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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Dumbarton Oaks

By Alfred Friendly

"The price is low, but as she has no need of it, I fear she will find it dear," wrote John C. Calhoun of his mother-in-law's $10,000 purchase of Dumbarton Oaks in 1822. At that time, twenty-one years after the estate had been built, it was called Oakly and was surrounded by thirty acres of graden and woodland. Calhoun, himself, soon found that Oakly was an expensive commodity.

His six years of resdence there, first as Secretary of War and later as Vice-President, made little dent on Oakly, but left Calhoun financially embarassed. His wife's propensity for entertaining eventually forced him to relinquish the Georgetown estate for the less demanding routines of the Washington boarding houses.

Oakly, however, stayed put and prospered. From its location on a hill in the town of Georgetown, it watched every event that occurred in Washington from the time of Jefferson's first administration to the present. In 1940, however, Dumbarton Oaks lost its domestic magnificence and became a part of Harvard University. It was donated to Harvard by its owners since 1920, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, who specified that it be made a center for the study of early Christian and early Byzantine antiquities. To further this end, the Blisses donated their own collection and library as a beginning and arranged a substantial endowment.

Starting with the 10,000 volumes given by Mr. and Mrs. Bliss, the Dumbarton Oaks collection has grown to a library of 50,000. The museum, itself, has been augmented by acquisitions of Byzantine coins, seals, and other relics, mostly purchased with funds from the Bliss endowment. The library and collection are the nucleus for the studies of Byzantine scholars, junior fellows on renewable appointments, resident profesors, who are members of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and visiting professors, mostly from the European centers of Byzantine studies. The administration of the Research Library is handled by the Trustees of the University, on whom falls the task of annually selecting an Administrative Committee, a Board of Directors, and a Visiting Committee.

The lighter side of Dumbarton Oaks is the gardens surrounding it. The part of the property owned by Harvard covers nearly two city blocks in width and extends over a mile in length. The grounds run from Georgetown, the oldest section of Washington, to the newer but equally plush Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue. The grounds around the main building, which houses the library, museum, and study rooms, are covered with the most beautiful formal gardens in Washington. Not an American Versailles, Dumbarton Oaks, with its fountains, box hedges, and old shade trees, does manage to retain an aristocratic aura in a very democratic city. Right next to the house is a large, shaded swimming pool, theoretically restricted to Dumbarton Oaks personnel, but practically, open to midnight raids by over-heated Georgetown residents.

Byzantine Art Center

To touring garden clubs, Dumbarton Oaks is a "must." To more politicallyminded Washingtonians it is the site of the 1945 post-war financial conference, which laid the groundwork for subsequent United States international monetary policies. To students of Byzantine lore, however, Harvard's center is the nucleus of American activity in their field.

The actual work at Dumbarton Oaks is completely informal. The Fellows are all engaged in projects, generaly requiring a year to complete, while the resident and visiting professors act as advisors and work on their own research. The facilities for research are superlative. not only because they are extensive, but also because nearly all the material is under one roof. The compactness of Dumbarton Oaks is one of its major advantages. The library, itself, is a tribute to the devotion and energies of the former Director, Professor Albert M. Friend, and Professor Milton V. Anastos. These gentlemen, supplied with funds from the Bliss endowment, spent a great deal of time and effort on obtaining as much source material as possible for the institution. As such material is not only rare but obscure, cablegrams often had to be dispatched to European dealers in order to save various documents from the grasp of other Byzantinists.

April Symposium

Aside from harboring and encouraging students, Dumbarton Oaks plays a substantial part in adding to the already available knowledge on the Byzantine period. It conducts a syposium every April and then publishes the report of the discussions of the most eminent scholars in the field, from America and abroad.

Not only the focus for American study of Byzantine cultural life, the institution is the point of concentration for exploration of all facets of early Christian and early Byzantine antiquities. These facets are many. Since the Byzantine Empire extended roughly from the Adriatic on the West, the Danube on the North, the Euphrates on the East, and Palestine on the South, students must be able to command not only Greek, Latin, and French, but German, and the Slavic tongues or Arabic depending on the scholar's inclination.

Byzantinology is not just a complicated subject; it is a relatively modern discipline, having been for a long time an unwanted stepchild of the classicists. Gibbon and Voltaire condemned it, but W.E.H. Lecky summed up their objections in his History of European Morals, written in Victorian England in 1869. Said Lecky, "Of that Byzantine Empire, the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, with scarcely an exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed... The Byzantine Empire was preeminently the age of treachery." It has taken many years to overcome the stigma of Victorian moralism, and Byzantinology will probably never receive the vogue accorded Greek and Roman civilization in the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries.

It is, however, an important field, not only because it is comparatively unexplored, but because its implications cast a ray of light on Russia and the near East. For these areas, the Byzantine Empire, which began according to most scholars with the accession of Diocletian in 284 A.D. and ended with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, is modern history, rather than medievalism. With this realization in mind, centers have grown up in Paris, Brussels,, Rome and Munich.

Oakly has come a long way since John Calhoun wrote of his life there: "My wine has started, finally." The Lovers' Lane that bordered the estate in Calhoun's time is still there, and the gardens are as lovely as ever, but Dumbarton Oaks, itself, has changed greatly. Once the residence of a Yale man, it is now the scene of Harvard's expansion into a field beset by growing pains but very much alive.

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