Art Works Blog

Art I Heart

Washington, DC

Text and photos by Victoria Hutter

This callbox honors Alice Pike Barney (1857-1931) , an American painter--and DC hostess--known for her portraits.

They seemed to pop up over night in Woodley Park. Three vintage fire and police call boxes, with their graceful?albeit rusting?wrought iron design, had been transformed into art. Well, in my case, art and history. The boxes had been gussied up with a blast of colors and a panel inside the frame that featured a photo and description of famous local residents from the past.

Here, for example at 27th Street and Woodley Road, is Harry Wardman whose Wardman homes and apartments once housed as many as 80,000 DC residents. The hotel he built in 1928 still stands as part of the Marriott Wardman Hotel at Connecticut Avenue and Woodley Road.

Harry Wardman was one of DC's most successfull real estate developers in the early 20th century.

But what was going on here? Who was creating art in my neighborhood?

A little research revealed that in the 1860s call boxes were installed all over the District as part of an emergency network for fire workers and the police. In the 1970s, with the creation of the 911 system, the boxes were rendered obsolete. Too heavy to remove, they stood for decades deteriorating, ignored, or defaced.

That is until 2002 when Cultural Tourism DC created the Art on Call project, partnering with the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the DC Department of Transportation. The goal was to transform the sad but elegant remnants of DC?s past into lively displays of local history and art. Of the 1,100 abandoned boxes still standing at that time more than 120 have been recast into public art intended to reflect the special characteristics (and characters) of their surrounding neighborhoods.

Here are some fun examples.

One of 12 call boxes in Mt. Pleasant and Sheridan-Kalorama featuring bronze sculptures by Michael K. Ross.

In Mount Pleasant, you can visit the work of artist Michael K. Ross whose boxes feature engaging sculpted scenes. At the corner of Kenyon and 18th is A Village Comes to Life: Mount Pleasant after the Civil War.  The work evokes the early days of Mount Pleasant when it was a growing community of workers who traveled to downtown jobs via horse-drawn transport through the farms and forests that separated the village from the still-young capital city.

Close-up of a callbox by Arlette Jassel, an artist residing in Bethesda, Maryland.

In Dupont Circle at 21st and R, Arlette Jassel?s lively watercolor of images from the neighborhood shares the plaque with a factoid about the graceful homes built nearby between 1890 and 1910. Some of the wealthy families living in those houses came to DC for the social season of January to April (especially when a daughter stood a good chance of meeting a prospective husband).

Just down the street at 22nd and R is a painting of a painter painting (see top of this post). The depicted artist is Alice Pike Barney. A student of James Whistler, Pike also worked to make Washington a nexus of art and culture.

Another neighborhood with Art on Call projects is Sheridan/Kalorama. So get out there and go for a walk around the city and see what art you can find.

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