A Hospital's Storied Halls

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 15, 2006

Along these hospital halls shuffled the aging heroes of the 20th century.

The octogenarian World War I Gen. John J. Pershing set up house here in a wood-paneled suite overlooking a garden of roses and secretly married his longtime French-Romanian lover two years before he died.

Former president Dwight D. Eisenhower spent the final 11 months of his life here, enduring a cruel series of heart attacks before finally uttering: "I want to go; God take me."

Here, former British prime minister Winston Churchill came to visit the dying former secretary of state George C. Marshall, who was bedridden and crippled by strokes.

The third floor of Walter Reed Army Medical Center's old hospital building is haunted by vanished titans of history. With the Pentagon slated to abandon the medical center, there are fears its historic halls may vanish, too.

In the summer, the federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission recommended that the hospital be shut down and that many of its functions be merged with those of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. Walter Reed has been on Georgia Avenue in Northwest Washington since 1909.

The recommendations became law in November. City and hospital officials don't know what will become of the 113-acre, 73-building complex, including the original hospital structure, which now houses offices, and the current 1970s-era hospital building. Other federal agencies have until tomorrow to declare interest, and the District says it will help come up with ideas for redeveloping the site.

D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), whose ward includes the hospital, said he would be shocked if historic buildings on the grounds could not be preserved.

But John R. Pierce, who was chief of the medical staff from 1995 to 1998 and is the hospital's unofficial historian, fears the worst, especially for the original building.

"This is an old building," he said last week, standing in the preserved third-floor suite where Eisenhower died in 1969. "If it's sold to a developer, then they could tear any and all of it down. Implode it, I guess. You'd see it on TV one day tumbling down. Back up a dump truck and haul it off."

"Nobody really knows what's going to happen," said Pierce, a retired Army colonel and pediatrician who is a medical inspector with the Veterans Health Administration.

"So many great war heroes and presidents and other people actually walked and talked in these rooms," he said. "It would be a shame to lose that part of history. I won't call it tragic, because tragedy ought to be saved for some other thing, but it would be a big loss."

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