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Preservation Notes: Feeding the Horses

When we set out to restore and refurbish the Old Naval Hospital site ten years ago to create Hill Center, our principal focus, of course, was on the handsome main building, which had fallen into serious disrepair.

The little carriage house on the property’s west edge now contains Little Pearl, a Michelin-star restaurant. But this story begins with …


When it opened in 1866, the Naval Hospital, Washington, as it was called, relied on horse-drawn ambulances, which were basically open gurneys on wagon wheels, and both the horses and the vehicles needed a place to stay.

So, the hospital’s designers included a small stable. At ground level it contained three horse stalls, while the shed roof on the north side, which today covers part of the restaurant’s patio, provided ambulance shelter.

As was typical for such structures, the upper level stored fodder, with a “hay door” on its west side and hay chutes reaching down to each of the stalls.

During renovation we preserved these wooden chutes – they’re on the east wall of the windowless room you pass by on your way out to the patio – and also the grain chutes on the opposite wall.

In fact, we retained not just these elements but as much as possible of the stable’s original fabric and layout.

Honoring the building’s history in this way resulted in a somewhat cramped and peculiar space that deterred a number of restaurateurs who came to view it for possible rental. Even with our addition of the glass-walled extension on the building’s east side, seating space for patrons was limited, and there was only one place to put the kitchen – upstairs.

For a restaurant, having an upstairs kitchen means more than hiring staff with young legs. Since warm air rises, it means a major build-up of heat up there that needs to be counteracted, without freezing the people downstairs.

Solving the air conditioning problem was but one of the significant expenses we encountered in the carriage house buildout. Another costly discovery was that the original tin roof on the main part of the building had deteriorated beyond repair and needed replacement.

To retain the appearance of the original roof while also ensuring durability, we went with best quality – zinc-coated copper – and faithfully replicated the built-in gutters.

We also found brick and mortar problems that hadn’t been anticipated in the renovation plan, while additional expensive surprises emerged as we pursued restoration of the Old Naval Hospital’s main building.

All of which ate into the financial cushion we’d built into our total renovation budget – a margin of $2 million that we’d planned to set aside as an endowment to cover long-term capital repair and replacement.

And eating into that cushion from the other end were a shortfall in fundraising and a longer-than-anticipated ramp-up of Hill Center operations. Eventually, in year four, the Center achieved its goal of covering all routine operating expenses with operating income (from course fees, ticket sales, space rentals, etc.) and we’ve continued to hit that mark ever since.

But we know now that operating revenue will not be enough to cover the big-ticket repair and replacement expenses when they come – things like new HVAC units, a new roof or a new elevator.

Which is why we’ve established the Hill Center Preservation Endowment. Based on a careful study of the entire property’s long-term needs, along with conservative projections for the equities market, we confidently expect our target amount of $3 million to generate investment income sufficient to keep the place in its current fine condition for generations to come.

Your generous support of this fund, both in the past and in the days ahead, will help ensure the physical integrity of a historic treasure – not just our main building and grounds but this quirky, charming stable, where the equine reminders remain and the food still comes from upstairs.

To learn more about the Hill Center Preservation Endowment or to donate online, visit

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