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This Day in Hill Center History: May 3, 1974

This Day in Hill Center History: May 3, 1974

Voters in Washington, D.C., elected their first mayor since the Civil War the same year that the naval hospital built to serve soldiers of that war was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

On May 3, 1974, the historic building that now houses Hill Center, was added to the official federal register of the country’s historic places considered worthy of preservation. The same year, Walter Washington became the first D.C. mayor elected since the passage of Home Rule legislation the year before. It was a historic year in the District.

When the application was made to the National Register, the Old Naval Hospital was described as “an eclectic structure with Italianate and Greek Revival elements, though both are applied in a very restrained manner.”

What is now Little Pearl, a restaurant with one Michelin star, was in 1973 “a very handsome, although altered, stable … used for storage.”

Circa 1900

In 2009, an amendment to the original application was submitted to provide additional documentation to establish the national significance of the Old Naval Hospital. In 1974, the building was listed at the state level of significance. The new documents noted that the building was the only naval hospital built during Civil War as a permanent facility.

When construction was completed in 1866, the new brick structure at 921 Pennsylvania Ave. S.E. was known as the U.S. Naval Hospital. It was nine blocks east of the U.S. Capitol and within blocks of the Washington Navy Yard and the Marine Corps headquarters, both of which it served.

“The hospital is significant for its association with the movement to ensure the health and well-being of those serving in the U.S. Navy,” the 2009 addendum notes. “In 1811, President James Madison signed into law an act authorizing the establishment of a fund to be used for navy hospitals and for a permanent asylum for naval officers, seamen and marines. Along with the Marine Hospital Fund from which it arose, this Naval Hospital Fund was one of the earliest manifestations of federal involvement in the area of public health.”

It was the seventh of 11 permanent hospitals built by the Navy in the 19th century. Many of the other hospitals have been torn down or significantly altered. Because it has been largely unchanged, the Old Naval Hospital building provides an important example of hospital design during the Civil War. While Washington had as many as 50 hospitals at the time, most were tent camps or buildings converted for hospital use.

The original application and its addendum make 50-plus pages of diverting reading, quite appropriate during a public health epidemic.

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