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Preservation Notes: The Navy & Square 948

This version of Preservation Notes begins at the beginning. Why was the country’s first permanent naval hospital built at 921 Pennsylvania Avenue S.E.?

Location, location, location.

Square 948, the ¾-acre site between E Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and 9th and 10th streets in southeast Washington, was the logical spot.

The Navy’s medical needs had been served from this location since the federal government moved to Washington in 1800. An apothecary shop at 9th and Pennsylvania provided medical services and supplies for the Navy in Washington’s early days. During the War of 1812, the naval surgeon rented a building on the corner of 10th and Pennsylvania. The site was close to both the Navy Yard and the Marine Barracks.

In addition, the Navy already owned two of the four lots on the square 948. In 1821, lots 1 and 2, were given to the federal government to pay $3,000 of the debt of Lewis DeBlois, a Navy purser who owned the property and who couldn’t seem to balance his personal books let alone those of the Navy. The Navy bought the other two vacant lots for just under $5,000 from Mary Prout Bradley who had inherited the land from her father William Prout, one of the city’s original landowners.

The neighborhood was largely undeveloped. Sewers had not been built and there were only a few houses. Pennsylvania Avenue was an unfinished road leading to a ferry across the Anacostia River.

Naval personnel were cared for at civilian hospitals until the Civil War filled D.C. with so many casualties that City Hall, Capitol buildings, churches and private homes were used for the wounded.

In the spring of 1864, President Abraham Lincoln asked Congress for $25,000 to build the U.S. Naval Hospital in Washington to care for Union sailors and marines injured in battle. A landmark building was finished two years later on square 948, nine blocks east of the Capitol, with a blend of Second Empire, Italianate and Greek Revival architectural styles.

Within 30 years of its opening, the building was considered obsolete as a hospital and was used for training, offices, a records center and finally as the Temporary Home for Veterans of All Wars, which closed in 1963. Control of the site was transferred to the District of Columbia and subsequently housed several social service organizations. The structure was not maintained, however, and age and moisture took their toll. After 1998, the main building stood essentially vacant. In 2000, neighbors and preservationists began planning for a proper restoration.

After 10 years of operating Hill Center, we know what it takes to maintain this exceptional building. Our operating income is enough for all routine operating expenses. It is not, however, adequate to cover a large capital expense, not unexpected in a building of this age.

That’s why we established the 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. Square 948 has always served its community and with our endowment, we can maintain that tradition.

Dedicated to John Franzén, late president of the Old Naval Hospital board of directors. Let his influence and leadership guide our efforts to impact those that will follow in our footsteps.

Thanks to Bonny Wolf, the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital and Maygene Daniels for much of this information, making this edition of Preservation Notes possible.

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