History at the Hill Center
March 18, 2012, Washington, DC: On Thursday evening, I stood outside the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital talking with three of my Capitol Hill neighbors I'd met that day. We were discussing the history of the place, led by Peter McCall and Barry Harrelson, both residents of the Hill since the early 1970s and volunteer historians charged with launching a docent program and leading tours here beginning next month. McCall and Harrelson agreed to take a practice run of the recently renovated building with me, and together they were painting a picture of what the Hill Center and its environs looked like when the building opened as a hospital here in 1866. What a fascinating neighborhood this was and still is!
My neighborhood in the late 1800s was full of characters who would later make their mark far and wide beyond these blocks. At the time the hospital opened, an artist living in the neighborhood named Constantino Brumidi had just finished his massive fresco in the dome of the U.S. Capitol, and a teenager named John Philip Sousa was living at home a few blocks away before his father enlisted his son and soon-to-be famous composer in the Marine Corps in 1868. In 1866, the war had already ended as the hospital admitted its first patient, 24-year-old African American seaman Benjamin Drummond. Just one year earlier, John Wilkes Booth had jetted past this very spot on horseback fleeing the Ford Theater after committing his crime.
The houses across the street from the hospital on Pennsylvania Avenue weren't yet built at the time of the hospital's opening; they'd come on the block some fifteen to twenty years later. But without them obstructing the view, we'd likely have been able to see a home being constructed that is strangely now owned by a member of the group I stood here with this week. The street itself was raised higher then, a dirt thoroughfare leading east out of the city to crossings over the Anacostia River. Tunnicliffs Tavern, still in business today a few blocks away, would have already come and gone from its original location next door to the hospital on the lot now occupied by the gas station. In 1882, the Haines building that now houses Dunkin Donuts would rise on the corner of 8th St. SE, becoming a successful, woman-owned department store run by Elizabeth A. Haines.
Despite dramatic changes to the neighborhood, the hospital building itself would have looked strikingly like it does today, adorned with this unique wrought-iron fence, these very paint colors, and these intricate architectural details crafted back then by Ammi B. Young. And today, as it has for decades, the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital is reemerging as an integral neighborhood institution. Reopened just this winter after playing many roles since its days as a hospital, the Hill Center now stands as a community hub for arts and culture, an office space for non-profits, and a gathering place for performances, classes, readings and special events.
Perhaps most compelling of all, the notable neighbors who made their mark on these streets before, during and after the hospital's heyday are now recognized throughout the Hill Center. Their names pop up on signs and in stories throughout the building as this old neighborhood institution begins its latest chapter.
Related Posts on Neighborhood Nomad:
- Documenting Hometown History (March 3, 2012)
- Neighborhood Nomad: David of Navy Yard (March 5, 2012)
- Historic Hubs: San Francisco's Ferry Building and DC's Eastern Market (February 24, 2012)
- Map of Mornings: H St. NE (January 4, 2012)
- Map of Mornings: Barracks Row (September 24, 2011)
- The City That Never Was (December 11, 2011)