The End of the Quartet: The Day the Music Stopped at Ploutarchou 9Posted: November 1, 2015
Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and a former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here contributes an essay about the last days of Carl W. Blegen, Elizabeth Pierce Blegen, Bert Hodge Hill, and Ida Thallon Hill, the archaeological “Quartet” of Ploutarchou 9.
This short essay was composed to satisfy my own curiosity. Having recently edited Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives (Atlanta 2015) with Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan and Vivian Florou, it occurred to me that virtually the only aspect of Blegen’s life that had received no attention was its end. Nor had we, or indeed any of the authors who contributed to that volume, written of the later lives of the four amazing individuals who formed “The Quartet” that resided at 9 Ploutarchou St. in Athens: Blegen, Elizabeth Blegen, Ida Thallon Hill, and Bert Hodge Hill.
The start of that Quartet was tumultuous, as Bob Pounder has described it, but once ground rules were established in 1927, the Hills and the Blegens lived in perfect harmony, an arrangement that persisted for four decades until Blegen died in 1971 (Pounder 2015). Their relationships, although of an uncommon character, were no less significant for being unusual. The four loved each other and were totally devoted to their common cause. At the same time they left sufficient space in their marriages for each to address his or her individual needs.
Libbie and Ida remained free to travel on their own, and often did, as in 1938 when they drove across the Balkans from Athens to Trieste, an excursion full of “adventures” — principally as the result of flat tires. Libbie wrote to Carl that “[we] had only a short pause at the frontier … then we had a marvelous drive over the mountains — felt as if we were on top of the world.” In Tirana they dined with the head of the United States legation, Mr. Grant, and with General Percy who was in charge of training Albanian gendarmes; they also visited the Museum in Tirana, where “they have some fine Roman statue heads but no bodies.”
Libbie, as well as Ida, looked after Bert Hill. In 1936, for example, when he was summoned to an audience with Prince Paul of Greece, she wrote to Carl:
You would have died laughing seeing Bert get off — his afternoon clothes had not been worn for so long that his vest was too tight and had to be ripped out at the side seams and hastily sewn up. He took one look at his top hat and decided not to wear it — his old dark gray or “black” as he called it — felt was in an awful state. I had to trim off the ends of the ribbon and coat spots on it to make them match the rest in color!
Ida was first to pass away. She died peacefully and suddenly in 1954 on a mid-Atlantic crossing from America, lying in bed as Libbie read to her. Bert with customary efficiency stoically made burial arrangements in Athens.
Attention to the domestic needs of the surviving trio continued to be a community affair, responsibilities sometimes shared between Libbie and Marion Rawson, the Cincinnati architect and socialite who had assisted Carl in the field since 1927 at Prosymna. The following note from Libbie to Marion in 1956 is illustrative: “I have Carl’s belt – Has he any decent jacket to wear in case we should have to go to the opening of the new hospital in Pylos?” Marion is addressed as “Ma.”
The Athens that the Blegens and Hills had known was irrevocably in flux following WW II. Yet one finds only the occasional complaint about the massive construction boom that was rapidly transforming their elegant neighborhood into a maze of towering high-rises and shattered their tranquility with incessant noise. The wild flowers that they so cherished in their garden were covered with dust.
In May 1956 Libbie wrote to Carl:
It is terribly hot here – up in the upper 80s & the noise from that blasted apartment house is terrific for we not only have hammering but a cement mixer buzzing. Am glad you are safely out of it.
When in the 1880s the ASCSA was established in its permanent location, Kolonaki was so remote from the center of the city that Director Frederick Allen questioned the wisdom of moving the School there from rented quarters near the Arch of Hadrian. Thomas Day Seymour, Chairman of the Managing Committee, considered the location convenient only to Evangelismos Hospital (1881) and the summit of Mt. Lycabettus. The nearest shops were a half-mile away, it was more than a mile to the Acropolis, and the only public transportation to the Center was an unreliable horse-car.
By the 1920s, Kolonaki had been transformed into a neighborhood of stately mansions, and it was one of these that the Quartet had purchased on Ploutarchou. Evangelismos Hospital had been joined by the Maraslion School (1905), then by great buildings of the interwar period, such as the Gymnasium Aristoteles at the corner of Marasli and Souidias (1929), the Gennadius Library of the ASCSA (1926), and, in the 1930s, by the first high-rise apartment houses, masterpieces of art deco and art nouveau design. The bay windows (Erker) of one, just across the street from the Quartet at Ploutarchou 10, project 1.40 m. from its façade. A second, at Ploutarchou 3, the Mavromati building, was designed by Konstantinos Kyriakidis, and combines modernism and eclecticism. A third, at Ploutarchou 24, an outstanding example of Art Deco (1926) designed by Demetrios Photiadis, had just been finished when the Blegens and Hills moved to Ploutarchou 9.
