Finding Clara Barton's Missing Soldiers Office

During and right after the Civil War, Clara Barton's base of operations was a boarding house on Seventh Street, down the street from the current-day Verizon Center. 

For more than a century, that bit of history was lost--lost almost permanently, as the neighborhood declined and rejuvenation involved large-scale change. Fortunately, it went from a possible teardown to a saved structure to "now what do we do with it?" to a lovely small museum at 437 Seventh Street NW, the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office.

Photo from Advisory Council on Historic Preservation

Photo from Advisory Council on Historic Preservation

I first came up on the building a few years ago, when it existed someplace between "now what?" and "we're open." At that time, signage on the windows explained the Clara Barton connection and plans for renovation. Since then I returned a few times as a visitor and recently helped conduct research on the building's owner, Susan Ireland. But that's the subject of a future post. 

For now, let me tell you about a lecture at the museum last week by Caroline Alderson and Elizabeth Hannold from the General Services Administration. The GSA? Yes, that is part of the story.

Back in the Day

In the mid-1800s, Seventh Street stretched from wharves at its southern end, past a bustling Central Market, and alongside buildings like the General Post Office (now the Hotel Monaco), Patent Office (now the National Portrait Gallery). "Clara's" building had shops on the first floor, offices on the second, and residences on the third, typical for the time. Yes, "mixed-use development" was alive and well. 

A Patent examiner named Edward Shaw rented the six third-floor rooms, then sublet them to Clara and others. It made sense, as Clara also worked at the Patent Office in the early 1860s, and the Barton and Shaw families knew each other from Massachusetts. Clara moved out in the late 1860s; Shaw remained for several decades.

It is possible that he was the last third-floor resident. Stricter building and fire codes meant that stores still operated in many of the first floors of the structures, but the rooms above lay vacant. This seems to have been what happened with Clara's building. For many years, a shoe store hid the treasure trove above.

The PADC and GSA

I had known a bit about this early history, but not about the transition to its current, restored state. According to Alderson and Hannold, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, with a mission to revive the once-grand avenue between the White House and the Capitol, took over this and other blocks. The PACD history took various twists and turns--the FBI building being one of those things built in the meantime--but places like the Willard Hotel were restored to their former glory. When the PADC sunsetted, the GSA took over the assets. It took a while for the GSA to get to this building, but in the mid-1990s, it was being readied for sale and presumably a tear-down.

A GSA employee named Richard Lyons was inspecting the building when, he says, he felt drawn to a room in the corner of the third floor--what we now know was Clara Barton's room. Seeing an opening in the ceiling, he discovered a trove of signs, papers, and artifacts--with clear connections to Clara Barton and Edward Shaw. 

It was up here that Lyons found Clara Barton's belongings. The patch shows the original wallpaper, which was reproduced throughout the room as a digital facsimile.

It was up here that Lyons found Clara Barton's belongings. The patch shows the original wallpaper, which was reproduced throughout the room as a digital facsimile.

Section 106

The push at the time was to re-establish housing in the neighborhood. Fortunately, as Alderson and Hannold explained, GSA must follow the National Historic Preservation Act. Section 106 of the act calls for consultation with stakeholders, a chance to "pause and reflect." This gave the time to come up with alternate plans for the building.

GSA found a developer that would keep the boarding house building intact and provide financial support in order to redevelop around it. A commercial building with condos and offices surrounds the space, but in a way, at least to my untrained eye, that is unobtrusive to the museum. An easement spells out what the developer, now Douglas Development, must follow. 

GSA also sought a partner to operate the museum. The National Museum of Civil War Medicine now runs the museum, sponsors educational programming, and the like.

While this process went on over many years, GSA learned more about the artifacts and about Clara Barton. They decided that rather than show the space in a conserved state as it was found--i.e., rather barren and dilapidated after decades of vacancy--they would restore it to provide visitors an experience of the time. They discussed the lighting as an example. In the 19th century, the building used gas lighting. In consultation with gas-lighting expert Dan Mattausch, they re-create the kind of mottled, flickering light that gas would have shone in the rooms.

Authentic re-creations, well, except for the EXIT signs. Clara's bed room was down the hall and the Missing Soldier's Office in the door to the left.

Authentic re-creations, well, except for the EXIT signs. Clara's bed room was down the hall and the Missing Soldier's Office in the door to the left.

As anther example, by looking at later photos of Clara's accommodations while working for the Red Cross, they realized the importance she placed on making things comfortable through curtains, doilies, mementoes, and the like. 

Worthy Finds

Found up in the attic in 1997

Found up in the attic in 1997

The museum tells the story of wartime Washington and the building, as well as about Clara's work on the battlefield and afterwards. Because of her fame, she began receiving letters from families who still did not know the fate of their loved ones. (As hard as it is to believe, there was no standard official notification of wartime casualties.) She connected with a former Union soldier who had kept a list of those who died in the Andersonville Prison; through these lists and other contacts, she and a small staff were able to give the sad but necessary news to a goodly percentage of those who wrote. 

Thus, in finding the Missing Soldiers Office, preserving and renovating it, and using it for education and interpretation, the discoveries continue.



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