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Art & Culture

Latvian Embassy, the Barney Studio House, and an Exhibition Celebrating Art Nouveau

To view images full size, left click on each

With a delightfully old fashion exhibition –- which was on view through late 2013 — of banners, posters, photographs, and a sample of antique furniture, the Embassy of Latvia  offered in its art space next door to its embassy housed in the historic former Barney Studio House a fall showing of comparable images for a pair of 1903 buildings — the first being in Latvia’s museum-like capital city of Riga at 12 Albert Street and with the

Barney Studio House facing Sheridan Circle. photo--Peter Alunans, courtesy Embassy of Latvia

Barney Studio House facing Sheridan Circle. photo–Peter Alunans, courtesy Embassy of Latvia

second located on Sheridan Circle known as Barney Studio House in recognition of its original owner, artist and arts patron Alice Pike Barney who commissioned its unique design and construction in 1903. Once part of the Smithsonian Institution, this mansion-size house now serves as Latvia’s Embassy and counselor offices, having been given a sensitive rehabilitation and renovation by the Latvians.

The exhibition consisted of long, pennant-size banners displaying images — both artistic renderings and photographs, together with text — of Barney Studio House’s handsome Spanish Colonial, Mission-style designed by Washington architect Waddy Wood along with images of an astonishing apartment house on Albert Street in Riga, which was designed in a flamboyant Art Nouveau style by Konstantins Pēkšēns and since 2009 is functioning, after an extraordinary and elaborate renovation, as the Riga Art Nouveau Museum.

photo--courtesy Art Nouveau Museum, Riga,  Latvia

photo–courtesy Art Nouveau Museum, Riga, Latvia

Pēkšēns’ grand architectural achievement is the kind of masterpiece that King Ludwig II of Bavaria hoped to achieve with his eccentric castle concoctions built in Germany during the mid to later part of the 19th century. Pēkšēns’s apartment building is sited on the prominent corner of a downtown intersection and is topped by a dramatic turret. The building’s exterior elevations are embellished with a series of projecting bay windows, balconies, gables, and massive entry portals giving it an unusually commanding presence on the street.

The exhibition’s curator noted in the accompanying poster text that “various individual renaissance and medieval architectural features have been incorporated in the design, but its overall visual appearance is close to National Romanticism,” which is one of several schools or subcategories of the 1890 through 1914 Art Nouveau styles in the Latvian articulation of artistic movement, a subcategory which vies with such others as Eclectic Decoration, Perpendicular, and New Classical.

Nearby, a separate banner unfurled photographs of four dozen unusually handsome and picturesque buildings in downtown Riga; all were built in the same period and provide further evidence for that city’s designation as the Art Nouveau metropolis of Europe. This, when combined with the medieval section of Riga located along the Daugava River across the canals from this Art Nouveau district, earlier established as a UNESCO World Heritage site, has earned Riga the award of being named the 2014 European Capital of Culture.

The interiors of both buildings are elaborately decorated as was revealed by the exhibition’s posters and photographs appropriately replete with images of these picturesque interiors. As described by Amy Ballard, the Smithsonian’s Senior Historic Preservation Specialist, the interior spaces of Barney Studio House feature “intricately-carved wood balconies and the installation of tile floors, performance stages and stained glass windows. The split-level rooms contained furniture

Barney Studio House restored dining room. photo--Peter Alunans, courtesy Embassy of Latvia.

Barney Studio House restored dining room. photo–Peter Alunans, courtesy Embassy of Latvia.

in several styles; enhancing the furniture were oriental rugs, Venetian glass, pillows, artwork and objects d’art collected during Barney’s world travels.” Both the house and these interior spaces are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The centerpiece of the apartment building now housing the Riga Art Nouveau Museum is the beautifully restored circular stairway with its ornamental murals on the stairway ceilings complemented by the windows of individual apartments — windows that feature stained glass depicting exotic plants. In addition, stylized versions of indigenous animal and floral motifs are woven into the overall decorative program of the building’s interior. And, individual exhibition rooms display a variety of Art Nouveau-style furniture and furnishings together with wall sconces and other lighting fixtures.

Adjoining parlor rooms shine in the restored Riga apartment building. photo--courtesy Art Nouveau Museum, Riga, Latvia.

Adjoining parlor rooms shine in the restored Riga apartment building. photo–courtesy Art Nouveau Museum, Riga, Latvia.