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‘We lost something special’: The women’s hospital in D.C. that became a Trader Joe’s

Nurses at work at Columbia Hospital for Women in 1953. (D.C. History Center)

Dwayne Lawson-Brown couldn’t find a home in his hometown.

He spent over a year searching the District in 2016, but everything was too pricey. Frustrated and mourning the Washington he knew as a child, Lawson-Brown, 35, decided to list all the places he’d “lost.” The list became a poem — a poem centered on the Columbia Hospital for Women.

Lil youngin’ born in Columbia Hospital for Women, it begins. Grief follows, threaded through the verse:

Black boy’s birthplace shut down …

Black boy’s birthplace turned into Trader Joes …

Wonders what the hell Joe been trading

To be able to afford his past

Many people share Lawson-Brown’s nostalgia for the hospital, which served the D.C. area for 136 years before shuttering in 2002 because of a lack of funds.

Columbia Women's Hospital to close

From its opening in 1866 until the Northwest Washington building was converted to a condominium complex — with a Trader Joe’s on the bottom floor — Columbia Women’s was the primary maternity hospital in the District. It served as the birthplace of roughly 275,000 people, including Al Gore, Julie Eisenhower Nixon and this reporter.

“For women in Washington, the hospital symbolized excellence,” said Jacqueline D. Bowens, the president and CEO of the District of Columbia Hospital Association. “There was no doubt if you told someone that you were delivering ... at Columbia, the expectation was that you were in the best hands.”

It was unique in several ways. Columbia Women’s was an innovator in neonatal care responsible for several milestones, including being the first to use babies’ footprints as a form of identification.

Its architectural setup in its last few years — boasting a well-ventilated central structure with radiating wings — was also pathbreaking, historians said. And it was unusual in receiving government funding over the decades as hospitals across the country privatized.

“It’s clearly a place of historical significance,” said Miriam Rich, who lectures on the history of medicine at Yale University.

But the most powerful legacy of Columbia Women’s may be its long-standing commitment to serving women — and the fact that, from its founding, it served individuals of all races, though it remained segregated until the 1960s.

The first congresswoman to give birth in office was no stranger to breaking boundaries

That’s one reason Lawson-Brown, who is African American, appreciated the hospital. Growing up, he often visited Columbia Women’s with his mother, who continued as a patient there after his birth in 1983. There were always “folks that look like me” walking around, he said.

The all-female nature of the space also left a mark.

“Throughout my childhood, my mom always told me I was ‘special’ because I was a little boy, but I was born at a hospital for women,” Lawson-Brown said. “I always kind of carried that with me. Even that small a thing, it meant a lot.”

‘A woman’s space’

Women who were poor and pregnant had it rough in Civil War-era Washington.

John Harry Thompson, an ex-Army physician, wrote in 1873 that impoverished women in the District delivered in public parks, in police stations and, once, on the steps of the State Department. There were a few hospitals but massive demand.

Concerned, Thompson decided he would open a hospital for women “open to all, without reference to color.” In 1866, after securing sufficient private and federal funding, Thompson — today credited as the hospital’s founder — achieved his goal.

Columbia Women’s opened for business inside a former mansion as a “hospital and dispensary for the treatment of diseases peculiar to women, and a lying-in asylum,” according to its congressional charter. Located for the first few years at Thomas Circle, the hospital in 1870 moved to 25th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, where it remained for the rest of its days.

Largely because of its government support, which continued until 1953, the 60-bed hospital was able to accept all comers regardless of ability to pay. Those who could cough up cash — between $6 and $10 a week — earned slightly better quarters.

Barbra M. Wall, a University of Virginia professor who studies the history of nursing and medicine, called the long-standing federal funding “fascinating.”

“The government taking care of poor women and children? Wow,” she said. “By 1920, the vast majority of hospitals in America are private.”

Another factor that decided accommodations at Columbia Women’s: race.

