Rockville’s OLBN Architectural Services is leading the efforts to preserve and restore Clara Barton’s Civil War-era office and warehouse on 7th Street in downtown Washington, DC–where she worked and lived before founding the American Red Cross in 1881. The historic site doesn’t open to the public as a museum until fall 2014 but last week I had a special sneak peak at the work underway.
From the street, you’d never imagine that this was a nationally significant historic site. It’s a simple three-story brick building in Penn Quarter surrounded by restaurants, towering condos and offices, popular museums, and the Verizon Center. Its historical significance was forgotten for most of the century until 1997, when a nightwatchman hired to keep vagrants out of the vacant building noticed a document jutting out from the ceiling. It turned out to be part of a cache of artifacts belonging to Clara Barton that had been stored in the attic crawlspace above what later was determined to be her office and warehouse. During the Civil War, she collected and stored supplies for soldiers on the battlefield on the third floor of this former boarding house and afterward, turned it into an office to reconnect families with more than 21,000 missing soldiers. She closed the office when she moved to Europe to aid soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War and her equipment and supplies were boxed and moved into the attic, where they remained for more than one hundred years. Her last home and office (which also served as a warehouse) is in nearby Glen Echo, Maryland and is now a National Historic Site.
Now owned by the federal government, OLBN is restoring the third floor of the building to its 19th century appearance. The Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick recently agreed to undertake the management and interpretation of this new historic site, with a planned opening in fall 2014. I’ve walked by this site many times (it’s a couple blocks south of Gallery Place Metro) and always wondered what was inside, so I jumped at the invitation from Mark Rabinowitz, an architectural conservator at Conservation Solutions who is consulting on the project. I was fortunate that Andrea Mones gave the tour of the site–she’s a longtime employee with GSA and has worked on the project since it’s rediscovery. She walked through the unrestored rooms to share the history of the building, restoration goals, and recent discoveries (including a business card from a jeweler that Barton mentions in her diary!). It’s always amazing that signficant historic places continue to be discovered nearly untouched, a reminder to ignore those assumptions that everything historic has already been designated or identified, and I’m delighted a Rockville firm is involved in this nationally significant project.