Many aren’t’ aware that Capitol Hill was home to a famous hospital with a history associated with President Lincoln. Providence Hospital was established in 1861, at the invitation of Abraham Lincoln when the Daughters of Charity began their service to District residents. At the time, President Abraham Lincoln signed an Act of Congress to charter Providence Hospital. It is the longest continuously operating hospital in Washington, D.C.
According to a June 11, 1961 article in the Baltimore Sun that celebrated the 100th anniversary of Providence Hospital, the hospital was founded on June 10, 1861 and stood for 95 years at Second and D Streets, SE, known to us as X Park, site of generations of Soccer on the Hill practice sessions. The location of the hospital was originally part of the Cerne Abbey Manor tract, acquired in 1730 by a pioneer settler of Maryland, Thomas Notley. It was named for an old Benedictine abbey in Dorsetshire, England. A portion of the tract descended through the Carroll family.
The hospital itself had been formed when the city’s only civilian hospital, the Washington Infirmary on Judiciary Square, was seized by Union army officials on the eve of the Civil War. Washington doctors approached the Daughters (Sisters) of Charity in Maryland to assemble a team of nuns to come to the city and assist in forming a new civilian hospital.
Providence Hospital cared for wounded soldiers of the Civil War and was used as a teaching hospital. The building selected for the hospital was a wood frame house available for rent at Second and D Streets, SE. It occupied square 735. During the war, the remainder of the vacant block was filled with army tents and the doctors treated those that flooded into Washington, civilians and military alike.
The first patient, a typhoid case named Lawrence O’Toole, was admitted on June 27, 1861. A month later the hospital was receiving casualties from Bull Run. Hospital records show the admission, on July 22, 1861, of two privates of the 71st New York Volunteers, William Behan and George A. Cooke. Behan was described as suffering from “a wound of the thigh.” Both were wounded the day before at Centreville in a skirmish preliminary to the battle at Manassas.
Meanwhile, the Sisters had begun to purchase all the remaining lots on the Square, and successfully lobbied Congress for financial awards in 1866, due to their commitment to treating soldiers during the war. These grants led to the construction of the brick building which began in 1866. Providence Hospital was completed in 1872 after six years of construction. It held a total of 250 beds.
The Sisters provided the first social work for the city’s poor, feeding them from a soup kitchen in the basement. In 1896, a nursing school opened and the new technology of X-rays was installed. In 1899, a separate infectious ward was established to prevent disease from spreading from patient to patient.
The hospital expanded in the early 1900s and continued to provide care at the Capitol Hill location until the facilities began to show their age. By 1947, a new hospital was needed but engineers determined that rebuilding on the same lot would require a two-year closure of the hospital.
The old building was purchased by the federal government to house employees of the Commerce Department, and was eventually abandoned in 1964 when it was razed for a parking lot. The hospital moved to its current location, 1150 Varnum Street, NE in March 1956.
Over the decades since, numerous projects from developers and Congress were proposed for the site, such as building a school for Congressional pages, a parking lot for visitors to Congress and in 1990 as a building for the University of California. Neighbors successfully fought off these attempts, and the block remains a verdant square used by schools, dog-walkers and local recreation teams.
Nina Tristani is the co-owner of N&M House Detectives (www.nmhousedetectives.com) and chair of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society’s (CHRS) Communications Chair. For more information on this and other issues of historic preservation, visit www.chrs.org.