Hill Center Brings New Life to Old Naval Hospital on Capitol Hill

One year, $10 million project transforms building into state-of-the-art community center for area residents

By Tim Ebner / TheHillisHome.com

Monday, Dec. 12, 2011

Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital The Hill Center, which opened in November 2011, is a full-use community center offering activity, programming, exhibition and office space for the Capitol Hill community. The rehabilitation focused on updating historic features including the distinctive wrought iron fence surrounding the campus. (Photo by Tim Ebner/TheHillisHome.com)

Hill Center Opening Night Five Artists Gallery Showing The opening art exhibition at the Hill Center features artwork from five local artists in Washington. Works by Tati Kaupp hang in the Constantino Brumidi gallery, named for the Italian artist who painted several murals in the United States Capitol. (Photo by Tim Ebner/TheHillisHome.com)

Hill Center Opening Night Five Artists Gallery Showing Photographer, Colin Winterbottom, talks to visitors at the Hill Center's opening night art show. His distinctive black-and-white photos depict iconic scenes of Washington and were selected as part of the center's grand opening exhibit, which runs until Jan. 1, 2012. (Photo by Tim Ebner/TheHillisHome.com)

WASHINGTON - On a brisk fall morning, Rosemary Berkley Freeman leads a volunteer army of Capitol Hill neighbors, who are up early on a Sunday morning to plant more than 12,000 daffodil bulbs on the grounds of the Old Naval Hospital on Capitol Hill.

"We volunteered because we live in the neighborhood," said Freeman. "Once the bulbs pop-up this spring, it will really make the campus beautiful."

The bulbs, donated by a local landscaper, represent the final project in a long list of renovations and improvements that have taken place in the last year at this historic building. In total, more than $10 million was spent to revive the Old Naval Hospital from a dilapidated and rundown facility to a state-of-the-art community center for Capitol Hill.

The Hill Center is located within sight distance of the United States Capitol and in many ways is a community center that pays tribute to neighborhood's rich history.

The construction focused on preserving historical components of the building, while integrating new technology and environmentally friendly design, like an efficient geothermal heating and cooling system that was dug more than 350 feet beneath the building.

Now, more than one month after the project's completion, the Hill Center is humming with activity.

"I'm glad there is a space for me on Capitol Hill," said local artist and photographer Colin Winterbottom. "I have lived here for many years, and it's great to see a grand old building be brought back to life."

Winterbottom has been photographing Washington's iconic architecture for more than 16 years, and his black-and-white images now hang in the gallery space of the Hill Center.

"My prints depict Washington architecture, and they are in a building that is a great example of Victorian architecture," he said.

Capitol Hill is a neighborhood rooted in community pride, but for many years it lacked a common space where people could gather.

The art exhibit at the Hill Center kicked off programming at the Hill Center. The exhibit features the work of five local artists.

And, the exhibit's opening night was a major milestone for the community, which helped to revive the Old Naval Hospital.

"What was really needed was a community center. It's a place where folks can meet for civic, cultural and educational activity. Before, this really didn't exist on the Hill," said Diana Ingraham, executive director of the Hill Center.

On any given day, the Hill Center can host neighborhood meetings, guest lectures, art exhibits, business and conference meetings, cultural events and demonstrational classes, including a variety of cooking courses in the fully functional classroom kitchen. The center essentially gathers many different activities that have been dispersed amongst several different facilities for years, Ingraham said.

"There is a big demand from local business and community groups for the space that we offer."

A Focus on History

The building not only serves the local community, it also pays tribute to the hospital's historical legacy.

The Old Naval Hospital was Washington's first naval hospital commissioned by Abraham Lincoln in 1864. The facility was built alongside the Washington Navy Yard and served as a military hospital for more than 45 years.

Now, each of the rooms are named in honor of important historical figures, like John Philip Sousa, who grew up just blocks away from the center on G Street.

Lesser known figures are honored too. One of the main rooms is named for Benjamin Drummond, the first patient received at the Naval Hospital. Drummond was an African American seaman and was treated during the Civil War after escaping a Confederate prison in Texas.

In 1922, the building transitioned from a hospital to a privately run soldier's home, and eventually it would became a city owned property, used for a variety of civic purposes. For the last 13 years, the Old Naval Hospital sat vacant. After years of neglect, a community movement helped to bring the building back to life.

The process began with a group of Capitol Hill neighbors, who banded together to form the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital. The group researched the building's history and promoted its long-term and continued use. After years of advocacy, the Old Naval Hospital Foundation was formed in 2002. The foundation raised money and planned for the eventual development of a community center, which broke ground in 2010.

"The architect and builders did an absolute exquisite job of giving a nod and homage to the fact that this is a service building. It was very important to keep a foot in the 19th century, while also moving into the 21st century with a whole different range of cultural events and technological trainings," Ingraham said.

Good Fences, Make Good Neighbors

The building has numerous architectural features, including a distinctive fence which surrounds the campus. More than $1 million was spent to restore the wrought iron fence. Piece by piece it was carefully dismantled and sent to an iron foundry in Baltimore for major repair work and a new coat of paint. When the project started, the fence showed obvious signs of wear and rust and several pieces were either broken or missing.

The fence restoration was important because of its symbolism and unique design. Each section of the fence has 13 vertical bars, corresponding to the 13 original American colonies, and there are seven compasses along the bottom border of the fence, a tribute to the Navy and the seven seas.

Construction crews also preserved many of the features inside the building. All of the windows and doors were removed and restored back to their original condition, and the walls were re-plastered in a similar method used in the 19th century.

Creating a 'Hub of Activity'

The center houses more than a dozen rooms for programming, including several meeting and event spaces that are available to the public to rent. In the spring, a café, housed within the adjacent carriage house will open and offer outdoor patio space for eating.

"Our goal has been to create a space where people come to gather and meet," Ingraham said. "This really will be a hub of activity."

Within the last few weeks of construction, several nonprofits moved into the building. The top floor serves as an incubator office space for several nonprofits, most of which work within the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

But the center is not all business. Meeting and conference rooms double as yoga and dance studios, depending on the time of day.

Already a number of local businesses are getting involved in the programming too. Popular Capitol Hill retailers, like Frager's Hardware, Capitol Hill Yoga and Shakespeare Theatre Company will operate regular classes within the building. And, Byte Back, a tech nonprofit, will offer computer and professional skills training to low income residents searching for jobs.

"Initially, because we are so new, it's very clear that it's a win-win situation to collaborate with existing businesses and organizations in the neighborhood," Ingraham said. And, demand for programming continues to increase as more residents visit the center, she said.

For Winterbottom, the chance to exhibit his art also has helped him establish ties with local artists.

"This is what we've needed for years. By bringing together neighbors, the center is helping to strengthen the community."

To see a full listing of events and activities taking place at the Hill Center, please visit: http://www.hillcenterdc.org.

Interactive Timeline: Transforming the Old Naval Hospital in One Year

Related Links:

View The Hill Center in a larger map

Upcoming programs, activities and classes at the Hill Center

Hill Center coverage from TheHillisHome.com

Historical Background from the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital

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