The restored Clara Burton House in Glen Echo, home of the petite "Angel of the Battlefield" and early offices of the Red Cross she founded, will be dedicated tomorrow in ceremonies launching the centennial anniversary convention of the Red Cross.
Barton founded what has become America's largest humanitarian organization in May 1881, after working among the wounded on Civil War battlefields and with the newly formed International Red Cross in Europe during the Franco-Prussian War.
In addition to the convention and the displays and special events this month at the Clara Burton House, the Smithsonian Institute has opened a summer-long Red Cross exhibit at the National Museum of American History, and the National Park Service this week published an 80-page biography and handbook on Barton.
The restored offices and other rooms in the 38-room house contain many of Barton's original furnishings -- even her tin sitzbath tub -- and hundreds of pieces of memorabilia from the fledgling Red Cross. The house provides a fascinating glimpse into the early days of the Red Cross and the latter days of the dimunitive Barton, who was 5 feet tall and weighed 90 pounds.
Barton spent 10 years lobbying for U.S. approval of the 1864 Geneva Convention for protection of the wounded on battlefields, which, in effect, gave the newly formed American Red Cross its charter. She was 60 when the Red Cross Society was formed in 1881, and 83 when she resigned, amid charges of administrative and financial mismanagement.
The Red Cross moved its headquarters to downtown Washington in 1904, following the break with Barton. She died at Glen Echo in 1912, at the age of 91.
The three-and-a-half-story Glen Echo house oringally was built as a warehouse, using boards salvaged from the huge Red Cross shelters that had housed thousands of victims of the Johnstown, Pa., flood of 1889. The flood was the first major natural disaster in which the Red Cross provided relief.
The barn-like building, dubbed "steamboat Gothic" architecture by some, was put in haphazard fashion by carpenters employed by Glen Echo's developers, who gave Barton the land.
Plagued by fires and malaria scares, the "Washington on the Rhine," as the Glen Echo development was billed in Victorian advertising, wound up as a few stone houses and a cultural center that declined into an amusement park.
The Barton house and the amusement park were both acquired in 1975 by the National Park Service. The former amusement park, cleaned up but unrestored, is now a local arts center, though budget restrictions have forced the park service to cut back many of its programs.
Until this spring, when reinforcing steel beams were placed under the Barton house, structural problems prohibited more than a few dozen visitors at one time, according to Park Service Ranger Sandy Weber, who has spent almost five years in charge of the project, researching the house and the life of Clara Barton.
"We couldn't put more than 17 people on the third floor, 25 on the second and 35 on the first at one time . . . so we didn't encourage visitors. But now we're ready," she said.
The house contains extensive Red Cross and Clara Barton collections, gifts from foreign governments, original and period furnishings and many of the original stained-glass glass windows, doors and flags Barton loved. It also retains the cold, musty, damp atmosphere that Barton often complained about in her diaries, said Weber, who noted that she herself wore long underwear most of the winter. A new heating system will soon be installed, she added.
The house also is the home of a Friend of Clara Barton, one of the founders of the group of area residents organized to buy and preserve the house in 1963, when developers wanted to buy and demolish it.
Ethel Hartman, now in her 80s, is a former secretary of the preservative group. She has lived for 10 years in one of the eight apartments created in the house during its Depression days as a boarding house.
Hartman, a Philadelphia native and Vassar graduate who was a Red Cross volunteer at the end of World War 1, was living near Glen Echo when neighbors heard that developers wanted to destroy the house.
"There were 18 of us who put $25 each in the kitty and managed to raise half of the money to buy it by April 1963," she recalled. To pay off the mortgage on the $35,000 house, and to maintain the property, "we kept (and rented out) the apartments . . . and I moved in after my husband died," Hartman said. She pays slightly more than $100 a month to rent her small quarters.
The Friends of Clara Barton spent nearly $100,000 on the house before turning it over to the park service in 1975. They disbanded last fall and gave their remaining funds, $8,400, to help the park service restore the offices.
"We sort of inherited her (Hartman) with the building," park services spokeswoman Sandra Alley said last week. "And we were lucky. She knew all the history, gave tours . . . and she pays rent."
The Clara Barton National Historical Site has special weekend programs, usually twice a month. These include demonstrations of 19th century crafts, photography, children's stories and games. They are supervised by volunteers in Edwardian costumes. Admission to the house is free; it is open Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., Sunday afternoons from 1 until 5, and Thursdays and Fridays by reservation only, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. To make reservations or inquiries, telephone 492-6245.