A home for Civil War history
Thursday, November 4, 2010
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 St. 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.