“You can hear the walls talk”
by Howard Kohn
On a recent November morning Caroline Alderson took a favorite detour away from her commuter’s routine to rendezvous with a man at a vacant boardinghouse, in Chinatown, at 437 Seventh Street. The man was Richard Lyons, who, like Caroline, is an ardent preservationist (she is one of the people synonymous with Historic Takoma). Fourteen years ago, while on assignment to shutter the windows at the boardinghouse in advance of demolition, Richard happened to notice an envelope sticking through old ceiling slats and thus accidentally found the lost location of Clara Barton’s home and office during1861-1868, the years she first came to public attention.
Caroline greeted Richard, waiting on the sidewalk, and they walked up two flights of narrow stairs. On either side was crumbling plaster, covered here and there with browned ancient wallpaper. On the third floor, in the rooms where Miss Barton dealt with more than 60,000 pieces of correspondence from families of missing Civil War soldiers, were more dilapidated walls that for a century and a half held no plumbing pipes or electrical conduits.
About two feet above the threshold in the door to Room Nine was a thin, rectangular, slightly off kilter hole. “It’s a mail slot. She paid 50 cents to have it cut in. Almost every day there was a pile of letters for her,” Caroline said. “You can stand here and imagine everything the way it was when she lived here. You can hear the walls talk.”
Richard nodded. “Not much has really changed. The structure was built in 1853, and the third floor was rented out to boarders for about 50 years, and then it became storage for Boyce & Lewis Shoes, a store on the ground floor.”
Caroline Alderson and Richard Lyons in the doorway to Clark Barton’s rediscovered rooms. (photo by Diana Kohn)
According to the chronology now pieced together, Clara Barton paid $7.50
a month to sublet three plain-carpeted rooms sufficient for her spare
existence and her humanitarian work. During the Civil War she amassed
medical supplies and ventured frequently to battlefields. With the war’s
end she reconfigured the rooms, reducing her living space to the size
of a short hallway and converting the rest into an MIA headquarters
where she met with political and military leaders and handled her huge
volume of mail during a successful search for the fate of thousands of
soldiers buried in incompletely marked graves or taken away to prison
camps, grueling work that lasted three years and took a toll.
“She probably was on the verge of a nervous breakdown when she finally
left in 1868,” Caroline said. “She went to Europe for an extended rest
and got involved with the Red Cross over there, and, as far as we can
tell, never came back to this address. So Edward Shaw, who lived across
the hall in Room Twelve and who was sort of her patron and a somewhat
obsessed fan, collected the belongings she left behind and stashed them
above the ceiling – which is where Richard found them.”
After the serendipity of his discovery, and after a number of
bureaucratic twists and turns, some unexpectedly positive, many less so,
it has fallen to Caroline and a few colleagues, as part of their job
with the General Services Administration (GSA), to recreate Clara
Barton’s wartime and post-war years.
“To start with, we have to put her sign back on the door. That sign
talks to you, too,” Caroline. “It was just lying up in the attic with
the rest of the stuff.”
The envelope that caught Richard’s eye had led him into the rafters
where, in the dark, he came across a flat, black piece of tin,
hand-painted with gold lettering: Missing Soldiers Office, 3rd. Story.
Room 9. Miss. Clara Barton.
Along with the metal sign and the envelope (addressed to a neighbor of
Miss Barton), he found a bayonet, an ink bottle, a rare list of names of
missing soldiers, newspapers of the day and numerous other items,
altogether more than 2,000, enough to fill ten file boxes. Everything is
being temporarily stored at the main Clara Barton commemorative site, a
Glen Echo house where, as the founding director of the American Red
Cross, she spent the last years of her life.
Caroline made herself familiar with the Barton story and all the
artifacts and then put this knowledge to use in the making of a
20-minute movie that proved to be another turning point in the long
uncertainty about the disposition of the boardinghouse.
Ultimately it took a shrewd strategy to preserve, as is, most of the
third floor. “We crafted a very creative easement that includes an
elevator in the back, which makes public access possible. And which
makes a museum possible,” Caroline said.
Her movie, an engaging, thoughtful product, in the vein of the Civil War
saint herself, made the case for preserving the third floor as it used
to be. “We are eager to restore it, but with a gentle touch. Maybe leave
some of it untouched. And then open it. Let people see it,” Caroline
explained. “No barricades, no ropes. People should be able to walk
Caroline lobbied to produce a movie, hoping it might promote this idea
even though it was highly unlikely that any organization could be
persuaded to finance and manage a venue for sightseers at the site. The
U. S. Park Service had passed on the idea, as had the Red Cross and
local museums. And GSA, which owns the property, does not do museums.
On top of that, GSA only had funding for a two-minute animated
simulation, a mite inadequate for the challenge at hand. “The only
alternative was to find people willing to donate their time for a more
substantial film,” Caroline said in a what-else-is-new tone.
Kelly O’Connor, the fabulous theatrical director at Blair High School,
agreed to be Clara Barton, or rather her narrative voice. Other friends
of Caroline volunteered for other roles. Richard played himself.
When it came time to list the credits all their generosity butted up
against protocol. “Usually there is no roll-out of names. Only the
government gets credit. But I told everyone, ‘We’re crediting real
Meanwhile, Richard was bringing a variety of folks to Seventh Street and
keeping a log to document general interest. “People would look at the
walls and, of course, they had to use their imagination,” he said. “But
suddenly we had this incredible movie, and it made up for any lack of
Almost as suddenly – eureka! – directors of the National Museum of Civil
War Medicine, who visited at his invitation,, agreed to a $1.7 million
partnership that will make good on Richard and Caroline’s vision.
“This was a 10-year search for the right partner,” she said, “and then success.”
She tapped her right foot on the uneven wooden floor and mused aloud to
Richard. “We know the carpet she had here was brown with a bit of blue,
coarsely woven. We can get a reproduction.”
“Good idea. We don’t want people tripping on the boards,” he said. “But we should leave one of the walls the way it is.”
“Or the opening in the ceiling you went up into. Let’s leave that the way it is.”
Caroline Alderson standing in the room where Clara Barton spent her time tracking the whereabouts of missing soldiers following the end of the Civil War. (photo by Julie Wiatt)