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Clara Barton's D.C. home and office may be converted into museum

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 8:18 PM

Richard S. Lyons was a carpenter checking on the decrepit building that had fallen into the hands of the government. He was alone, and it was raining. He had gone to the vacant third floor of the structure in downtown Washington, when he heard a noise.

He looked around but found nothing. He heard it again - like something moving around - in another part of the warren of crumbling rooms. Again, he found nothing. Then, as he tells it, he thought he felt a tap on his shoulder.

He turned around. Glancing up, he spied an old envelope hanging from a hole in the ceiling. It was message from the past - an entree of sorts into a lost story of the famous Civil War nurse and Red Cross humanitarian Clara Barton.

Fourteen years later, the forgotten place that Lyons found that rainy day in 1996 might soon become a museum honoring the legendary war-time figure, in the building where she once lived and ran her Civil War "missing in action" office.

An open house is scheduled for Thursday at the site, 437 Seventh Street NW. It will be hosted by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, which is hammering out an agreement with the federal government's General Services Administration to run the facility.

The GSA has control over the parts of the old boardinghouse that have been set aside for the new museum. The Frederick-based medical museum has vast expertise in Civil War medicine.

Both sides said they are elated.

"We're a good fit," said George C. Wunderlich, executive director of the medical museum, which has a focus on Clara Barton's work.

"We're thrilled to be working with them," said Caroline Alderson, an official with the GSA's national preservation office in Washington. "It's been a 10-year search. It's . . . good timing for both of us."

The effort comes at the start of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War - the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's election is Saturday - and Washington area tourism officials have scheduled a preview of some events Thursday at Washington's Willard Hotel.

But this week, Lyons, who has served as a kind of guardian of the Barton site, and experts with the medical museum visited the building to prepare for the open house.

Even after all this time, it still seems haunted by Barton.

Insight into a life

The simple, white-washed pine partition that historians think Barton had built to create a bedroom is still there. Hunks of the striped wallpaper she hung, now crumbled and peeling, remain.

There are old gas-light fixtures, a metal thimble, the tips of old fountain pens, a scrap of newspaper from 1858, shreds of what Lyons thinks is dark bunting from Lincoln's funeral.

There was more of that, and many other things, said Lyons, 63, of Northeast Washington, when he got a ladder and climbed to what turned out to be a hidden storage attic above the ceiling one day in November 1996.

He retrieved the envelope, which was addressed to a neighbor of Barton's, and pulled himself up through a hole in the ceiling. Crawling on his knees, he felt a flat piece of metal resting face-down on the rafters. He turned it over.

"Missing Soldiers Office," it read in ornate gold lettering on a black background. "3rd. Story. Room 9. Miss. Clara Barton."

There were also stacks of Civil War newspapers, hundreds of yards of the funeral bunting. There was also a Civil War bayonet, writing materials, an ink bottle and a rare, printed list of hundreds of missing soldiers whose families had asked Barton to find them.

The GSA, the government's purchasing, real estate and building agency, said it collected 2,016 artifacts from the site, now in secure storage in 266 boxes.

Lyons had stumbled on a trove that illuminated an often forgotten segment of Barton's long and illustrious life.

Well known for her dogged battlefield nursing during the Civil War and her later role as the first president of the American Red Cross, she is commemorated at the National Park Service's Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo. She lived there the last 15 years of her life.

Perhaps less well known is the MIA office she ran out of her boarding house after the war. There, starting in 1865, she operated the "Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army."

Their 'darling' boys

Tens of thousands of Union soldiers vanished during the war - most killed in action and buried in ill-marked battlefield graves, museum experts said.

Anguished families began appealing to the well-known Barton for information about their "darling" boys, often enclosing pictures and descriptions, historians say. She began compiling lists of the missing and circulating them across the country.

She handled more than 60,000 pieces of correspondence and helped determine the fate of thousands of missing men.

To this day, the number nine remains painted on her third-floor door, along with a mail slot she paid 50 cents to have cut into the wood to receive letters.

The GSA also thinks the 1853 building, which for many years housed a first-floor shoe store, may be the last intact boardinghouse in Washington.

The agency estimates that the medical museum will need to raise about $1.7 million to establish the Clara Barton museum.

"There's something about this place," Wunderlich said Tuesday, as he sat in a chair in the empty, ghostly third-floor space. "You can feel the history here. . . . It so permeates."

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