Past, Present, and Future
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 at 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 and 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 and Spanish-American wars. 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.
A Call for Rebirth
In 2000, a small group of neighbors concerned about the historic site’s deterioration and neglect founded the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital. They set three goals: to see the place 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.
They also wanted to make sure the District government heard the voice of the community. To this end, the Friends hired the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to study the Old Naval Hospital and propose a strategy for its redevelopment and reuse. After examining the site and meeting with neighborhood residents and organizations, the ULI concluded that the District should select a tenant for the building that serves and represents the community.
Creation of the Hill Center
In 2002, a diverse coalition of Capitol Hill neighbors organized the Old Naval Hospital Foundation. With input from hundreds of Hill residents, the ONHF developed a comprehensive plan for the site's reuse as an educational center for children and adults and a gathering place for community residents. After a lengthy bidding and review process, the Hill Center plan was accepted by the city in August 2007. A major renovation of the site, including careful restoration of the building's exterior and monumental fence to their 19th century appearance, is now fully completed.
Who We Are
The Hill Center plan is the work of the Old Naval Hospital Foundation, a broad coalition of Capitol Hill neighbors committed to seeing this landmark property fully restored and kept in community use as a thriving arts, culture, and education center. We are governed by an all-volunteer board of directors. Diana Ingraham is the Executive Director of Hill Center and is responsible for hiring professional staff and managing Center operations.