March 24, 2023

Women’s Historians Honor Clara Barton at the Nation’s First Women’s History Site

Clara Barton left her rented quarters in Washington, D.C., on February 28, 1897, to take up residence in a converted warehouse in suburban Glen Echo, Maryland. “It will not be an elegant house,” Barton wrote to a friend, “but it will well serve the purposes that we believe are necessary.” She lived and worked from the home until her death in 1912, organizing the relief efforts of the American Red Cross (ARC), an organization she had founded years earlier.

More than a century later, the frugally furnished home and former ARC headquarters is a designated National Historic Site in desperate need of repair. After receiving funding for rehabilitation through the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), an ad-hoc coalition of mostly women-led organizations has come together to ensure the rehabilitation honors the legacy of Barton and the site’s original enabling legislation that established it as part of the National Park System.

Aerial elevation of the Clara Barton House in Glen Echo, Maryland.

photo by: Historic American Buildings Survey

Aerial view of the Clara Barton House in Glen Echo, Maryland, drawn after 1933.

The Nation’s First Women’s History Site

Barton’s three-story Glen Echo home contained a library and more than a dozen offices, bedrooms, parlors, and makeshift storerooms from which Barton could continue her work as heart and soul of the ARC, an organization she founded in 1881 and managed almost single-handedly during its formative years.

The furnishings of the Glen Echo house and headquarters reflected Barton’s profound commitment to ARC relief efforts and an enmeshing of her public and private lives. The bedrooms where she and staffers slept were flanked with storerooms, supply closets lined the entrance hall, and offices sat adjacent to dining or sitting rooms, where dishes featured the Red Cross emblem.

Recognizing its historical significance, Congress designated the property a national historic site in 1974. It was the first-ever national park dedicated to a woman and remains one of the few sites devoted to women’s history today.

“The connections to Clara Barton and the American Red Cross make this an important and relevant site of women’s history that deserves to be amplified, not minimized,” explains Christina Morris, manager of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Where Women Made History program . Since its designation, however, the Clara Barton National Historic Site has fallen into disrepair, and sections of the home have been closed to the public because of deferred maintenance.

A Chance for Rehabilitation

Thanks to a recent $15 million infusion from the GAOA, the Barton site will soon get the attention it needs. Based on the new funding, the National Park Service announced an initial rehabilitation plan for the site early last year, which would have involved partnering with neighboring Glen Echo Park, an arts and culture center, and converting parts of the Barton house into multipurpose rooms for crafts workshops, rehearsal studios, and a catering zone to support events.

Clara Barton sitting at a desk staring at the camera.

photo by: National Park Service

Portrait of Clara Barton c. 1904.

The National Park Service may have thought the partnership with Glen Echo Park would ensure greater financial stability. But other stakeholders worried it would fall short of the site’s original mission to honor Barton’s legacy and the early work of the ARC.

“I think the fiscal realities of caring for any historic site are causing the National Park Service to try to be more creative,” explains Pamela Goddard, the senior program director of the Mid-Atlantic region of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). “But in this particular case, they lost the reason why this is a park.”

Luckily, the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) has a built-in mechanism for interested parties to provide feedback on rehabilitation plans. Section 106 of the NHPA requires federal agencies to consider the impact of their actions, like renovations, on historic properties and offer opportunities for stakeholders to comment on projects before implementation.

When Morris, Goddard, and others heard about the planned rehabilitation, they sprang into action to protect the Barton site and its original mandate.

Front elevation of the Clara Barton House in Glen Echo, Maryland.

photo by: Historic American Buildings Survey

Northeast Elevation of the Clara Barton House from after 1933.

Interior elevation of the Clara Barton House with a detail view of the doors in the vestibule.

photo by: Historic American Buildings Survey

Section drawing and detail of the vestibule inside the Clara Barton House from after 1933.

Engaging the Public

Alongside representatives from the National Trust and NPCA, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Maryland Historical Trust, the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites (NCWHS), the ARC, regulatory experts, and independent historians joined the Section 106 consultation process.

