Can the grand drama surrounding the sale of a landmark Washington mansion built as a salon for the arts end now that the house has been sold?

The new owners of the 96-year-old Alice Pike Barney Studio House, on Sheridan Circle NW on Embassy Row, hope so. Others aren't so sure.

James H. Edmonds, owner of Foxes Music Co. in Falls Church, and his wife, Julie, a science education specialist at the Carnegie Institution, bought the mansion last month, after it had been on the market four years. They pledge to turn the five-story building into a music school, opening it occasionally to the public and keeping intact much of the interior, including most furnishings.

"Our purpose is to make the house live again," said Jim Edmonds, 60. "We intend to use it, basically, for the same purposes Alice Pike Barney did--music and arts and lessons."

The Edmondses, working with independent real estate agent Pat Henryk, paid the Smithsonian Institution $850,000 for the property, assessed at more than $3 million in 1995. They also have bought "just about everything that was on the two floors" with historic designation, for about $100,000, Julie Edmonds said.

The Smithsonian believes the sale offers a harmonious solution to its long-standing problem of owning a large property needing major repairs. Barney's daughters donated the property in 1960, and the Smithsonian partially restored it in 1979, opening the two uniquely furnished lower floors to special tours. It was closed in 1991 as an economy move.

But the Friends of the Alice Pike Barney Studio House see little to rejoice about in the sale.

The group had sought since 1993 to persuade the Smithsonian to preserve the Spanish mission-style house, designed by architect Waddy Wood, and its eclectic furnishings--or to sell or give it to a nonprofit group. The building, they said, should stand intact in tribute to Barney, a one-woman culture and arts machine who died in 1931.

The group called the decision to sell without covenants covering furnishings and public access "an example of poor stewardship."

"There were several organizations who would have been appropriate owners," said Friends member Sally Berk, ". . . but they could not come up with the Smithsonian's price and renovate the house."

The Smithsonian, Berk said, "sadly, put price above the cultural significance of the property. . . . I maintain they would never have treated a mastodon the way they treated the Barney house."

The Smithsonian agrees nonprofits, including the Friends, said they did not have the resources to buy. But "we're not in the business of maintaining buildings we can't use," said David Umansky, chief public information officer.

One reason the Smithsonian said it couldn't use the house was the $3 million price tag attached to meeting standards required of Smithsonian facilities. Smithsonian officials said the daughters' gift allowed the house to be sold, with the proceeds going to support the Alice Pike Barney art collection at the National Museum of American Art or to foster arts.

Barney, a socialite, artist and playwright, used the house as a studio, residence and a salon for entertaining prominent artists and politicians of her time. Among those who participated in musicales and performances were Enrico Caruso, Sarah Bernhardt and Anna Pavlova.

Even in affairs of the heart, she left her mark. At 17 she met and won over reporter/explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who found the missing Dr. David Livingstone in Africa. According to Washington historian Stephen May, they even signed a secret marriage pact. But in her signature dramatic style, Alice Pike married a Dayton millionaire instead.