WHAT IS IT? The longtime home of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross constitutes this Park Site’s primary historical draw. The Barton home sits adjacent to Glen Echo Park, a failed late-19th-century Chautauqua community that transformed into an art-deco styled amusement park. The NPS took control of Glen Echo Park in 1971, three years after the amusement park’s collapse. A restoration that aims to bring the Park back to its 1920’s halcyon-days appearance is underway.
BEAUTY (5/10) The Clara Barton mansion is an odd mélange of the decorative and the utilitarian. Blooming trees frame the home’s beautiful Queen Anne front and, thankfully, hide its long corridors and warehouse siding.
Clara, never the aesthete, had her mansion designed to resemble a mobile warehouse that the Red Cross used during the Johnstown Flood disaster. She ran the Red Cross from here, stored supplies here and generally housed 8-10 people at any given time. The building’s practical nature speaks volumes on Ms. Barton’s determined work ethic.
Glen Echo’s Amusement Park area has seen better days; weeds have overcome the Crystal Pool entrance, the art deco buildings linger in various states of disrepair. A feeling of stickiness permeates the air, maniacally accompanying the macabre chimes of the well-restored 1921 carousel. Michael thinks the Park would be a terrific setting for a clown-centric horror film or a cop movie culmination and tense shootout.
Gab’s opinion was much different: The Glen Echo Park feels as if it has turned the proverbial corner. Workers sand away at the gorgeous art deco façades, the Dentzel Carousel sounds enchanting music that beckons excited kids and parents alike. It will not be long before Glen Echo recaptures much of its heyday charm but, in the meantime, the Park still transports you into a magical world of fun.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (5/10) Did you know that Clara Barton was NOT a nurse; she was an infrastructure specialist who could procure supplies, move them and get them where needed. She began her public service career by moving medical supplies and tending to the wounded in the many Civil War battles fought in the Washington D.C. area.
Barton spent the post-Civil War years of 1865-68 searching for missing soldiers throughout the US and most famously at the infamous Andersonville Prison. After suffering a nervous breakdown in 1868, she traveled to Europe to rest. Rest never came. The Franco-Prussian War had begun and Ms. Barton had to help. It was there that she became acquainted with the International Red Cross and determined that she would continue her humanitarian services in the U.S. under this worldwide auspice.
Barton’s American Red Cross first came to prominence due to their important role aiding the Johnstown Flood cleanup in 1889. Clara’s fame was so great that in 1891 a startup Chautauqua society in Glen Echo agreed to build her a mansion in the hopes that it would draw students and visitors to their community. Clara ran the American Red Cross from that home from 1891 until her resignation in 1904. She was a remarkable woman.
CROWDS (8/10) A manic German tourist joined our House Tour shortly after it began. His pointed questions and administrative perspective led us to believe he was involved in the medical industry, was in D.C. on business and was told by a colleague to go the Clara Barton House. Why else would a foreign traveler choose this D.C. attraction over the myriad others?
Our experience tells us that the Clara Barton NHS draws a probing audience that must have some connection to the medical field. Our German friend had so many questions (as did we) that the brochure-advertised 20-minute tour lasted more than an hour and a half. We learned so much and had a great time.
The Glen Echo Park crowd was nowhere near as sparse but equally as enjoyable. Swarms of elementary school aged children excitedly rode the Carousel, picnicked with mom and frolicked on their field trip to the Park’s Discovery Creek, the Children’s Museum of Washington. It was a stunning sunny Friday afternoon where smiles and laughter reigned.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5) The Sites are located along McArthur Boulevard, in Maryland, a few miles northwest of the D.C. city limits and about 3 miles southeast of the Capital Beltway (I-495) exits 40 and 41. There are plenty of brown signs, but they are small; if you blink, you will miss them. It is best to work with a map.
Unlike most D.C. sites, there is ample parking space, so if you have a car, things are looking good. Glen Echo also differs from most Metro area sites in that mass transit access is spotty. Only the Montgomery Ride-On Route 29 Bus travels to the Park. The 12-minute ride from the Friendship Heights Metro Stop to Glen Echo leaves every half hour.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5) The bookstore selection of Clara Barton books is sparse, but an Amazon.com search shows that little has been written about the Angel of the Battlefield. Still, a few titles are missing. Other books explore Victorian customs, natural disasters that Barton’s Red Cross addressed and the restoration of the Glen Echo Carousel.
COSTS (5/5) The Clara Barton House and Glen Echo Park both charge no entrance fee. Free House Tours begin on the hour, every hour. Carousel rides run a cheap $1 per.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5) Three people to one Ranger is a good ratio, especially when there is a tour every hour.
TOURS/CLASSES (8/10) Our tour guide knew her stuff. She answered ours (and a German tourist’s) endless stream of questions with an admirable aplomb, a vastness of knowledge and a noticeable neutrality. We were not prepared to learn this much.
The educational opportunities at Glen Echo Park and Discovery Creek are much more varied and geared towards Metro Area residents. If it is artistic or environmental related, you can learn about it here (all for a fee). We mean EVERYTHING! including: how to Lindy Hop; writing like Van Gogh (huh?); young people’s basic photography; intermediate glassblowing; and storytelling with puppets. These resources are not NPS administered but they do occur on site.
FUN (7/10) We loved the House Tour and learning about Ms. Barton. However, as questions kept compounding we got awfully antsy. Yes, we were asking most of the questions but that does not matter because we can’t help ourselves. We also wanted to be outside, at the amusement park, enjoying the spectacular day. Be forewarned, as the tour climbs up to the third floor, the House gets very hot and stuffy. No air conditioning means trouble in D.C.’s sweltering summers.
Eventually, we made it back to Glen Echo Park but resisted a Carousel ride in favor of photography. Maybe next time.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (5/10) There is almost too much to do in Washington D.C. Should you go to the Clara Barton House? Yes. Should you go here before the Smithsonian, the National Mall and its monuments, Mount Vernon, etc...? No. But if you have a special interest in nursing, the Red Cross, art deco architecture or even historic amusement parks you will not be disappointed.
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