What was once Walter Reed Army Medical Center — hospital buildings, labs, administrative buildings, a medical museum and housing spread over 110 acres — is being redeveloped, 66 acres of it reborn as the Parks at Walter Reed.
“The developers have expressed an interest in gathering history from neighbors and longtime Washingtonians about both the site itself and all the neighborhoods that surround it,” said Maggie Downing, manager of the project for the DC History Center.
With a new neighborhood being built from scratch, it’s the perfect time to collect oral histories from the old neighborhoods.
“It’s interesting, because for a lot of people who are more recent transplants, it’s always been this closed-off space,” Downing said. “After the attacks of September 11th, it was closed to the public. For some people, it was a part of their everyday lives. They could visit there, get medical care there, use some of the public spaces and gardens.
“For others, never knowing anything about the site, this is an exciting chance to learn more about it — and for folks who lived and worked there to share their stories.”
Those include people from Brightwood, Takoma and Shepherd Park.
As a military dependent — in college, but still covered by my Air Force father’s health insurance — I always went to Bethesda Naval, the installation that in 2011 absorbed the Army post, becoming Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. My memories of Walter Reed are mainly from going there to do stories — about that museum, about the office that helped the families of soldiers injured in Afghanistan or Iraq.
But in the early 1980s, I dated a woman who was a medical secretary in the hospital’s neurology ward. That was when you could still drive onto the base. I’d turn off Georgia Avenue in my Mercury Comet, then wait for Daphne outside the hulking main hospital building. It seemed like that building would be there forever. It was demolished in 2018.
The DC History Center will be collecting stories outdoors at the Arts Plaza on the Parks campus, at 6803 Cameron Dr. NW, Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m. and again Oct. 27 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. There will also be a virtual meeting on Zoom on Nov. 4 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. You can register at dchistory.org.
Downing said some of the stories may lead to future projects, such as collecting oral histories or creating signage in the new development.
“We’re encouraging folks to bring photo albums or ephemera to better understand the story of the site,” Downing said. “When people start getting out their photo albums, that’s when the good storytelling happens.”
Do you know much about history?
Clueless about Walter Reed but fascinated about some other aspect of the District’s history? The DC History Center — what used to be called the Historical Society — still wants you. Planning is underway for its 48th annual DC History Conference, March 31 to April 2, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
Last year’s conference was virtual. Next year’s will be in person, with many sessions also streamed online. It’s moved from the fall to the spring. And for the first time, it will be free.
That’s not all that’s different.
“We’re trying to lower the barrier for entry, use slightly less academic language,” said Maren Orchard, program manager at the DC History Center. Conference organizers are putting out a call for “submissions,” not a call for “papers.” They want to encourage as much participation as possible.
Said Orchard, “We’re asking less for abstracts and more for what, in the industry, we call big ideas: What’s the project? Why does it matter? Who will care about it?”
If you’re interested, visit dchistory.org/conference.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.