Dumbarton Oaks Gardens Film

by sarahkburke

This post is presented by James Carder, Gail Griffin, and Rona Razon.  It supplements a film screening and discussion held at Dumbarton Oaks on Friday, July 20, 2012.

Re-Discovery of the Film
This week’s D.O. Conversation series is the screening of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens film with commentaries from James Carder, Archivist and House Collection Manager, and Gail Griffin, Director of Gardens and Grounds.  It will also focus on the “re-discovery” of the film and the process of preserving it, presented by Rona Razon, Archives Specialist.

The Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) holds unique footage of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens; portions of this film may have been recorded as early as the mid-1920s, and there are scenes from the 1930s and 1940s.  While we do not know exactly who made these films and when they were  recorded, this tentative dating is based on the style of clothing seen in the films, on the presence or absence of buildings and objects in the gardens, and the film edge codes.  In the film, you can see garden views, winter scenes, and summer scenes at the pool, as well as a glimpse of Mildred Barnes Bliss in the Orangery and in the gardens.

The Dumbarton Oaks Gardens film was re-discovered in early 2011 when ICFA staff learned that 3 film reels in cold storage contained footage of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens.  Then, ICFA staff assessed and inspected all the films in ICFA’s holdings at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Human Studies Film Archives.  During the inspection, ICFA staff determined that most of the films have started to suffer from vinegar syndrome, a common type of deterioration with acetate (or safety) films.  As a result, ICFA sent the films to Colorlab, a film laboratory in Rockville, MD, to be digitized and re-formatted for preservation in October 2011.

Signs of deterioration

As most archivists and film specialists know, digitization is not simple.  Technicians at Colorlab had to deal with various challenges, such as the film emulsion peeling from or completely removed from the base.  After careful consideration and consultation with other film technicians, Colorlab and ICFA decided to use splicing tape to reinforce the emulsion before cleaning and digitization could proceed.  Although this method was labor- intensive, we agreed that this was the only solution for these fragile films.

Emulsion flaking off from the film base

Emulsion completely removed from the film base

Colorlab completed the digitization process in March 2012 and for each 16mm film in our collection, we now have copies on DVDs, Digital Betacam SPs, on a portable external hard drive, and our server.  Currently, all of the original films are now safely stored in one of the freezers in ICFA’s cold storage area.  In the coming year, we plan to individually bag them in archival storage bags to prevent condensation and create vapor-proof microclimates for each film.

A mid-1920s dating for the earliest portion of the film is probable since the opening credits illustrate the logo for the Amateur Cinema League or ACL, a non-commercial association that was founded in New York City on July 28, 1926.  It was an association that promoted home motion pictures and helped amateur filmmakers.

Notes on the film footage by James Carder

Snow in the Gardens, ca. 1932

This footage has views of the Dumbarton Oaks gardens after a heavy snowfall. The presence of the pinecone finials on the piers in the Rose Garden (1932) and the absence of the Byzantine Collection wing (under construction 1939–1940) suggest a date of ca. 1932 or somewhat later, which matches the film edge code of 1932.

Spring in the Gardens, ca. 1928–1929

This sequence of shots records the Dumbarton Oaks gardens in the springtime. At the end of this film, the “Bride” magnolia at the Orangery is photographed in full bloom and in close-up. There is also a view of the Copse (Bosquet) with the Provençal Fountain installed (1927), and the absence of the urn-on-column sculpture in the Urn Terrace, which was installed in 1929, suggests a date of ca. 1928–1929.

Orangery Luncheon, ca. 1926. Mildred Barnes Bliss at center; Lawrence Grant White possibly to left.

This interesting sequence of a party taking refreshment in the Orangery is hosted by Mildred Barnes Bliss. The Blisses came to the United States from Stockholm via Paris in late April, 1926, and stayed through July. The purpose of their visit was to accompany Crown Prince Gustavus Adolphus and Princess Louise of Sweden. They were in Washington in May. They also met at this time with their architect, Lawrence Grant White, and their landscape architect, Beatrix Jones Farrand, and it is tempting to identify the gentleman in this sequence as White and one of the women as Farrand, although this is not certain.

Walk in the Gardens, ca. 1926. Robert Woods Bliss, center, and Mildred Barnes Bliss, right.

Probably also shot in 1926, as is confirmed by one of the film edge codes, this sequence shows Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss—both elegantly dressed and he with his signature cane, walking with another couple in the gardens and on the Green Garden terrace.

Swimming Pool Party, ca. 1933. Mildred Barnes Bliss, center.

This footage depicts a swimming pool party in the early 1930s with women both elegantly dressed and in bathing suits. Men are seen in one-piece bathing costumes, the popularity of which began to wane in the second half of the 1930s, when men’s swimming trunks became legal in 1936. Mildred Barnes Bliss is glimpsed in a floppy, broad-brimmed hat.

Swimming Pool Race, ca. 1936–1938

Here is another swimming pool party, this time from the later 1930s. Elegantly dressed men and women stand at the edges of the pool. Later a race of men in swimming trunks takes place with spectators watching from the overlook of the Green Garden terrace. In a separate sequence, Mildred Barnes Bliss, again wearing a floppy, broad-brimmed hat, swims the length of the pool.

Pool-Side Table Group, ca. 1942. Mildred Barnes Bliss, possibly at left.

A group of people are seen here at a poolside table under a Japanese-style umbrella. The group is possibly joined by Mildred Barnes Bliss, who is seated at the left. Although Dumbarton Oaks had conveyed to Harvard University by 1942, the likely date of this sequence as evidenced in part by the film edge code, this appears to be a party hosted by Mildred Bliss with her butler present. The other people of the party have not been identified.

Late Summer–Fall in the Gardens, ca. 1940s

Although color film stock was available for amateur home videos as early as the mid-1930s, the ICFA color footage seems to be from the 1940s and possibly the early 1950s. This footage shows the late summer–early fall gardens with mums and asters in bloom. There is an interesting shot of a mansion with a turret, which may be Clifton, the property then owned by Truxton Beale and which burned down on November 6–7, 1949. The Blisses had purchased much of the Clifton acreage for the wilderness section of the gardens (now Dumbarton Oaks Park). Marie Beale later gave the remaining acreage to Harvard for the Center for Hellenic Studies.

Matthew Kearney and Dog Walk in the Gardens, after ca. 1944

In this sequence, Matthew Kearney (1906–1973) and a dog walk through the late summer–early fall gardens. Kearney was the Blisses’ head gardener beginning in 1936 and served as Superintendent of Gardens and Grounds between 1949 and 1973. The presence of brick on the Box Walk dates this film no earlier than 1944, although it might also date later.

Spring in the Gardens, ca. mid-1940s. Mildred Barnes Bliss.

In this film, the gardens are seen in early spring, including the white azaleas of the Green Garden terrace. A brief clip captures Mildred Barnes Bliss, elegantly dressed in mid-1940s couture, walking through the gardens.