Long & Foster Real Estate

 

A RED BRICK ITALIANATE RESIDENCE in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., was home to artist Alma Thomas (1891-1978) for more than 70 years. The house played an integral role in her life and artistic practice.

The kitchen served as her studio, where she made the dab-patterned abstract paintings for which she is recognized. The natural elements that surrounded the home were a source of inspiration for her work—from the crepe myrtle tree in the backyard garden to a special holly tree that pushed against the panes of the bay window in the front living room.

“Why, the tree! The holly tree! I looked at the tree in the window, and that became my inspiration,” Thomas told a Washington Post reporter who visited the artist’s home two years before she died. “There are six patterns in there right now that I can see. And every morning since then, the wind has given me new colors through the windowpanes.”

“The holly tree! looked at the tree in the window, and that became my inspiration. There are six patterns in there right now that I can see. And every morning since then, the wind has given me new colors through the windowpanes.” – Alma Thomas

Located at 1530 15th Street, NW, the Alma Thomas House is for sale. The property went on the market May 14 for $2,274,900. The four bedroom, three-and-a-half bath detached home is 2,800 square feet. The current owners purchased it in 2014, for $1.9 million.

Built in about 1875, the residence is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s also a D.C. Historic Site, part of Washington’s African American Heritage Trail, and a contributing property to the Greater Fourteenth Street Historic District.

Susan Fitzpatrick of Long & Foster Real Estate is handling the sale. I reached out to Fitzpatrick by phone to ask her about the listing. She said the homeowners are selling because they are relocating for work.

Asked whether the home’s connection to Thomas was a factor in their decision to buy the property, she said no. However, having lived in the home for six years, the homeowners have come to learn about Thomas and appreciate her work. “They have her book on their coffee table,” she said.

It’s too early to assess interest in the home, Fitzpatrick said, as the listing had only been active for one day. In her experience, a home’s historic designation does not increase its appeal to buyers. She doesn’t imagine the home belonging to an important African American artist will have any real bearing on the sale.

“It might pull somebody in, but it would not be enough to make somebody put an offer on a $2.3 million home,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s a beautiful home and it’s got a cool story.”

 


The front yard of the home at 1530 15th Street, NW, sans the holly tree that perpetually inspired Alma Thomas. The National Register of Historic Places plaque is installed to the left of the front door. | Long & Foster Real Estate

 

THOMAS WAS A TEENAGER, when she arrived in the nation’s capital. She moved with her family from Columbus, Ga., to Washington, D.C., when she was 16. Her parents purchased the 15th Street home in 1907 and Thomas lived there throughout most of her life, until her death in 1978.

Her sister J. Maurice Thomas resided at the house until she passed in 2004. Upon her death, the home went to their great nephew. He sold the home in 2013 for $900,000. After a major renovation, the home was purchased by the current homeowners, who have put the property up for sale.

In front of the property, a D.C. Historic Site sign describing Thomas as “a nationally acclaimed abstract artist” reminds visitors of the home’s history and notable former resident.

An artist and educator, Thomas studied under James A. Porter at Howard University where she was the first student in the school’s history to earn a bachelor of fine arts degree. She went on to teach public school for 35 years at Shaw Junior High School, where introducing her students to art and creative pursuits was central to her curriculum.

Thomas was an active and important member of the arts community in 19th century Washington. She was founding vice president of the Barnett-Aden Gallery. Established in 1943 by James V. Herring (founder of Howard’s art department in 1922) and Alonzo J. Aden (founder and first curator of Howard’s art gallery), it was one of the first black-owned art galleries in the nation. She was also involved with the Little Paris Group, which was co-founded in 1946 by Céline Tabary and Lois Mailou Jones, the artist and textile designer who taught at Howard.

At American University, Thomas studied with artist Jacob Kainen. Her practice developed during the same period that the Washington Color School, including artists such as Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Gene Davis, and Tom Downing, was recognized as a movement (1950s-70s). She shared social and aesthetic connections with the artists, who also looked to Kainen as a mentor.

In the early 1950s, Thomas added onto the home, building an extension at the rear that included a bath and kitchen, the latter serving as her art studio.

IN THE EARLY 1950S, Thomas added onto the home, building an extension at the rear that included a bath and expanded the kitchen, the latter serving as her art studio.

