@Dumbarton Oaks

File 200 - Correspondence between Robert Woods Bliss and the Byzantine Institute (e.g., John Thacher)

Identity area

Reference code

DcWaDIC MS.BZ.004-01-01-04-200


Correspondence between Robert Woods Bliss and the Byzantine Institute (e.g., John Thacher)


  • November 1958 - November 1959 (Creation)

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1 folder

Context area

Name of creator

Byzantine Institute, Inc. (1930-1962)

Administrative history

The Byzantine Institute (commonly known as the Byzantine Institute of America) was founded by Thomas Whittemore in 1930. On May 23, 1934, the Byzantine Institute officially became the Byzantine Institute, Inc. when it was issued a charter from the State of Massachusetts. Its mission was to conserve, restore, study, and document the Byzantine monuments, sites, architecture, and arts in the former Byzantine Empire. The first official project undertaken by the Institute was the examination and documentation of wall paintings at the Red Sea Monasteries in Egypt, which occurred between 1929 and 1931. By capturing select Byzantine iconography from the walls of St. Anthony and St. Paul, Vladimir Netchetailov produced oversize watercolor paintings of saints (Saints George, Mercurius, and Theodore Strateletes) and religious scenes (The Resurrection and Deësis).

In June 1931, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President of the Republic of Turkey, permitted Whittemore and the Byzantine Institute to uncover and restore the original mosaics in Hagia Sophia, which had been covered in Islamic motifs when the church was converted into a mosque in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks. With approval from the Turkish government, the Institute began the conservation and restoration campaign in December 1931. While fieldwork primarily focused on sites within Istanbul, such as Hagia Sophia and Kariye Camii, conservation efforts were also expanded to Cyprus and present-day Macedonia.

In June 1950, Thomas Whittemore, founder of the Byzantine Institute, died while en route to the State Department office of John Foster Dulles. Subsequently, Paul Atkins Underwood was appointed as the Fieldwork Director of the Byzantine Institute, a position he held until his death on September 22, 1968. While this marked a transition period for the Institute, Underwood assumed the oversight of repair and restoration in Hagia Sophia and Kariye Camii. These endeavors resulted in the uncovering of the 7th century pavement in the Church of the Pantocrator (Molla Zeyrek Camii), the restoration of mosaics in Fethiye Camii (Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos), and finally the repair work in Fenari Isa (Lips Monastery). The projects also led to several publications, such as The mosaics of Hagia Sophia at Istanbul, the portrait of the Emperor Alexander: a report on the work done by the Byzantine Institute in 1959 and 1960 by Paul A. Underwood and Ernest J. W. Hawkins. Because of insufficient funding, the Byzantine Institute officially terminated its administrative and fieldwork operations in 1962 and transferred its assets to Dumbarton Oaks. In January of 1963, Dumbarton Oaks and the trustees of Harvard University assumed all fieldwork activities formerly initiated by the Institute. Dumbarton Oaks directed and sponsored new fieldwork projects in Turkey (Church of St. Polyeuktos), Cyprus (Church of the Panagia Amasgou at Monagri), Syria (Dibsi Faraj), and present-day Macedonia (Bargala).

Name of creator

Bliss, Robert Woods (1875-1962)

Biographical history

"Robert Woods Bliss was born in 1875 in St. Louis, Missouri, where his father, William Henry Bliss, was US District Attorney. He graduated from Harvard University in 1900 and began a distinguished career as a Foreign Service officer and diplomat. He eventually served as Ambassador to Argentina (1927–33).

Mildred Barnes Bliss was born in New York City in 1879 to Anna Dorinda Blaksley and Demas Barnes, who had invested in the patent medicine Fletcher's Castoria, the phenomenal success of which made him a wealthy man. When Barnes died in 1888, his wealth passed to his wife and their only child, the nine-year-old Mildred. The second marriage of Anna Barnes to William Bliss in 1894 brought Mildred and Robert together, and they themselves married in 1908.

Robert Bliss's career brought the Blisses to Paris in 1912. There they became friends with a circle of Americans, including the artist Walter Gay, the author Edith Wharton, and Mildred Bliss's childhood friend, the historian, diplomat, and banker Royall Tyler. Tyler introduced the Blisses to Parisian art dealers and sparked their passion for collecting, especially Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art. In Paris, Mildred Bliss began to support musicians and host musical evenings.

In 1920, the Blisses purchased the Georgetown property that they named Dumbarton Oaks. Their redesign of the house and the creation of gardens—directed by landscape designer Beatrix Farrand—made Dumbarton Oaks one of the outstanding residences of Washington. In 1940, the Blisses offered Harvard University the gift of Dumbarton Oaks, with its grounds, buildings, library, and art collections. Robert Bliss died in 1962, and Mildred Bliss in 1969." -http://www.doaks.org/about/dumbarton-oaks-history/bliss-history

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Related right

The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s





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Rights note(s)

Preferred citation: The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s, MS.BZ.004, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.



Related right

The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s





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Rights note(s)

Copyright for Byzantine Institute materials belong to Dumbarton Oaks. However, permission to publish materials created by other correspondents must be obtained from the copyright holder.



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Under copyright

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Physical storage

  • Box: MS.BZ.004, Subgroup 01, Box 013