Alice Pike Barney and Her Studio House on Sheridan Circle

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

Alice Pike Barney.  Library of Congress.

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 business man who created 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.

In 1866, the Pikes moved to New York City where Samuel Pike erected an opera house at Twenty-third Street and Eighth Avenue.  In 1876, Alice married Albert Clifford Barney, the son of a wealthy railway car manufacturer of in 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, inspiring her to pursue art seriously despite her husband's disapproval.

In the spring of 1889, Barneys moved to Washington, D.C.  They retained the firm of Barry, Simpson, and Andrews to design an Italianate palazzo for their home at 1626 Rhode Island Avenue, NW. just off the fashionable area off 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 etiquette and joined the elite 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 social threatened by his wife’s interest in the arts and a Bohemian lifestyle. 

Alice Pike Barney. Library of Congress.

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 illustration had been Natalie’s lovers.  When Albert Barney learned of this from a newspaper review of the book, 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.  The incident did not seem to affect the relationship between mother and daughter though.

Natalie Clifford Barney.  Library of Congress.

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. Reviews of her entries were encouraging.

Alice Pike Barney.  Self-portrait.  Smithsonian Institution.

In 1916, Alice provided the initial funding to construct the Sylvan Theater located on the grounds of the Washington Monument and served as its first resident playwright.  As the theater's original playwright, Alice wrote and prepared scripts for the first half dozen of the theaters productions.  She became known for her lavishly produced, artistically executed ballets, mimes, tableaux, plays, and other theatrical productions.  During the First World War, she persuaded Congress to approve and fund the construction of the "National Sylvan Theater" at its present site at the Washington Monument.   Now the National Sylvan Theater, it was the first federally funded outdoor theater in the United States. 

Women in a performance at the Sylvan Theater in 1917.  Library of Congress.

Albert died of a heart attack in southern France in 1902 at the age of 52.  That same year, Alice began developing plans for her new “Studio House,” which was being designed by Washington architect Waddy Butler Wood.  Alice intended Studio House to be 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 at 2306 Massachusetts Avenue circa 1906.  Library of Congress.

The Mission style of the exterior 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. 

Third floor studio in the Barney house. Library of Congress.

When construction on the house began at 2306 Massachusetts Avenue in Sheridan Circle, Dupont Circle was then still Washington’s most fashionable neighborhood.  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.   

Barney house interior.  Smithsonian Institution

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

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.  Library of Congress.

* * * * *

In 1909, Alice Barney fell in love with twenty-two year old Christian Hemmick, whom she met at Studio House; she was 61 and he, only 26 years of age.  Yet, the couple decided to marry.  Alice Barney rented Studio House to the Peruvian ambassador for a year 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.  That year, a garage was added to Studio House, probably for a car she may have bought for the young Christian.

Christian Hemmick.  Library of Congress.

Although Alice had planned to eventually turn the house into a museum, in 1911 she had Studio House redecorated as a wedding present for her new husband.  But the couple divorced in 1920 and Alice lost interest in the house and Washington.  She spent two years in Europe and moved to Hollywood in 1923 where she died in 1931.  Her daughter Laura was listed as living in Studio House in between 1932 and 1933.  

Christian Hemmick.  Library of Congress.

After Alice’s death in 1931, her daughters inherited Studio House, which since then has housed amongst other tenants, the Embassy of Peru, 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 to a private buyer, becoming the Embassy of Latvia in November 2001.

Alice Pike Barney's Studio House, now the Embassy of Latvia.

This article was originally published in The InTowner Newspaper,  January 2014 edition.  Copyright © 2014 The Intowner Newspaper and Stephen A, Hansen.  All Rights Reserved.