When the Baltzley brothers were looking for a celebrity to live in their new development of Glen Echo late in the 19th century, they snagged a real star in the person of Clara Barton. They lured the world-renowned founder of the American Red Cross, who had become famous for caring for Civil War soldiers, by promising her a free home, built to her specifications.
Just over the District line in Glen Echo, the house today is a perfectly preserved remnant of a different era, reflecting the tastes and needs of the woman who commissioned it and who lived there until her death in 1912.
Completed in 1891, it sits on a quiet, wooded neighborhood lot. Walk through the front door and you're instantly transported back a century: The light is dim, the paneling dark and the furniture and fixtures are late Victorian.
Although the house was in private hands until 1975 -- and once even divided into apartments -- the owners apparently maintained a sense of stewardship for the place, leaving it largely the way it was. They even forbid smoking, decades before many public buildings did so. Much of the furniture there today actually belonged to Barton. Since the National Park Service acquired the house, preservation efforts have completed the picture.
Clara Barton used her house not only as a residence, but as the headquarters of the American Red Cross, which was fitting, considering how much her personal and professional lives merged. Her office, and that of her staff, for example, open right up into her dining room. In the entrance hall, visitors can see closets where she kept Red Cross relief supplies, while many of the bedrooms were set aside for visiting volunteers. In fact, only two rooms were for Barton's personal use: her bedroom and sitting room.
The completely restored offices contain fascinating remnants of technology in its infancy, including early typewriters, telephones, letter presses and a wax-cylinder graphaphone used for dictation.
Barton's personality is evident throughout. In her frugality, she insisted the ceilings not be plastered, but left with just a muslin cloth base. She even stuffed newspapers in one ceiling for insulation. Some of the wood in the house was salvaged from President William McKinley's inaugural reviewing stand.
Her personal touches include mementos from her world travels, such as the sites of 18 major disasters during her tenure as head of the Red Cross, and portraits of some of her beloved pets. Barton's furniture was fairly conventional for the time (though she was an original in her alternative use of closets).
Nearly every room of the Clara Barton house is open to the public, providing a satisfying glimpse of life a century ago and of the unique woman who occupied the house.
--- Michael Farquhar