroundings” in which he found himself might have a cynical, tongue-in-cheek gloss to them (It’s air conditioned, it has a pool that is NOT infested with polio, and it’s a pretty alright place in which to commit metaphorical suicide.  How could one ask for better reviews?) but it’s clear that he couldn’t escape the charm of Dumbarton Oaks.

Even those too blind or blasé to appreciate the undeniable physical beauty of Dumbarton Oaks must at least admit that it possesses a uniquely stimulating and supportive atmosphere. In fact, this was the very first thing that Van Nice commented on when he wrote about his earliest impressions of the place:

“Being the second person to arrive, I found Dumbarton Oaks a kind of deserted village, but the other Fellows and staff have been appearing during the past two days.  Before the year is over I shall have sopped up a good deal of Byzantine lore simply from listening to table conversations….I look forward with much eagerness to the opportunity of showing you Dumbarton Oaks; I should think there is nothing else quite like it in the world.” 

It’s that last bit of observational wisdom that I have really begun to notice in the past weeks as the new fellows have been getting to know each other and their surroundings. Lunch tables and garden benches have become prime real estate for sopping up all kinds of lore.

A big “Welcome!” to the new fellows–we hope that you also feel that you have stumbled upon something unique, and at least a little bit posh.

For more information on Dumbarton Oaks’ Fellowship program, please click here.

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