Those who exist in the spirit are more easily with us than those obscured by the flesh.
For surely to haunt is more than to possess.
--Natalie Clifford Barney, daughter of Alice Pike Barney
Employees or visiting scholars at Alice Pike Barney's Studio House on Sheridan Circle, sold recently by the Smithsonian Institution, often told of what they encountered there: the clipping steps of high-heeled shoes, a glimpse of a peacock feather stuck in a chignon, a presence just on the edge of sight, unfamiliar music. Or was it the wind wafting through?
"I have worked off and on amidst the ghosts of Studio House for almost 30 years. To my mind, there is a special unnameable atmosphere," Jean L. Kling wrote in the preface to her splendid 1994 book about the building's storied owner, "Alice Pike Barney: Her Life and Art."
In 1987, Wanda M. Corn and her husband lived in the mansion's upstairs bedrooms. "The ghost, we were assured, was a friendly one. She was rarely seen, only heard, and music often accompanied her movements," wrote Corn, the former director of Stanford University's Humanities Center, in the introduction to Kling's book.
The phantom stories almost pale beside the verifiable facts.
Alice Pike Barney came to Washington in 1889 with grandiose plans for bringing culture to the uncouth capital.
"What is Capital life after all?" she said in 1902. "Small talk and lots to eat, an infinite series of teas and dinners. Art? There is none."
Alice took after her father, Samuel Napthali Pike, said to be "a dreamer of the beautiful." His dream came true when he built opera houses in Cincinnati and New York. His daughter's was to create art as well as a place to put it. That place was to be Studio House.
After her father's death in 1872, 17-year-old Alice, her mother, sisters and brothers went to Europe. In London she met the great African explorer Henry Morton Stanley of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame. They vowed to marry, but her mother refused her permission--and conspired with Alice's aunt to have Alice marry Albert Barney, whose father made a fortune in a railroad car factory.
Barney was the wrong choice for Alice Pike. But she was able to go to Europe again in the 1880s, study painting with the great artists James McNeill Whistler, Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt and consort with such literary luminaries as Oscar Wilde. And in 1903, the recently widowed Mrs. Barney, with the area's premier architect, Waddy Wood, designed the grand salon, home and studio at 2306 Massachusetts Ave. NW.
"Studio House was built less as a place for creating works of art than as a place of artistic enjoyment," said Joshua Taylor, the late director of what is now called the National Museum of American Art. "With missionary zeal and with slight regard for social conventions, Alice Barney carried her belief in the rewards of art to as broad a community as she could reach through theater, music and exhibitions."
The facade, it is said, was inspired by Whistler's London house, which she once rented. The major rooms have balconies, huge beamed ceilings, carved columns, handmade tile floors, peepholes and high fireplaces, and two floors house large theaters. There Anna Pavlova performed a ballet conceived by Alice Barney. George Arliss starred in a Barney play about Whistler, "Jimmie."
Among Mrs. Barney's guests were Presidents Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. Col. W.W. Harts was so entranced by his hostess that he built the Sylvan Theater on the Washington Monument grounds for the performance of her tableaux.
After a disappointing second marriage in 1911 to a much younger man--Alice in 1919 cut her ex-husband's name from her calling cards and invitations--she went to Hollywood, opened her own Theater Mart and wrote a succession of well-received one-act plays. She died in Los Angeles in 1931. In 1968, her daughters gave her studio house and some 200 artworks, including many of Alice Pike Barney's, to the National Museum of American Art and seven other institutions.
The new owners of Studio House, Jim and Julie Edmonds, who have a Falls Church music school and store, are prepared to test the truth of the legends. But, Edmonds said, "Our goal is to continue Mrs. Barney's legacy." They hope to use the house as a school for the arts, beginning with music instruction and eventually expanding to art, drama and dance classes.
Poet daughter Natalie Clifford Barney's epitaph could well apply to Alice herself: "I am this being of legend where I live again."
CAPTION: Alice Pike Barney in 1898, left, and at Studio House circa 1915.