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A Sentinel in the Preservation of a Clara Barton Home

Richard Lyons, in his work as a carpenter for the General Services Administration, discovered an office and residence of Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross. The building, on Seventh Street NW in the District, was scheduled for demolition, but it will now house a Barton museum.
Richard Lyons, in his work as a carpenter for the General Services Administration, discovered an office and residence of Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross. The building, on Seventh Street NW in the District, was scheduled for demolition, but it will now house a Barton museum. (By Mark Gong -- The Washington Post)
By Linda Wheeler
Thursday, August 10, 2006

Red Cross founder Clara Barton must have had a guardian angel when she followed the troops onto the battlefield and nursed the injured. As she cared for one young soldier, a bullet tore through her sleeve and killed him.

After the Civil War, she headed an office in the District, initially using her own money to search for soldiers missing in action and reconnect them with their families.

Now that office space, carved out of an apartment where she lived, has a guardian angel.

He is Richard Lyons, a General Services Administration carpenter who stumbled on Barton's living and working quarters when he discovered government files and clothing that she had stashed in a crawl space above her bedroom in 1869 before leaving for Europe. Barton returned to the area and in 1897 set up her Glen Echo home and headquarters, now the Clara Barton National Historic Site.

Nine years ago, the building, at 437 Seventh St. NW, was to be demolished. Lyons, checking the roof for leaks, noticed an envelope between a ceiling and the attic. That led him into the dark recesses of the crawl space, where he found files, a metal sign advertising the missing soldiers offices and a blouse with a bullet hole.

Lyons became an instant hero to the preservation community.

The GSA, which had taken over the property from the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. after it went out of business, promptly reversed the corporation's demolition order and announced plans to create a museum in the apartment dedicated to Barton's Civil War work.

Since then, Lyons has protected the third-floor space. He does his job well. At age 59, he has a deep knowledge of carpentry, which he first learned about from his grandfather in Tennessee, and the wisdom that comes from living in the District for a long time.

The Barton building is part of a long row of Victorian commercial buildings on Seventh Street with restored facades and new interiors. The work was done by JPI Development following GSA preservation guidelines. Behind them is a new 10-story residential building named the Clara Barton Condominiums.

As the rest of the Barton building, once a shoe store, has been turned into office space, Lyons's job has been to make sure that no one damages or alters the third floor. He has had to fend off the curious and the treasure seekers and admonish plumbers and electricians looking for an easy way to string wiring or place pipes.

For him, it's personal.

"I remember it was the night before Thanksgiving, and I came here to check the roof," he said as he stood in the soft light of the seven-foot windows that once lighted Barton's office. "I was by myself. I heard something in the back, but when I checked, I didn't find anything. There weren't any lights here, and I was using my flashlight.


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