From Decay, Old Naval Hospital Brings Unity

Posted June 8, 2010 at 4:56pm

Cracked red paint covers the Old Naval Hospital on the corner of Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast. Its insides are worse, with cracks in the floors, missing pieces of door frames and a musty smell emanating from the basement.

But starting this weekend, the building that has sat deteriorating for decades will receive a facelift that will turn it into the heartbeat of the community.

At least that’s what Nicky Cymrot, president of the Old Naval Hospital Foundation, thinks. She heads the effort to turn the more than 140-year-old building into the Hill Center, a community center specializing in arts and education for the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the building’s restoration is 2:30-4 p.m. Sunday. The ceremony, which serves as the first formal introduction of the Hill Center to the community, will feature an ice cream social and performances from a New Orleans jazz band and the United States Navy Band and Ceremonial Guard.

Those who attend the ceremony will also hear speeches from City Councilmember Tommy Wells; D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D); Rear Adm. Thomas Cullison, the Navy deputy surgeon general; City Council Chairman Vincent Gray; and former City Councilmember Sharon Ambrose.

The Hill Center aims to turn the historical building into a place that offers after-school programs, office space for local nonprofit organizations and language classes, and more. It will open by summer 2011, Cymrot said.

The center will have 12 multipurpose rooms throughout its first three floors and office space on its fourth. The basement will be turned into the entrance hall, while an elevator and new staircases will be installed to meet fire code regulations. The building will also feature a catering kitchen for events.

The cost of the restoration is $10 million, Cymrot said. The District of Columbia funded $5.4 million of that cost, while the federal government gave $2 million. The foundation decided to use the federal money as a reserve fund for operating costs during the center’s first few years.

“Oftentimes with restoration projects, people are excited about getting started but then don’t have the money to keep going once it’s all said and done,” Cymrot said.

The foundation needs to raise $3.2 million to supplement the costs of the restoration. Donations can be made in ways such as adopting a part of the original historic fence that surrounds the old hospital or sponsoring different rooms in the building.

Heather Dixon, a Capitol Hill resident, remembers when the initial efforts to turn the building into something more than a decaying structure began. She’s excited to see that the survey she answered a few years ago has resulted in a project that’s finally coming to fruition, she said. She plans to attend Sunday’s groundbreaking with her sons, ages 7 and 9.

“I don’t think there is a place in this community that has a place where you can just go and do things with your family,” Dixon said. “This will be a nice change.”

Rosemary Freeman, a volunteer for the Old Naval Hospital Foundation, said she’s noticed the response that the community has had to the project.

“There’s such an enthusiasm about it,” she said.

Cymrot said this project has been a long time coming. She and her husband, Steve, moved to the neighborhood in 1966, raising their two children there.

She noticed the old hospital while she was involved in several organizations around the community.

“All of us who’ve lived here always saw the building and wondered, ‘What in the world is it?'” she said.

The answer to Cymrot’s question isn’t simple, according to research done by the Old Naval Hospital Foundation. The building was originally a hospital built by the Navy in the 1860s to meet a critical need for hospital care during the Civil War. It wasn’t completed until 1866, after the war had ended.

The Navy used the building as a hospital until 1911, caring for veterans of the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. After that, it became the Hospital Corps Training School, where sailors were taught about nursing, hygiene and anatomy.

In 1922, it became the Temporary Home for Old Soldiers and Sailors, a private institution that provided a place to stay for veterans while they waited for their pension claims to go through.

The Navy transferred control of the building to the District of Columbia in 1962, when the old hospital became the site for several social service organizations.

Through the years, the building fell into disrepair, as little money was spent on its upkeep. For the past decade, it has sat mostly vacant, except for holding advisory neighborhood commission meetings.

In 2000, a group of people in the Capitol Hill neighborhood founded the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital. After seeing the plight of the building, they wanted it to be properly restored and turned over to a tenant that would take care of it.

To make sure that community voices were a part of the process, the group hired the Urban Land Institute to study the hospital and come up with a proposal for its redevelopment. The ULI concluded that the building should go to an organization that would give something back to the community.

With ULI’s recommendations and the insistence of Capitol Hill residents, the city twice put out a request for proposals to restore the building. During the second round, the Old Naval Hospital Foundation proposed the Hill Center, which served the objective initially proposed by ULI a few years earlier. The city approved the proposal in April 2009. Since then, plans have been under way to get the reconstruction started.

Part of what made the Hill Center plan stand out was its business plan, Cymrot said. The foundation has put together a plan that will keep the community center going. The $2 million in federal money will serve as reserve operating funds during its first few years in business.

The project will also turn the old carriage house into a cafe, providing some income for the center. Space on the fourth floor of the building will be rented to nonprofit organizations at an affordable rate. Like many other community centers, fees for its classes will go to the Hill Center.