For much of its history, the hospital was segregated. Though it’s unclear how things worked in the mansion, a redesign in 1916 led to a system where penniless black patients received care on the first floor, penniless white patients on the second and paying customers on the third. (The hospital desegregated after protests in 1964.)

Still, Columbia Women’s was less racist than many places, according to Rich. Often 19th-century hospitals “outright turned away black patients” at the door, she said.

“It’s important not to oversell the progressiveness,” Rich said. “But I do think it’s right to emphasize the significance of a hospital that historically served a large percentage of African Americans.”

It wasn’t the only American hospital catering exclusively to women when it opened, Wall said, though it was one of a few. Around the time of the hospital’s founding, Thompson wrote he hoped Columbia Women’s would embrace “the accidents and maladies peculiar to the female sex."

Its adherence to that mission over the next century led the hospital to become a leader in infant care in the United States.

In 1919, it established a formal prenatal care program. Two years later, it launched a prenatal clinic, one of the first in the country — and in 1925, it became the first hospital to identify babies by their footprints. Columbia Women’s was also one of the first maternity hospitals to build a nursery for premature infants, and the first to offer classes for expectant fathers.

She coined the term ‘glass ceiling.’ She fears it will outlive her.

The hospital’s focus on women’s health had an unexpected side benefit: It probably allowed women to become doctors at a time when that was nearly impossible to do, Wall said.

“Anytime you have a women’s space, that’s important — because women could say, ‘Look, we’re women, so we’re the best ones to take care of other women,' ” she said. “So that’s how some women got their foot into the door of the medical world.”

‘We lost something special’

Jerry Price, the former vice president of Columbia Women’s, said he knows the hospital was cutting-edge — but it’s not medical innovations he remembers best.

It’s Miss Lucy.

Miss Lucy was a kitchen employee who worked at Columbia Women’s for more than six decades. Administrators, doctors and nurses recalled her early-morning singing — always gospel tunes — and her willingness to prepare custom snacks and meals.

“She would get you whatever you wanted, she was there at the crack of dawn, and she was like your mom away from home,” said Vivian Fraga, a Maryland-based gynecologist who did her residency at Columbia Women’s in the 1980s.

The entire staff was like that, Price said. Robert Sloan, another top administrator at the hospital, described the atmosphere as “very much a big family, where people took care of each other.”

Fraga said the physicians ate their meals with the residents, which is “almost unheard of.” No hospital Fraga has worked at since has equaled Columbia Women’s for a welcoming atmosphere, she said.

“That mold has been lost with the way hospitals are being run now,” Fraga said. “Hospitals are being run like corporations. It’s a lot of what I call clipboards: faceless policies.”

In part, it was the corporatization of American hospitals that spelled doom for Columbia Women’s, Sloan said.

The hospital had struggled with funding over the years, filing for bankruptcy in 1998. By the early 2000s, Columbia Women’s — boasting just 86 beds when it closed and still offering only obstetrics and gynecology services — could not compete with other area hospitals, all of them larger and offering more comprehensive care.

On May 7, 2002, it accepted its last patient. In 2006, Columbia Women’s was converted to a high-end condominium complex.

Bowens said the hospital, if open today, would help Washington combat its “myriad maternal health challenges.” According to government data, 36 women died for every 100,000 live births in Washington as of 2018. That’s high for a major metropolitan city — New York’s rate was 23 per 100,000 between 2013 and 2015, and the rate in Los Angeles was about 17 as of 2014.

“There is no question we lost something special,” Bowens said.

Kelley Baione Carpenter, who gave birth to her daughter at Columbia Women’s on July 14, 1997, cannot believe the hospital closed. Though her delivery stretched about 16 hours, she remembers it as a positive experience: Her room was large and bright, and the nurses fed her a constant diet of jello and ice chips (all she was allowed to eat given she was undergoing inducement).

“Even in the ’90s, it was still a time when women were, I don’t know, second-class citizens, we weren’t equals,” Carpenter said. “So I felt proud to be a woman with a female doctor in a women’s hospital, having a girl.”

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