On the Mend

D.C.'s Old Naval Hospital becomes the Hill Center


In 1864, to treat the growing numbers of sailors and marines wounded during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln approved the construction of a Naval Hospital on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. By the time the four-story, brick building was completed two years later, the war was over. But the infirmary gave Civil War veterans and other wounded soldiers a place to recover. 

During the 20th century, the Old Naval Hospital, as it became known, served as a site for officer medical training, temporary lodging for veterans, and a home for various nonprofit organizations. Years of neglect took their toll, however, and when the last tenant moved out in the late 1990s, the structure was left with significant water damage. In 1999, the D.C. Preservation League named the site to its most endangered places list, and the prospects for the historic hospital appeared dire.

That's when concerned residents banded together and founded two groups, the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital and the Old Naval Hospital Foundation, in hopes of restoring the historic building and making it a gathering place for the community. "We were concerned that it might be turned into government offices or perhaps a law firm, or some other use—like retail or condos—that would not be a direct benefit to the community," says Nicky Cymrot, president of the foundation.    

Members of Cymrot's group drafted a revitalization plan to transform the site into a community center with a computer lab, meeting rooms, office space for local nonprofits, a kitchen for cooking classes, and a café in the former -carriage house. And they secured approval for the project from the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board and from the city, which had assumed -ownership of the property from the -federal government.

T. David Bell of BELLArchitects decided to pursue a sympathetic historic rehabilitation that also incorporated modern green technology. "In some cases there are conflicts, and in other cases there are really nice synergies," Bell says. "We just need a balance between the two goals."

A geothermal heating and cooling system will make the building more energy efficient and also obviate the need for a cooling tower, part of a traditional HVAC system, that would have disrupted the building's architectural integrity. The project also includes such ecofriendly features as low-flow plumbing fixtures, an elevator with an energy efficient hoisting system, and compact fluorescent and LED lighting. More than 75 percent of the original structure will be reused.

To fund the $10 million project, the Old Naval Hospital Foundation secured a $5.4 million grant from the city, $250,000 from the Capitol Hill Community Foundation, and $150,000 from Save America's Treasures, a public-private partnership between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service. To help raise the remaining money, foundation members have encouraged residents to sponsor the restoration of individual sections of the 1866 iron fence that surrounds the property. G. Krug & Son, a Baltimore-based company, has started refurbishing the wrought-iron posts, decorative compass circles, and cast-iron stars fabricated by Washington, D.C., ironsmiths Frederick and August Schneider.

Expected to be completed in June, the site, reborn as the Hill Center, will host educational programs, lectures, workshops, and exhibits. "This restoration is going to be a triumph for Capitol Hill," foundation board member Mike Canning says. "If ideally it becomes a really vibrant center of human activity, that's a great big bonus."

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