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What Once Was

Alice Pike Barney’s Studio House on Sheridan Circle

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By Stephen A. Hansen*

Perhaps no one had as significant an impact on cultural and artistic life in Washington at the beginning of the 20th century than Alice Pike Barney, who worked to make the city into a center of the arts. Alice, herself, was artist, community activist, theatrical producer, and the creator of the National Sylvan Theater on the grounds of the Washington Monument.

Alice Pike was born in 1857 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her parents, Samuel and Ellen Pike, were well-known philanthropists in Cincinnati. Samuel Pike was a whiskey distiller who made possible the city’s first opera house. Alice Pike’s early years were filled with musicians, impresarios, and actors who were frequent guests in her parents’ home.

photo—Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

photo—Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1866, the Pikes moved to New York City where Samuel Pike had the Grand Opera House built at 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue. In 1876, Alice married Albert Clifford Barney, the son of a wealthy railway car manufacturer from Dayton, Ohio. The following year, Alice launched her career as an artist, studying painting in Paris with Benjamin Constant, Jean-Paul Laurens, Gustave Boulanger, and Charles Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran.

In the summer of 1882, Alice encountered Oscar Wilde at New York’s Long Beach Hotel, where Wilde was speaking on his American lecture tour. Wilde spent the day with Alice and her daughter Natalie on the beach. Their conversation changed the course of Alice’s life and inspired her to pursue art more seriously despite her husband’s disapproval.

In the spring of 1889, the Barneys moved to Washington.  They hired the firm of Barry, Simpson, and Andrews to design an Italianate palazzo for their home at 1626 Rhode Island Avenue, NW. just off then fashionable Scott Circle. The site is now occupied by the University of California Washington Center.

The Barneys quickly became members of Washington’s social elite. Albert followed the norm for new wealthy socialites in DC and joined the Metropolitan, Chevy Chase, and Alibi Clubs. But Alice was not satisfied just playing wife, mother, and hostess, much to her husband’s chagrin. Albert did not want their newly acquired social status threatened by his wife’s interests in the arts and a more Bohemian lifestyle.

In 1896, Alice returned to Paris where she resumed painting lessons with Carolus-Duran and took additional classes with Claudio Castelucho. In 1889, she started her own salon on Avenue Victor Hugo.

While in Paris, her daughter Natalie asked Alice to do the illustrations for a book of poetry she had written. Alice did not realize that it was a collection of lesbian poetry and that three of the women who had posed for Alice for the illustrations had been Natalie’s lovers. When Albert Barney learned of this from a newspaper review of the book, he rushed to Paris to buy all printed copies of the book as well as the printer’s plates and demanded that the two return with him to the States

Natalie Clifford Barney. photo—Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Natalie Clifford Barney. photo—Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

On her return to Washington, Alice was determined to take an active role in Washington’s artistic community. She wanted to be recognized as a serious artist, not a dilettante. In pursuit of her goal, she joined the Washington Water Color Club, a group of local artists led by Henry Moser, which exhibited drawings, pastels, and watercolors. Her first showing of paintings in Washington was with the Club. Alice did become a prominent artist with solo shows at major galleries, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Many of her works are now in the collection of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum.

Albert died of a heart attack in southern France in 1902 at the age of 52, possibly brought on by worries caused by his wife and daughter’s less than conventional lifestyles. That same year, Alice began developing plans for her new “Studio House,” which was being designed by prominent Washington architect Waddy Butler Wood. Alice intended Studio House to be a means to foster a public awareness of the arts in Washington, a place where she could both work and entertain, and where affluent society and artists could mingle.

Barney’s Studio House on the west side of Sheridan Circle. photo—Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Barney’s Studio House on the west side of Sheridan Circle. photo—Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The Mission-style of the exterior of Studio House reflected Wood’s stylistic interests at the time. Barney worked with Wood to create an idiosyncratic interior that was a combination of the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements, Medieval and 16th century Renaissance.

When construction on the house began at 2306 Massachusetts Avenue on Sheridan Circle, Dupont Circle was then still Washington’s most fashionable neighborhood for the nouveau riche. But Studio House quickly became one of the centers of Washington social and artistic life, putting Sheridan Circle on the map as the newest of vogue neighborhoods, attracting many of the country’s multi-millionaires to build around the circle as well.

A mix of actors and society people at one of Alice Barney’s tea parties.; Alice is seated third to the right in the second row.photo—Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

A mix of actors and society people at one of Alice Barney’s tea parties.; Alice is seated third to the right in the second row.photo—Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

At Studio House, Alice hosted many renowned artists, actors, diplomats and politicians -– among them  President Theodore Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft. She also used Studio House as a venue for meetings to create a national gallery of women in art, to erect the Sylvan Theater on the grounds of the Washington Monument, and for community service programs.

Third floor studio. photo—Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Third floor studio. photo—Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1909, Alice Barney fell in love with a 22-year-old actor by the name of Christian Hemmick whom she met during the production of one of her plays, The Man in the Moon at Studio House. Alice now was 52 years old. Yet, the couple decided to marry. Alice rented Studio House to the Peruvian ambassador for a year in order to return to Paris to tell her daughters about the impending marriage, well enough in advance that they would have time to adjust to the situation. Alice Barney and Christian Hemmick were married in Paris in 1911 and Alice proudly became known as Mrs. Christian Hemmick.

The young actor Christian Hemmick who won both Alice’s heart and her purse.photo—Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The young actor Christian Hemmick who won both Alice’s heart and her purse.photo—Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Although Alice had planned to eventually turn Studio House into a museum, she had the house redecorated as a wedding present for her new husband. A garage was added to Studio House, probably for a car she may have bought for the young Christian. But the couple divorced in 1920. With her first husband’s fortune now almost gone, Alice lost interest in both the house and Washington. She spent two years in Europe and moved to Hollywood in 1923 where she died in 1931. Her other daughter Laura was listed as living in Studio House in between 1932 and 1933.

After Alice’s death, her daughters inherited Studio House, which since then has housed amongst other tenants, the Embassy of Peru and the Colombian Legation. In 1962, Alice’s daughters donated the house to the Smithsonian Institution’s American Association of Museums. It was sold by the Smithsonian in 1999 and is now the Embassy of Latvia.

*Stephen A. Hansen is an historic preservation specialist, Washington DC historian, author of several books and of the Virtual Architectural Archaeology blog.

© 2014 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Stephen A. Hansen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.