Civil War hospital lives again

D.C.'s original Old Naval Hospital is set to reopen soon with a new vision for the future as a community center in southeast Washington.

VIENNA, Va. — D.C.’s original Old Naval Hospital, which never had a patient before the Civil War’s ending day at Appomattox and which went through several iterations thereafter, is set to reopen soon with a new vision for the future as a community center in Southeast Washington. In fact, it may be a restoration and renovation that gives new meaning to the old real estate term “highest and best use.” 

It will be reborn as the Hill Center, bringing education and cultural enrichment to what used to be one of the more blighted areas of southeast D.C. Current plans include classes for adults and children in English as a second language, computer workshops, arts classes and “edible” gardens, as well as author readings and book signings, instruction in how to write a resume and even music classes.  As a speaker recently said, it will be “a center for learning, meeting, entertainment, celebration and conversation.”

It has been a long journey along a rocky road for the now run-down, derelict building, saved when it was listed on the National Historic Register back in 1974.

While the bulk of Civil War history seems to concern the land forces, with stories of marching troops and charging horses, the U.S. Navy remained a respected adjunct.  Back on Feb. 24, 1811, and long before the Civil War was even dreamed of, Congress passed an act establishing naval hospitals.

The Civil War years saw the Navy increase from an original count of around 8,500 men to the lofty number of 51,000, both officers and enlisted men combined.  More men meaning more injuries and illnesses, the secretary of the Navy initially signed a lease for several ward areas of the “Government Asylum for the Insane,” today known as St. Elizabeth’s, for temporary usage as a sailors’ hospital. (See my Blog of Jan. 17, 2010.)

It was late in the Civil War years when President Lincoln signed a specific authorization “for erecting naval hospital at Washington City, District of Columbia, twenty-five thousand dollars.”  That was too small a figure even in March 1864, and a year later Congress appropriated additional funds in the sum of $30,000.

One month before the Civil War ended, Congress appropriated another $30,000 for final work, fencing, sidewalks, curbs and various out buildings.  Apparently, both Congress and construction were similarly delinquent where speedy work is concerned, and a full year later, in July 1866 (the war having ended a year earlier), a final $30,000 appropriation was again passed!  And, for those of you mathematically inclined, that brings the original budgeted $25,000 up to a final cost of  $115,000 (including the cost of purchasing two lots), which should be no surprise to today’s readers.  Talk about cost overrides!!

And the building was too late to be of any real benefit to active wounded or ailing sailors.   Construction itself was not completed till July 1866, and its first sailor patient was one Benjamin Drummond, described as an “Ordinary Seaman, Colored,” who served on board the USS Morning Light, which was captured by Confederate cutter ships.

The Morning Light was a sail-powered vessel and stood little chance against the steam-powered strength of the cutters.   With an injured leg, the 38-year-old, 5-foot-4-inch Drummond was hospitalized in New Orleans for a while and then sent to the Washington facility when the wound reopened.  The record is conflicted if he was also shot in the shoulder, but most records showing only the leg wound.  After the initial healing of his wounds, he re-enlisted and served on several ships, including the USS Squando, which patrolled Charleston Harbor.

Six Marines also were admitted that first day, and, for the next few years immediately after the war, a total of 329 men were hospitalized there.

Their ailments ranged from galloping consumption and rheumatism, plus tonsillitis, to syphilis and gonorrhea. Very few causes for admission appear to be injury or war-related, except for a head contusion sustained by one sailor when a hatch cover struck him.

In later years, it was a training facility for soldiers, sailors and nursing staff, as the hospital’s patients extended through the Spanish-American War.

The hospital’s building site was chosen because it was near the Navy Yard and the Marine Barracks, where the government already owned two parcels of land.  On Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast between Ninth and 10th Streets Southeast, it was a good spot for the care and treatment of the men, but, unfortunately, none of the original plans has been found. As the Old Naval Hospital’s excellent website states, “Neither do we know the name of the architects who designed it, nor the contractors who built it.”   If the massive wrought iron fence surrounding the property didn’t have a plaque showing that “F(Frederick) & A(August) Schneider” made it weren’t there, as well as that it being identified in an 1870 photograph, that detail would not be known either!

It is a grand old red brick Italianate building with hooded windows on the upper floor and a portico at the main entrance, which boasts carved wooden posts and a balustrade that crowns the roof with its widow’s walk. In its contemporary renovation, the widow’s walk will conceal the newly installed elevator.  The beautiful mansard roof has unique hexagonal slates to set off the design.

Even the old carriage house will be reborn as a “family friendly café” after decade of disuse.  The total renovation cost will be about $10 million, and both the District of Columbia and the federal government already have provided initial funding.  From now on, it’s up to the Old Naval Hospital Foundation to complete the job.

Style and attention to detail even pops up in that 7-foot fence:  Each section has 13 vertical bars for the 13 original states, and these rise from a base that has a row of seven cast-iron compass-type circles, which represent the number of seas that the gallant Navy sailed. One wonders how many people, then and now, passed them with no idea of the significance.  The fence is further decorated with numerous stars and is quite impressive.

An alert here: Through the years, many of the stars have “walked away.”  Presently, one of the large, pointed finials of the fence has disappeared – its return is essential so that duplicates can be made. Anyone with information about the missing finial can contact the writer, who will see that it reaches the right persons.

But back to history.  By 1922, the old hospital began accepting veterans from all branches of the service, providing either long-term disability care or services for those seeking pension relief.  Red tape wrapped as slowly and surely around each petitioner then as it does today, and the hospital provided a place for would-be recipients to reside during the interim.  Several other uses were needed and provided, until it finally was left vacant.

Between 1992 and 1998, it became a temporary home for troubled youths trying to find their ways in a society that considered them throwaway kids, as disposable as their numerous toys and digital accessories.  It was not an easy respite lacking regulations. Classes were held in all fields, from martial arts to arts and crafts, but the young people had to be involved in some actually productive activity.  They had to plant flowers and care for them, mow the mammoth areas of grass and paint the interminable fencing – no minor task at best.

With a staff of eight full-time workers and some 50 volunteers, it was a hard job.  Getting only $50,000 from the government, it took volunteers and a new organization, Friends of the Old Naval Hospital, to produce some $140,000 per year to keep the doors open (and the fence painted!)

But the best was yet to come.  As the building became more and more dilapidated and sat empty and deteriorating, a group of Capitol Hill neighbors stepped up to the fore.  Becoming the Old Naval Hospital Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization with vision and contacts, it set out to develop a plan for restoring the old hospital and giving it a suitable purpose in the 21st century.

And it’s working.  Much of southeast Washington is being revamped and renovated as folks from Capitol Hill move in and upgrade the beautiful old homes. One passes Federal period home after home, repainted and updated while retaining its early charm, flowers bloom in yards and flower boxes, and neighbors meet on the street and are working together to make the Hill Center a working reality. 

Donations are needed to complete the work, and a recent reception at the home of the Marine Corps. commandant, Gen. James T. Conway, brought some 200 people together interested in seeing it completed.  A website,, provides address and phone information for helping in assuring that the Old Naval Hospital soon will welcome “patients” of a different type to be assisted in a variety of ways.

The grand opening is set in the not-too-distant future, and I’ll update as I hear.  It is just so rewarding to see the old derelict become a vibrant center.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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