The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Summer Wind to Ban-y-Bryn
It is currently the "dog days of summer" here in Washington, DC; hot, humid, and sticky. Last week (July 14-20) the daily temperatures were in the upper 90’s, with humidity regularly hovering over 70%. The streets and Smithsonian museums are filled with tourists, many of whom are surprised at how unforgiving the weather can be during July and August; sunrise temperatures rarely fall below 80, and the humidity is even higher before the scorching sun emerges to burn off the lingering malaise. While many are drawn to the city during summer vacation to explore the seemingly unlimited national sites and monuments, (a friendly tip; many of the Smithsonian museums hold extended summer hours, admission is free, and the museums are air conditioned!) those who live in DC and surrounding suburbs often flee to regions with more moderate temperatures and open spaces, a tradition that began far before swampland along the Potomac River was transformed into our nation’s capital.
Alice Pike Barney (1857-1931) was an artist, actor, playwright, and socialite. The daughter of Cincinnati millionaire and patron of the arts Samuel Napthali Pike, Alice was born into a life of privilege. She married Albert Clifford Barney, son of a wealthy manufacturer of railway cars, prior to her twentieth birthday. The Barney's had two daughters, Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972) and Laura Clifford Barney (1879-1974). The family split their time between New York City and Paris, France, until 1900, when they purchased a home in Washington, DC. Well aware of the steamy summers of the eastern United States, the Barney's would vacation in Bar Harbor, Maine, and in 1888, commissioned a "summer cottage" in Bar Harbor they named "Ban-y-Bryn." Designed by Architect S. V. Stratton, Ban-y-Bryn was built on a steep bluff, with the front of the cottage facing the rustic Maine landscape. The rear of the home, with its prominent turret and several grand porches, overlooked Frenchman's Bay. Rising to four stories, the home consisted of 27 rooms, including seven bedrooms, five bathrooms, five fireplaces, a large stable, seven servants' bedrooms, and additional servants' facilities. The top floor was reserved as studio space for Ms. Barney and her artistic pursuits. Ban-y-Bryn's exterior was constructed of granite. The interior featured exotic hardwoods and materials, and was furnished with antiques acquired by the Barney’s during their global travels.
The Barney Studio House (the Washington, DC residence of Alice Pike Barney) and its contents were given to the Smithsonian in 1960 by Natalie Pike Barney and Laura Clifford Dreyfuss-Barney for use as a cultural arts center. There are three individual Alice Pike Barney collections in the Archives. Accession 96-153 - Alice Pike Barney Papers, 1861-1965, includes a significant collection of photographs, including a few which feature Ban-y-Bryn's interior and exterior, as well as the social and artistic scene the Barney's enjoyed. The images personify the Victorian Era in America, and it appears that the Barney's spared little expense. The Barney women adorned themselves lavishly; long dresses and fashionable hats were commonplace. The facial expressions and poses captured in the photographs convey a heightened level of elegance. The interior images are equally impressive, and lead one to ponder where one would have found time to acquire such remarkable possessions while maintaining a highly active social schedule; such plights of the wealthy must have indeed been tiresome and required daily respites on the veranda, drawing in deep breaths of the sea air.
Record Unit 7473 - Alice Pike Barney Papers, circa 1889-1995, is the largest of the three collections, and features several of Ms. Barney’s original plays, mime dramas, ballets, short stories, and novel-length works. This collection also includes architectural drawings of Ban-y-Bryn. Accession 96-154 - Alice Pike Barney Papers, circa 1890-1994, focuses on records related to the Barney Studio House. Alice Pike Barney and her daughters, Natalie and Laura, immersed themselves in art, and indulged in the world of the social elite during America's Gilded Age. Ban-y-Bryn was one of their many luxuries; interest in the home began to fade as their respective pursuits and tastes evolved over time. The Barney's sold their marvelous summer dwelling in 1930. Sadly, Ban-y-Bryn was one of 67 summer cottages incinerated in the Bar Harbor fire of October 1947. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the images of Ban-y-Bryn in Accession 96-163 breathe new life into this remarkable home, and permit viewers to fantasize of the high times that once occurred within its walls and among its landscape. A brief walk, just moments ago, on the streets of Washington, DC, where it is currently 93 degrees and hazy, quickly dispatch such daydreams, and leave me longing for a cool breeze along the shores of Bar Harbor.
- Accession 96-153 - Alice Pike Barney Papers, 1861-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 96-154 - Alice Pike Barney Papers, circa 1890-1994, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7473 - Alice Pike Barney Papers, circa 1889-1995, Smithsonian Institution Archives