Rosie Click, a first-year Ph.D. student studying history at Georgetown University, got involved after seeing a call for participation in an Organization of American Historians newsletter. She says she responded because she was interested in learning more about careers for historians in public engagement and preservation, and she believes the Barton site “has huge potential to influence thousands of visitors every year.”

These stakeholders brainstormed alternative rehabilitation plans, attended meetings, and wrote letters to legislators and Superintendent Charles Cuvelier, who oversees the Clara Barton National Historic Site. Lucienne Beard, co-president of the NCWHS, says the ad-hoc coalition first met with the National Park Service in September 2022. “That’s when we came out and asked: ‘Where’s the women’s history in this plan?’”

Interior of Clara Barton House looking northeast along the second floor stair hall. The image is in black and white.

photo by: Historic American Buildings Survey

Interior of Clara Barton House looking northeast along the second-floor stair hall.

A view of the third floor sitting room at Clara Barton's House in Maryland. There are two stained glass windows at the far end. The image is in black and white.

photo by: Historic American Buildings Survey

Interior of Clara Barton House looking north in the third-floor sitting room.

That’s a question Beard is used to asking, as the NCWHS’s mission is to elevate women’s history at historic sites nationwide. “There is a women’s story to be told everywhere,” she says, “and so we advocate for that.” Morris says that fighting for the prominence of women’s legacies is absolutely critical, but unfortunately common. “Where Women Made History exists precisely because of situations like this, to ensure that women’s achievements are represented and respected as fundamental parts of our national story. It’s reaffirming to see this many organizations band together in full support of that goal at the Clara Barton National Historic Site.”

Thanks to the group’s advocacy, Superintendent Cuvelier officially reversed his position on the rehabilitation project earlier this year to ensure the site will remain focused on Barton and the ARC.

Telling a Complex Story

What the new rehabilitation plan and future programming at the site will look like are still to be determined, but a few things are clear. First, the ARC will continue lending expertise and support.

“We want to see this site preserved for robust storytelling about Clara Barton’s life, legacy, and the history of the ARC,” says Curtis Luthye, executive director of the ARC’s National Capital and Greater Chesapeake Region chapter. Barton’s commitment to humanitarianism continues to inspire Luthye and his colleagues, and several members of the local ARC chapter recently celebrated her 200th birthday at the national historic site.

Staff from the American Red Cross celebrate Clara Barton's 200th birthday by posing in front of her home in Maryland with Balloons, cake, and letters spelling out her name.

photo by: Red Cross of the National Capital and Greater Chesapeake Region

Photograph of staff of the American Red Cross celebrating Clara Barton's 200th birthday.

The NCWHS will also play a vital role in developing the new rehabilitation plan based on discussions the organization has hosted around interpretation goals. After early talks showed great promise, the organization applied for grant funding from the National Trust to bring on new partners, publish recommendations, and develop a social media strategy to engage future visitors.

One of the experts involved in these discussions is Marian Moser Jones, a historian of public health and author of The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal. Jones says that Barton’s life and the first decades of the ARC are complex topics that “deserve to be examined for their laudable efforts and problematic aspects.”

For example, Jones explains that in the early 20th century, ARC relief efforts often perpetuated racism in the communities where the organization intervened by upholding segregation policies or providing better support to white victims of disasters than their Black counterparts. The ARC also segregated blood donations during and after World War II, which resulted in civil rights organizers boycotting the organization.

“The racism that the Red Cross participated in deserves to be really examined and critiqued,” Jones says. She thinks some of this vital research and discussion can happen at the Barton house. “I envision it as a center where these kinds of rich discussions could take place. Because of its historical importance, I could really see it as a center for critical scholarship on disasters and disaster response.”

Morris says the collective organizing that has gone into the project thus far is an excellent example of how the public can be engaged in the preservation and interpretation of women’s history. “Working with the National Park Service, we want to see the restored Clara Barton National Historic Site foster pathbreaking research and demonstrate how women’s histories can be fully told, relevant, and inspiring.”

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Marianne Dhenin is a historian and journalist covering social and environmental justice and politics.

Every place has a woman's story to tell. Through Where Women Made History, we are identifying, honoring, and elevating places across the country where women have changed their communities and the world.

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