When she retired in 1960 at age 68, Thomas devoted herself full-time to her practice. By the mid-1960s, she had transitioned from figuration to abstraction and became known for her concentration on color, form, pattern, and rhythm.

Within a dozen years of retiring, she had a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The 1972 exhibition was historic. Thomas was the first black female artist to have a solo show at the museum.

Thomas is represented in the collections of many major museums, including the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, National Gallery of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art, and National Museum of Women in the Arts.

She has gained increasing regard in recent years. In 2016, the Studio Museum in Harlem and Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College co-organized a significant survey exhibition. Last year, Mnuchin Gallery mounted “Alma Thomas: Resurrection,” a solo show presented works dating from 1959 to 1976 drawn from public and private collections.

 


ALMA THOMAS, “Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto,” 1973 (acrylic on canvas, 35 x 52 inches / 89.0 x 132.2 cm). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1975.92.2

 

THE LONGTIME HOME of Thomas was central to her creativity. The property was registered with the National Park Service (NPS) as a historic landmark in 1987 after J. Maurice Thomas, the artist’s sister, filed the necessary registration forms.

Maurice noted the kitchen renovation and described the connection between Thomas’s work and the home. “…[Her] art is closely bound up with impressions of nature as experienced in the environment where she lived for more than 70 years [in] the city of Washington and particularly with the visible world as she perceived it through the windows of the house…,” she wrote.

She also emphasized the cultural and historic relevance of the home’s location in the application: “Besides providing an influential living and working environment to Alma Thomas, the house at 1530 15th Street, N.W. is a tangible reminder that, in the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, 15th Street was part of an important black middle-class neighborhood, populated by professionals, scholars, educators, ministers and artists.”

“Besides providing an influential living and working environment to Alma Thomas, the house at 1530 15th Street, N.W. is a tangible reminder that, in the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, 15th Street was part of an important black middle-class neighborhood, populated by professionals, scholars, educators, ministers and artists.”
— National Register of Historic Places Registration Form

Before the Thomas’s moved into the home, the previous owner was Rosa Douglass Sprague, a D.C. public school teacher and granddaughter of Frederick Douglass. Other prominent neighbors, were educators and all manner of professionals.

In the 1920s and 30s, poet Georgia Douglas Johnson hosted a literary salon in her nearby home at 15th and S Streets, NW. Johnson’s husband, Henry Lincoln Johnson, served as recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia in the Taft administration. On Saturday nights the couple welcomed the likes of Carter G. Woodson, Marita Bonner, May Miller, and Langston Hughes. When they were in town, W.E.B. Du Bois and Jean Toomer visited their home, too. The group was called the “Saturday Nighters.”

Thomas worshiped in the neighborhood. Two doors down from the home, Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church is located at 1514 15th St, NW. Thomas was active at the church throughout her life. Founded in 1876, St. Lukes is the first independent black Episcopal Church in the District of Columbia.

Maurice concluded the NPS registration form with the following passage: “The house where [Alma Thomas] lived and created for so many years is a landmark not only because it was the home of a major artist and devoted teacher, concerned with younger artists and with the city’s children, it was also integral, in the visual experiences it offered her, to the very nature of her art.” CT

 


Alma Thomas House (September 1986): The large holly tree in front of the bay window, that inspired the work of Alma Thomas, is gone now. Originally red brick, the home was painted white at some point. Renovated in 2014, the red brick exterior was restored. | Photo by Alison Luchs, DC Office of Historic Preservation

 


This historical marker stating the Alma Thomas House is in the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places (as of July 28, 1987) is installed on the exterior of the home on the left side of the front door. | Photo by Devry Becker, Historical Marker Database

 


A sign on the front gate indicates the Alma Thomas House is included among Washington, D.C.’s African American Heritage Trail sites, a project of Cultural Tourism DC, in cooperation with the DC Office of Planning, Historic Preservation Office. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

FIND MORE about Alma Thomas on Culture Type

 

BOOKSHELF
“Alma Thomas Resurrection” coincides with a recent exhibition at Mnuchin Gallery in New York City. “Alma Thomas” was published to accompany the exhibition organized by the Tang Teaching Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem. “Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings,” documents the traveling exhibition organized by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art (1998-2000). An earlier catalog, “A Life in Art: Alma W. Thomas, 1891-1978,” was published on the occasion of a Smithsonian exhibition (1981–1982).

 

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