But by the 1950s signature architecture was a thing of the past. The “law of horizontal property,” enacted in 1929, enabled the owner of a plot to give it to a contractor and to be “paid” with apartments in a high-rise built on it. As the population of Athens more than doubled in the next 25 years, this αντιπαροχή system came to dominate real estate transactions in Greece. Tax incentives, loose regulation, the availability of locally produced building materials, and a large, inexperienced labor force resulted in forests of cookie-cutter apartment houses rising throughout the city.
Bert was next to depart this earth. In November of 1958 he wrote to the Blegens, who were in America:
No letter to answer but I mustn’t wait any longer if this of mine can hope to reach you by Dec. 3. It has been rather cold and damp these days (53-55) and yesterday and today we have had central heating — principally because wax on the floors won’t dry enough to allow polishing. I have taken a couple of suns and walks in this quarter and drove to Philopappos (i.e., as far as the road goes). For the rest I have kept to the house except last evening when I went to the School’s Thanksgiving party. 69 sat down at table, Betty [Caskey] said. Lucy [Talcott] was absent, and [the Homer] Davises and others. Kevin Andrews. It was a pleasure to see him scarcely changed by the years – and John and Sue Young came after the dinner, having first had Thanksgiving with their daughter. Jack [Caskey] made his usual speech and [Aristides] Kyriakides his (read from notes and not quite up to his usual form). Jack and Gorham [Phillips Stevens] and Gene [Vanderpool] and Henry [Immerwahr] and I don’t know who else carved turkeys. Grace was said by a cleric I don’t think I have met. I didn’t go the rounds in the saloni, but sat in a polythrona mostly. However such so the party rather did me in, with bad dysphoria after it combined with the pain in the chest (high, both back and front) that you get when your stomach goes sour after a too hearty meal. As the thing lasted from about 11.30 until 6 the night was the worst I have had since Corinth Oct. 10 and 11. But I have slept a lot today and have had no dysphoria. So I haven’t called Lorandos and expect to sleep well tonight. I cut the Propeller [Club] lunch and the Thanksgiving show at Ath[ens] College at 3.45–substituting breakfast combined with lunch in bed for the former and sleep for the latter.
He died the following day.
By that time Libbie had suffered a debilitating stroke in December 1956 and was hospitalized in Cincinnati for four months; it had a devastating effect on her mobility and motor skills. Without Ida as her companion, she was finding life in Athens increasingly tedious. She wrote tenderly to Carl in May 1955: “You are rather a nice person to have around and I need you these next years.” She was unable to accompany him to Pylos that year, and on June 15 ended her letter:
I am tired so no more now Love from a stupid bunny Lib.
And then on June 23:
I wonder what you are doing today. … I am getting tired so I will stop but tell Marion to keep up the good work, I miss you terribly, love from Lib.
Carl returned the affection. A letter sent from Pylos is characteristic:
My wonderful Mibsie [as he called Libbie]: How are you today? I’ve been thinking of you nearly all the time and hoping that you’ve quite recovered from that tummy upset of the other day. Have you taken your exercises today, and have you had a little walk with the walker? I hope you’ve managed another little practice session with the typewriter, too? You see I’m pushing you to keep going until you’re all well again.
Miraculously Libbie did recover substantially and in 1958 was back in the field digging at Pylos. In Athens, although frequently tired and in a wheelchair, she again embedded herself in the social world of the expat community — attending the Open Meeting of the ASCSA and participating in AWOG (American Women’s Organization of Greece) activities, a group that she had played a role in founding.
Libbie, in fact, survived a full decade after her first attack.
After her death in 1966, Blegen began seriously to put his affairs in order. In a letter to his foreman Nionios Androutsakis, on June 1, 1968, he described one last trip to Troy:
I am leaving today for five or six days in Turkey. I want to see Troy one last time, where we dug for seven years and had such a wonderful time.
Blegen lived until 1971, completing his excavations at Pylos and publishing his results with Marion Rawson’s help. He was dutiful in attending to Libbie’s grave, bringing flowers on Sunday mornings. He attended the first congress on the eruption of the volcanic on “Thera and the Aegean World” in 1969.
But his health had declined dramatically.
He decided to end excavations at Pylos, and wrote to Androutsakis on September 3, 1970.
I am pleased that our last two trenches have been backfilled, and that the olive grove will again be left in peace. We have decided that we will not excavate any more …
Blegen died on August 24, 1971, in Evangelismos Hospital, two blocks away from Ploutarchou 9. Today the Quartet rest side by side in the Protestant section of the First Cemetery of Athens, their unity an enduring monument to the love of four remarkable individuals who not only changed the archaeological world in Greece but cared deeply for their adopted land.
Pounder, R. L. 2015, “The Blegens and the Hills: A Family Affair,” in Carl Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives,” ed. N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, J. L. Davis, V. Florou, Atlanta 2015, pp. 85-98.