The Washington Post

A mystery about Clara Barton lingers as visitors center opens

By February, the visitors center for the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office museum in downtown Washington will be open, according to museum superintendent Susan Rosenvold who spoke last week to the Harpers Ferry Civil War Roundtable. It will be located on the first floor of the commercial building at 437 7thSt. NW., where Barton lived in rented rooms on the third floor from 1861 to 1868.

Rosenvold is employed by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, which is managing the museum. The third floor museum is expected to open by September 2013, she said.

Rosenvold has been studying Barton’s diaries, letters and files to better understand the woman who was known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” for her work with injured soldiers at field hospitals during the war. It was in one of her diaries that she found a mysterious entry.

When Barton moved out of her 7thStreet rooms in December 1868, she wrote that her new and much better quarters were at “Pennsylvania and Capitol Hill.” There is no obvious place today that corresponds to that address. Capitol Hill was a neighborhood that spread all around the Capitol building in the 1860s, and today is mostly concentrated to the east of that landmark. Pennsylvania Avenue SE ends at the Capitol grounds and begins again at the bottom of hill and is Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

Rosenvold is hoping someone can help her find the building or site where Barton moved.

The story of the discovery and eventual preservation of Barton’s residence and office has been drawn out over 15 years. In 1997, the building was slated for demolition by the General Services Administration when a carpenter surveying the building happened on a cache of Barton’s files she had stored in a crawl space above Room 9. He also found a brass sign that read, “Missing Soldiers Office, 3rd story, Room 9, Miss Clara Barton.” Until then Barton’s connection to the building had been forgotten. The demolition was called off.

It was in Room 9 where Barton established her Missing Soldiers Office in 1865 to help desperate families find soldiers who had not come home. It appears that room had been her residence until she established the office there. It is believed she then rented another nearby room for herself. By the time she closed that office in 1868, she and her staff had compiled a list of 21,000 names of missing soldiers and handled 63,000 letters regarding the men.

A few years after Barton left 7th Street, the landlord boarded up the third floor and it remained that way until the building was to be demolished.

When discovered, Barton’s office was in surprisingly good condition with the plaster mostly intact and patterned wallpaper still decorating the walls. The stenciled numbers for the various rooms were on the doors. The floors were solid. However, there was no one interested in preserving the space and operating it as a museum.

When Hurricane Isabel hit Washington in 2003, water poured into the third floor through a leaky roof. The plaster and the wallpaper were destroyed. The floors were heavily damaged. It was seven years after that when the Civil War medicine museum signed a lease with GSA.

 “The whole room was mostly gone,” Rosenvold said. The extensive restoration has slowed the opening of the museum, she said.

The visitors’ center will offer an introduction to Barton and what she accomplished in that building, Rosenvold said.

 

 

 

 

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