WASHINGTON (AP) — Clara Barton's downtown Washington office, where she led an effort to trace missing soldiers from the Civil War before she founded the American Red Cross, has survived since her death 100 years ago and will soon become a museum, organizers said Thursday.
The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., will lead the effort after signing an agreement with the General Services Administration to open the Clara Barton's Missing Soldiers Office Museum.
Barton's office is a Civil War time capsule, said George Wunderlich, the group's executive director. It's where she hired a staff to help track down the fates of at least 22,000 men in the war. In total, Barton's office responded to more than 63,000 letters from grieving parents and families with $15,000 in government funding over four years.
"She was doing this at a time when women weren't allowed to do anything," Wunderlich said. "She bucked the system."
The office now stands behind a restored facade in a revitalized section of downtown next door to a Starbucks. From 1920 to 1990, a shoe store occupied the first-floor space. The third-floor office suite was left mostly untouched for decades. Barton's office and small sleeping quarters are still marked with the No. 9 and a carved mail slot to receive letters.
The discovery was made in 1996 when the government-owned building was slated for demolition. Carpenter Richard Lyons was sent in by a contractor to make sure no one was living in the space before it was torn down. Lyons said he kept hearing a noise in the front room and felt something touch his shoulder when he went to investigate. That's when he noticed a letter hanging through a crack in the ceiling.
Lyons found a ladder in a back room and climbed into the attic to see what might be up in the crawl space. He found a treasure trove: government records, Civil War-era newspapers, letters, leftover wallpaper, 19th century clothing — and a sign from Barton's Missing Soldier's Office.
"Get rid of it," a supervisor told Lyons when he reported the find, fearing it would halt the demolition. "Throw it away; don't go to the GSA."
"I was more determined then," Lyons said.
He said he spent months researching the materials and eventually alerted a historian with the National Park Service through backchannels so that he wouldn't face retribution for stopping the government demolition. Eventually, the National Park Service announced the find in 1997.
"Hopefully, this will be a monument to Clara Barton," Lyons said Thursday, 100 years after Barton's death in 1912.
Wunderlich said the rare find is one of the most important places in Washington related to the Civil War. Barton's effort was the forerunner to the larger POW/MIA effort to locate missing soldiers.
"That's her legacy," he said. "She was not just a nurse, she was a humanitarian relief specialist."
On the bloody battlefield, Barton was known for tending to wounded soldiers. She was also an innovator in using an ambulance process to evacuate the wounded, which are systems still used today, said Air Force Col. Roseanne Warner. Warner visited the site and commands a medical group at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington.
Barton was born in North Oxford, Mass., in 1821 and worked as a teacher and government worker before tending to soldiers in the Civil War. She went on to establish the American Red Cross in 1881 but insisted on a change in the International Red Cross mission to include relief for natural disasters.
The museum plans to create the Clara Barton Institute to offer training in her philosophy and how it applies to today's medical relief efforts, supply organizing, and command and control, Wunderlich said. It already offers a training program for military medical personnel.
"History should change the world again and again," Wunderlich said. "Our whole philosophy is how do we use history to make the future better?"
The group must raise $4.75 million to preserve and operate the site as a museum. Officials hope to open a storefront space in late 2012 or early 2013, followed by galleries in Barton's office as soon as next summer. The government has committed $1 million for renovations.