It Pays To Listen
The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 2
Like many of us who work in Washington DC, Richard Lyons is a government employee. He works for the General Services Administration. At the time, his job was to go through the old, abandoned buildings on the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor of the city and prepare them for demolition.
Lyons and his co-workers would start at the basement of each building and work their way up, evaluate the site, remove flammable materials, and prepare each building for destruction. One evening when his co-worker couldn't stay, Lyons went into a building alone. Later, as he was about to leave, he didnt. He felt he couldnt. He looked up and was startled when he saw an opening in the ceiling he hadnt noticed before. There was no electricity in the building, but in the dark he managed to find a ladder and crawled up into what appeared to be a closed-off third floor. He blindly reached into the area and the first thing he picked up was a tin sign impressed with the words, Missing Soldiers Office, Third Floor. There was more. Papers and clothing and shoes all stacked as if the owner would come by for them at any time. Lyons soon learned that the original address of this building was 488-1/2 Seventh Street, and an apartment in this building once had been the home of Clara Barton.
What did Lyons do? He told his boss. But his boss didnt want to listen and told him that the building would be torn down no matter what was in it. His boss didnt know that Lyons was a life-long Civil War enthusiast. Lyons called the Clara Barton House in Glen Echo, Maryland. They told him Clara Barton never lived on Seventh Street. Then, he contacted Antietam National Battlefield and located Gary Scott, an architectural historian with the Park Service. Scott listened.
Scott immediately called GSA to halt the demolition. By the time he arrived at the Seventh Street location, much of the material had been scavenged. Still, Scott recovered over 67 boxes of vintage 1862-1868 newspapers, clothing, letters, and other materials owned by Clara Barton. He verified the fact that Clara Barton had lived here with extant letters to friends in which she described these rooms. Also, by rolls of satin wallpaper that decorated the walls of the apartment as well as walls in her subsequent home in Glen Echo.
Scott interviewed as many previous tenants of the building as he could locate. None had ever been to the third floor of the building. He learned that the floor had been closed-off for most of the 20th century. Apparently these things were undisturbed since approximately 1868, and perfectly preserved, just as if Clara Barton had left them for Lyons to discover in 1997.
Today, Scott is working with the Park Service to finalize plans to conserve and display these items. Lyons is still a carpenter at GSA. We heard that his boss was promoted.