Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Old Naval Hospital, 921 Pennsylvania Avenue SE

As this week is the U.S. Navy's 236th birthday, it seems appropriate to highlight the recently restored Old Naval Hospital on Capital Hill, the first purpose-built navy hospital in Washington.  When the Civil War began, the U.S. Navy did not have its own hospital facility in the capital.  As a stopgap measure, the Navy borrowed space at the Government Hospital for the Insane (St. Elizabeth's) to care for stricken sailors and marines.  However, this proved inadequate and in 1864 Congress authorized the Secretary of the Navy to construct a naval hospital on square no. 948, a 3/4 acre triangular tract bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue SW, E Street SW, 9th Street SW, and 10th Street SW.  This location nine blocks east of the U.S. Capitol was chosen in part to its proximity to both the Navy Yard and the Marine Corps Barracks.
E Street side of the recently restored Old Naval Hospital.  The building's architectural style features Italianate, Greek Revival, and Second Empire elements.  Although Congress originally appropriated only $25,000 for the project, construction ended up costing $115,000.  (Photo by author)
Although construction began in 1864, the two-and-half-story red-brick facility was not ready until after the Civil War had already ended.  The 50-bed  hospital admitted its first patient, an African American sailor named Benjamin Drummond, in October 1866.  The hospital treated about 110 men per year.  When it first opened, the facility was considered state of the art, featuring good ventilation, running water and gas lighting.  However, by the start of the 20th century, the facility was considered "antiquated and insufficient."  In 1906, its functions were transferred to a new Naval Hospital on Observatory Hill at 23rd and E Streets NW.  Four decades later, Bethesda Naval Hospital replaced the Observatory Hill facility. 

Floor plan of the Old Navy Hospital's 2nd floor wards.  The 2nd floor included a dispensary, four wards for enlisted men and a separate ward for officers.  A mess hall was located on the first floor.  Note that heating systems had been installed by the time this diagram was made in 1893.  (Notes on Naval Hospitals and Medical Schools, and Training Schools for Nurses, 1893)

 A circa 1870 photo of the Naval Hospital. (National Archives)

View of the Old Naval Hospital from along Pennsylvania Avenue SW. (Photo by author)

Temporary Home for Union Ex-Soldiers and Sailors
In 1922, the Department of the Navy agreed to lease the empty hospital building, which was on the verge of demolition, to the Temporary Home for Old Soldiers and Sailors.  This institution, which was run by the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) and initially catered only to Union Civil War veterans,  provided temporary shelter for former servicemen when they came to Washington seeking pensions and other service related claims. To be eligible to stay at the home, a veteran had to have been honorably discharged, not ill or an alcoholic, and possessing less than $50. Veterans could stay in the home for up to ten days, but this rule was leniently enforced. Congress later expanded the home's mandate to include veterans of the Spanish-American War and the World Wars.

The hospital remained a veterans home until 1963.  The Federal Government transferred the building to the D.C. government shortly thereafter.  Over the next few decades, the building was used for a variety of purposes including as the home of the D.C. Center for Youth Services in the 1980s and 90s.


In 2000, local residents formed the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital to champion the preservation of the historic structure.  After decades of physical neglect, a 2010-11 $10 million restoration has preserved this Capital Hill landmark and provided a local community center-- the Hill Center-- for "learning, meeting, entertainment, celebration, and conversation."  The "green" restoration design even incorporated a modern, geothermal HVAC system.

The recent restoration project also refurbished the original 1866 wrought-iron fence that surrounds the Old Naval Hospital.  Each fence section consisted of 13 vertical bars, representing the original number of states, extending upwards from a base of seven cast-iron compass circles, representing the seven seas upon which the Navy sailed.  (Photo by author)

Historic Medical Sites in the Washington, DC Area , U.S. National Library of Medicine, NIH.

Streitmatter, Roger, The Old Naval Hospital-- A Capital Hill Treasure, online.
  The Old Naval Hospital, Historic Structure Report, R. McGhee & Associates, June 1994.

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