Preservation Notes: Color Us Green 10-24-22

This version of Preservation Notes takes a look at how a 150-year-old building goes green.
The Old Naval Hospital was built just as scientists were beginning to connect human activity to its effect on the environment. Around the time of the hospital’s 1866 opening for Civil War veterans, scientists linked climate change to concentrations of human-generated carbon dioxide, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels.

A century and a half later, the building was rehabilitated as Hill Center – a gathering place for education, lifelong learning, civic discussion and the arts – with concerns about the changing climate well in mind. The renaissance of the landmark building was a combination of meticulous historical renovation and the cutting edge technologies of modern “green” architecture. By combining energy efficient, environmentally advanced and practical approaches, the project has become a model for adapting a historic structure for modern use.

The board of directors of the Old Naval Hospital Foundation made the decision to use the latest environmentally conscious technologies for the renovation. “The board determined at the outset that it had a responsibility to take every feasible opportunity to rehabilitate the Hill Center to be energy efficient and to have a healthy environment,” said Nicky Cymrot, the board’s first president. “We are planning for future generations who will use this new facility and we want energy costs to be as low as possible.”

Key “green” features of Hill Center include:
  • A geothermal heating and cooling system that eliminates the need to use most fossil fuels and reduces energy costs. A construction team drilled 32 wells depth 350 feet deep to accommodate the necessary pipes. In the winter, heat is extracted from deep in the ground where the average temperature remains at about 55 degrees. In summer, heat extracted from the building is pumped back into the ground. The system was the first of this scale in a D.C. historic building.
  • A machine-roomless elevator eliminates the old hydraulic system, saving energy and space. Instead of the energy- and space-wasting hydraulic system housed in a separate machine room, Hill Center’s elevator runs on an electric hoisting device housed on the side of the elevator cab and lifted up and down by cables. This kind of elevator uses a third to half as much energy, does not require oil and is made largely with recyclable materials.
  • Compact fluorescent and LED lighting is used throughout the building for energy efficiency.
  • Low-flow faucets and toilet sharply reduce water use.
  • Retention of original materials not only enhances historical accuracy but reduces water and minimizes resource depletion. Recycled materials from local sources were used whenever practical. For example, all wood is from Forest Stewardship Council certified forests. Many original materials were retained and re-used. Parts of damaged joists were salvaged to repair others. The original doors, molding, floors and windows were retained. Plaster walls were repaired rather than replacing them with drywall.
  • Rain garden landscaping filters run-off and minimizes storm water discharge.

All paints, finishes and glues used were formulated to emit fewer toxins such as formaldehyde. Some materials such as tung oil finish and linoleum flooring, are both historically appropriate and less toxic.

Finally, the proximity of public transportation such as Metro and the easy access for pedestrians and bicyclists diminishes the need for cars.

Maintaining these innovations, of course, is not inexpensive. While our operating income is enough for all routine operating expenses, it is not adequate to cover a large capital expense.

That’s why we established the John Franzén Preservation Endowment. Based on a thorough professional study of the building’s future capital needs, we know the endowment, once fully funded, will generate enough investment income to guarantee Hill Center’s first-rate preservation and upkeep for generations to come.  
To support the John Franzén Preservation Fund, please donate online or call Scott St. Onge, director of development, at (202) 549-4172.


Bonny Wolf
Board Member
Old Naval Hospital Foundation

Dedicated to John Franzén and Donna Scheeder, past presidents of the Old Naval Hospital board of directors. Their legacy lives on in our hearts and through our passion to impact those that will follow in our footsteps.

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