The stately red-brick building with the carriage house and black iron fence has stood mostly vacant for years. But it is easy to look at the Old Naval Hospital on Capitol Hill and imagine when it was busy and vital, as a hospital for sailors and Marines recovering from wounds received in the Civil War.
Now, the property at 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE is set for a new lease on life. Last week, the D.C. Office of Property Management began welcoming proposals for the 140-year-old building's "restoration, renovation and reuse." The District has allocated $6 million for the project, and many longtime champions of the historic facility are hoping it will be revived as some sort of neighborhood center.
"It's a real jewel of Capitol Hill that's been covered in all the muck and mire of the years," said Greg Richey, president of the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital, a nonprofit group of Capitol Hill residents. "And it can be a real center for the community if we can ever see it to the point where it is restored."
The 2 1/2 -story building was constructed at the close of the Civil War and opened as the "Naval Hospital, Washington City," on Oct. 1, 1866, with a 50-patient capacity. Its first patient was a 24-year-old black sailor named Benjamin Drummond, who had been shot in the shoulder and both legs during a battle off the Texas coast, according to the group. Hospital records show that his wounds were slow to heal, and Drummond was in great pain during his year-and-a-half stay.
The facility remained a Naval Hospital for 40 years, until 1906, and later served as a Hospital Corps Training School and a temporary home for veterans attending to business in Washington. After the Navy transferred jurisdiction over the building to the D.C. government in 1962, it was used for anti-poverty programs and leased to the private Center for Youth Services. But in recent years, it has been mostly empty, except for occasional use by a Neighborhood Advisory Commission.
The building, with its crumbling but gracious Greek Revival and Second Empire flourishes, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. In 2000, the D.C. Council considered the building as a possible site for a mayoral mansion, if one were to be funded.
"It's tragically underutilized right now," said Lars Etzkorn, director of the Office of Property Management. "We encourage the submission of creative self-sustaining uses."
Proposals will be accepted until March 12. Etzkorn said the ideal tenant would be a group "sympathetic to the historic integrity" of the building.
This is the agency's second request for proposals for the building's future. In 2004, the Office of Property Management approved a plan that would have put a yoga institute on the site. But then-Mayor Anthony Williams, who wanted a broader community use of the building, opposed the selection.
As the latest debate gets underway, Richey says the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital "are not advocating for or against any particular use." He said the group, which formed in 1999, is just concerned about "this beautiful building right in the midst of our community, going to waste."
Located two blocks from Eastern Market and a 15-minute walk from the Supreme Court and the U.S. Capitol, the Old Naval Hospital is in the center of a thriving neighborhood. (Abraham Lincoln, who commissioned the hospital, is said to have insisted that the facility be within walking distance of Navy Yard and the Marine Barracks.) Etzkorn said the structure has had very little updating over the years, but an engineering assessment found the building to be sound. Most of the walls, doors and staircases are original.
"When you walk in, you know that you're in a Civil War structure," he said.
As a first step toward restoration, the Office of Property Management recently began refurbishing the original iron fence that surrounds the property. In the February edition of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society News, a plea was put out to the "good neighbors" who "have rescued pieces of the ONH fence that were at risk of destruction" to make arrangements to return them.
Richey said the developments are encouraging to a group that has worked so long to champion the building. But he is a bit concerned about the tight deadline for proposals.
"We've gone through years like this -- there's no reason not to extend it a couple of months to give people more time," he said. "We're not in a rush. We want it done right."