WASHINGTON – Two doors down from the Starbucks on the corner of 7th and E streets NW is a piece of Civil War history long thought to be lost. A group of men and women gathered excitedly outside this week,some armed with cameras and notepads,waiting for tour guide Garrett Welch to take them to see Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office.
“This building was supposed to be torn down. It’s not supposed to be here,” Welch said.
Clara Barton – the woman who trundled first-aid supply wagons to Civil War battlefields to care for injured soldiers,the founder of the American Red Cross,the humanitarian who traveled the world – lived on the third floor during the Civil War. After the war,she transformed the space into an office where she and her clerks responded to more than 60,000 letters asking for help to find soldiers lost in the war.
Eventually Barton’s Missing Soldier’s Office also went missing. Instead of installing a fire escape to comply with early 20th century safety standards,the third floor was boarded up. In 1996,General Services Administration carpenter Richard Lyons discovered Barton’s paperwork and belongings as he was inventorying the building’s contents in preparation for its demolition,Welch said. He pointed out a corner of the now-restored ceiling where an envelope poking through led Lyons to find more than 100 boxes of artifacts in the attic.
In 2011,the GSA selected the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick,Md.,to manage the space at 437 7th St. NW. It will open as a museum in the fall,said George Wunderlich,the Civil War museum’s executive director. General admission is $5.
“She’s from your neighborhood,and I want to make this more than anything in the world first and foremost a neighborhood museum,” Wunderlich said.
GSA spent $1.75 million to renovate the building,and Wunderlich is trying to raise an additional $4.75 million to pay staff and outfit it with a security system and proper lighting for artifacts. Part of the money will also be set aside as an endowment to cover future costs. For now,visitors can tour the sparse space on Fridays,Saturdays and Sundays.
“It’s really just begun,” Wunderlich said.
Wunderlich,spoke about Barton’s life at a Smithsonian Associates event Wednesday. Those who attended the event were offered private tours of the renovated office.
Regina McDermott,68,of Silver Spring,Md.,a retired government information technologist,visited the office Thursday with her husband. She said she recently became interested in the Civil War,and the tour has piqued her interest in Barton.
“I want to get her books and read about it,read about her childhood. I’m just captivated by her now,” McDermott said.
Wunderlich hopes all visitors have an experience similar to McDermott’s. Besides educating visitors about the history of the office,Barton’s life and the history of the American Red Cross,Wunderlich said the museum will show what life was like in Washington during the Civil War. It will give a fuller picture of Barton as a humanitarian and explore how her ideas are still in use today. He plans to found an institute named after Barton dedicated to outlining humanitarian relief best practices.
“The thing I’m really hoping for is they come away with a sense like Clara had,that,‘If Clara can do this,I can change the world,too,’” Wunderlich said. “I actually want them to come away with the sense that they have the ability in their own time to do what Clara Barton did in her time.”
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