On April 18, I enjoyed a sneak peak of the restoration underway at Clara Barton’s Civil War-era office and warehouse on 7th Street in downtown Washington, DC–where she worked and lived before founding the American Red Cross in 1881. The historic site opens to the public as a museum in fall 2014.
From the street, you’d never imagine that this was a nationally significant historic site. It’s a simple three-story brick building surrounded by restaurants, towering condos and offices, popular museums, and a major sports arena. Indeed, it was overlooked by those who were searching for it because it didn’t fit their image of a warehouse. Its historical significance was forgotten for most of the century until 1997, when a nightwatchman hired to keep vagrants out of the vacant building noticed a document jutting out from the ceiling. It turned out to be part of a cache of artifacts belonging to Clara Barton that had been stored in the attic crawlspace above what later was determined to be her office and warehouse. During the Civil War, she collected and stored supplies for soldiers on the battlefield on the third floor of this former boarding house and afterward, turned it into an office to reconnect families with more than 21,000 missing soldiers. She closed the office to aid soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War and her equipment and supplies were boxed and moved into the attic, where they remained for more than one hundred years. Her last home and office (which also served as a warehouse) is in nearby Glen Echo, Maryland and is now a National Historic Site (and I believe it’s the first NPS site that’s significant to women’s history).
Now managed by the General Services Administration (a federal agency), OLBN Architectural Services of Rockville, Maryland (my hometown!) is restoring the third floor to its 19th century appearance. The Museum of Civil War Medicine recently agreed to undertake the management and interpretation of this new historic site, with a planned opening in fall 2014. I’ve walked by this site many times (it’s between the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art) and always wondered what was inside, so I jumped at the invitation from Mark Rabinowitz, an architectural conservator at Conservation Solutions who is consulting on the project. I was fortunate that Andrea Mones gave the tour of the site–she’s a longtime employee with GSA and has worked on the project since it’s rediscovery. She walked through the unrestored rooms to share the history of the building, restoration goals, and recent discoveries (including a business card from a jeweler that Barton mentions in her diary!). It’s always amazing that signficant historic places continue to be discovered nearly untouched, a reminder to ignore those assumptions that everything historic has already been designated or identified.