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A Hospital's Storied Halls
Relics of Walter Reed's Famed Patients Face Uncertain Fate

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."

Walter Reed has been hosting VIPs at least since the 1940s. In May 1941, Pershing, who had led the U.S. Army in Europe during World War I, moved from Washington's Carlton Hotel to the original, 1909 hospital building.

He was 81, and the hospital built a special three-room suite for him, Pierce said during a visit there last week. The suite, where Pershing held court, has also been preserved, largely as Pershing left it.

After World War II broke out, Gen. George S. Patton, once Pershing's aide, called on the general before being sent overseas. Patton knelt and asked for Pershing's blessing. The oriental rug on the floor is the one on which Patton knelt, Pierce said.

Harry S. Truman, who had served under Pershing during World War I, also called on him after becoming president in 1945. In 1946, the suite was the site of the marriage of Pershing, a widower, and his longtime lover, the portrait painter Micheline Resco. Pershing died in the suite in 1948.

In 1946, the hospital established what was called Ward 8 -- a special facility down a corridor from Pershing's suite where Truman could receive medical care. Ward 8 became the official VIP area.

Former secretaries of state Marshall and John Foster Dulles died there in 1959, retired World War II Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur was treated there in 1964, right before his death, and Eisenhower died there five years later.

The tradition continued after the new hospital building was dedicated in 1977 and a new VIP facility, the Executive Nursing Unit, or Ward 72, was opened. Hospital officials declined to provide access to the ward or discuss its history, but they did say such a unit would be continued elsewhere after the hospital closes.

"It's a secure ward," said Pierce, who was its nominal chief for three years. "The reason it's up there is to take care of people who need a higher level of security than the average person." He said that it has its own kitchen and that the rooms have bulletproof windows.

Numerous high-ranking military, government and foreign officials have been treated there.

Pierce said that when the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman was there, he expressed a desire for watermelon. "The kitchen didn't have any, so I said, 'Well, I'll go see if I can find some,' " he said. "I drove down to the Safeway down Georgia Avenue here and bought him a piece of watermelon and brought it back. I don't know whether he liked it or not."

Pierce said Tudjman was one of three foreign presidents cared for in the ward while he was medical director. At the time, he said, President Bill Clinton got his checkups at the Navy's medical center. "Our motto," Pierce said jokingly, "was three out of four presidents prefer Walter Reed."

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