The designer: Leon Bakst, a renowned ballet scenery and costume designer whose work is featured in the National Gallery of Art’s Ballets Russes exhibit.
The house: Evergreen Mansion, a neo-classic, 48-room estate on Baltimore’s North Charles Street.
The challenge: Convert Ambassador John W. Garrett’s boyhood gymnasium into a theater. Turn the bowling alley into an Asian art gallery. And do something about all that Victorian clutter in the dining room. (As decorated by Warder Garrett’s recently deceased mother-in-law.)
The results: You’ll have to go see for yourself. But if you’ve already been to “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music,” now is a good time to learn more about Bakst, who lived in Baltimore with the Garretts on and off from 1922 until his premature death in Paris in 1924. At Evergreen you can see dozens of Bakst’s paintings and drawings, his elaborately stenciled theater and his only surviving sets. His work is stunning. But equally fascinating is the story of the Washington heiress who became the confidante, agent and muse of Leon Bakst, and a “Dame Patroness” of the Ballets Russes.
The painter and the patron
The tractors, reapers and hay mowers of middle America made Alice Warder a privileged heiress of the Gilded Age. Born in 1877, she was the daughter of an Ohio businessman who started a farm machinery firm that became International Harvester. He retired at 36 and moved his family to Washington. Warder spent her teen years at a faux-Burgundy castle on K Street. (It was relocated to 16th Street in mid-1920s, and is now the 38-unit Warder Mansion condominium complex). They were an artsy family; Stanford White designed her father’s Rock Creek Cemetery sarcophagus, and the family donated sculptures that are still on exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
In 1905, Warder met John Work Garrett in Berlin, when he was second secretary at the U.S. Embassy and she was a dilettante voice student. Like so many couples then and now, they reconnected in Washington. When they married in 1908, the nuptials were covered by the press with a zeal now reserved for the likes of Will and Kate. Although Garrett spent three decades at the State Department, his grandfather was president of the B&O Railroad, and Garrett County was named for his family. A Baltimore Sun engagement announcement described her as “a prominent young society woman and traveler” who was “a linguist of remarkable ability and a fine literary critic.”
They were married on Christmas Eve by the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church. From there, it was off to embassies in Italy, Venezuela and Argentina. During World War I, they both received State Department commissions to work in Paris. Together with novelist Edith Wharton and her Washingtonian friend Mildred Bliss (of Dumbarton Oaks), Warder Garrett organized concerts for out-of-work musicians and used the proceeds to fund French refugee hostels. She put in hours in a Red Cross uniform, but she also found time to go to the opera, the ballet and quite a few Parisian soirees.