Whitman-Walker, a Longtime Front in AIDS War, Moves Out

By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The last of the boxes were hauled away yesterday from the Whitman-Walker Clinic at 1407 S St. NW. The moving truck made its final run. The rooms were empty. The heat was off.

A chandelier hung in the silence of the foyer. A chandelier in an AIDS clinic! It had long cast its ridiculous grandiose glow, shining over the certain morbidity of the early days when there were no drugs, no answers, no dignity and little relief.

Hundreds who walked through the doors of the building in the 1980s and 1990s died. And then hundreds more began to live.

If a physical space can capture the arc of an epidemic, the Whitman-Walker Clinic, at the corner of 14th and S streets, occupied the front lines of AIDS in Washington for 21 years. It was there when the average life expectancy for someone with AIDS was two years, and it was there when new drugs became available that made HIV infection a manageable disease to live with.

Whitman-Walker sold the property for $8 million to beat back mounting debt. The nonprofit community health organization will continue to operate from consolidated quarters two blocks south on 14th Street.

In one sense, the sale of the property was just another real estate deal among many in a neighborhood where lofts replace bodegas and galleries overtake graffiti. The developer plans a mixed-use retail and residential space.

But the move was a kind of requiem. In the weeks leading up to it, people showed up to say their goodbyes to a building where every room held a thousand stories. The medical exam room was bare except for the old blue Midmark 119 table upon which a generation of bodies had settled on crinkly paper.

The boxes in the hallway packed with old reports and binders also told a story. The cover of the clinic's 1987 annual report, titled "A Fighting Chance," featured three handsome young men on the cover. All of them died.

Upstairs were the paper shredders, kept at the ready in case the feds showed up with a subpoena for the names of HIV-infected patients.

"Names were very important in those days," said Patricia Hawkins, a psychologist and social worker with Whitman-Walker since 1984. "We lived in fear of raids."

When the names became less volatile, patients painted them on a mural downstairs in a bit of bright art expression. The wrecking ball will take the wall down soon, but as of yesterday it was still standing:

Here we are again

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