Construction of the Old Naval Hospital began in 1864 in response to the critical need for hospital care during the Civil War, but the building was not completed until 1866, after the war was over. The Navy Department created the 50-bed facility to serve “seamen serving on the Potomac River and its tributaries” and as a permanent alternative to various temporary facilities, most notably St. Elizabeth’s across the Anacostia. It’s the oldest documented naval hospital in Washington and was the first institution of its kind specifically designed on a large enough scale to serve for an extended period of time.
The hospital’s first patient was 24-year old African American seaman Benjamin Drummond, admitted in June 1866 with a gunshot wound to his leg that he received in battle three years before. After escaping from a Confederate prison in Texas, he had returned to duty, but when complications developed on his old wound, he was admitted to the new modern Naval Hospital for treatment. Drummond was discharged in 1868 with a government pension.
The hospital was used until 1911 to care for veterans of the Civil War and Spanish-American war. It then became the Hospital Corps Training School where sailors learned nursing, hygiene and anatomy. And from 1922 until 1963, it was the Temporary Home for Old Soldiers and Sailors, a private institution providing lodging for veterans pressing pension claims in the capital.
In 1962 the federal government transferred control of the site to the District of Columbia and the Old Naval Hospital subsequently housed several social service organizations. More recently, it served as the headquarters for the effort that succeeded in establishing the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday. But the facility was not properly maintained and the effects of age and moisture steadily took their toll. After 1998 the main building stood essentially vacant, while the carriage house was rented as an administrative office by a citywide organization providing addiction treatment and counseling.
In 2002, a small diverse group including nearby neighbors founded the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital that organized the Old Naval Hospital Foundation. They set three goals: to see the building properly restored, to see it turned over to an appropriate long-term occupant and to research the history of the site and the people who have used it. The ONHF created a plan for the site’s reuse. After a lengthy bidding and review process, the Hill Center plan was accepted by the city in August 2007.
The building underwent a major, historic renovation bringing the structure back to its original appearance, using its original colors and wrought-iron fence. It took eighteen months and $10 million dollars to complete. The building also incorporated upgrades such as an ADA accessible design, a green footprint and a heating and cooling system supported by geothermal wells.
Over 150 years later, the Old Naval Hospital, a landmark of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, is thriving as Hill Center, a vibrant, campus-like center for cultural enrichment, lifelong learning, and civic engagement.
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 Committee. For more information on this and other issues of historic preservation, visit www.chrs.org.