At Pennsylvania Avenue and Ninth Street SE, a large, handsome brick building stands back from the street on a slight rise. The Old Naval Hospital, built just after the Civil War to care for wounded sailors, is surrounded by an elaborate fence that is broken in places. Peeling white paint outlines its windows and elaborate iron steps lead to its entrances. The stairs to its E Street entrance are hazardous and have been cordoned off. Homeless people sleep in the sunken areas by its basement windows.
Clearly, the building is in an advanced state of disrepair. But it doesn't have to be that way. This impressive old building on Capitol Hill could be renovated to house a small school, a day care center or an arts or community center. The Old Naval Hospital once was even spoken of as a suitable residence for the mayor. It is estimated that $10 million will be needed to restore the building.
A neighborhood group, Friends of the Old Naval Hospital, invested six years of effort in trying to turn the building into an asset instead of a dangerous eyesore. The group consulted the Urban Land Institute about the potential uses for the Old Naval Hospital, and it researched the building's history, ownership and financing.
The hospital was authorized by Congress in 1864 in an act signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The first patient arrived in October 1866; he was an African American sailor suffering from a chronic illness as a result of wounds he received in a battle off the Texas coast.
The federal government owned the building for most of its working life, but since 1966 the structure has been administered by the D.C. Office of Property Management, which has done little to maintain it.
After the neighborhood group got the city's attention, the Office of Property Management issued a request for proposals. The idea was to attract institutions that could pay for rehabilitating the building so that it could become the neighborhood centerpiece that it deserves to be.
That was in August 2003. In spring 2004 the contents of two proposals were revealed. One was submitted by the Old Naval Hospital Foundation, not to be confused with the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital. It proposed a community center and a library on the site.
The other proposal came from the International Art of Living Foundation, directed by Sri Sri Ravishankar. It proposed to offer courses in spirituality in part of the building but would leave about 88 percent of the space for community use.
Each proposal had its pros and cons. The Old Naval Hospital Foundation had plenty of local ties -- D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) is a member of its board, along with school board member Tommy Wells -- but it had raised only $2.5 million. It also planned to reconfigure the interior and alter the exterior of the building by adding glass walls. The International Art of Living had the money to restore the building, but it needed to develop local ties.
Last December a committee of historic preservationists, city planners, financial experts and representatives from the D.C. government recommended adoption of the International Art of Living proposal. But on April 10 Mayor Anthony A. Williams rejected both proposals without saying why.
Although both the International Art of Living Foundation and the Old Naval Hospital Foundation would like to resubmit proposals, no further request for proposals has been issued.
Now the Old Naval Hospital is unvisited, silent, abandoned. Sadly, its condition appears terminal unless some action is taken soon to get it on life support.
-- Ruth Mitchell