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History of the Old Naval Hospital

The Old Naval Hospital--A Capitol Hill Treasure

by Rodger Streitmatter

From the time that Washington, D.C., was first laid out as the nation’s capital in the late 1790s, Pennsylvania Avenue was established as the city’s most prominent street. In the early years of the next century, a small number of imposing structures—including the White House, the Capitol, and the Treasury Building—claimed positions of distinction along the grand thoroughfare. It was shortly after the Civil War that another important building took its place as an edifice of note and consequence along Pennsylvania Avenue:The United States Naval Hospital.

Abraham Lincoln had asked Congress, in the spring of 1864, to authorize the funds to build a facility to care for sailors and marines who had been injured in battle. Regrettably, the Great Emancipator was assassinated before construction was completed in the summer of 1866. The President, therefore, was denied the sense of pride and satisfaction that he undoubtedly would have felt if he had been able to preside over the dedication of the landmark building nine blocks east of the Capitol—a skillful blend of Second Empire, Italianate, and Greek Revival architectural styles.

The building that became known as the Old Naval Hospital was one of the first important public structures in the Capitol Hill section of the city and—quite remarkably—today stands virtually intact, complete with its exterior walls measuring two feet thick and surrounded by its magnificent iron fence.

For a century and a half, the Old Naval Hospital has remained unswervingly loyal both to the nation and the city that it has served in a wide variety of capacities. As the building has adapted to its numerous uses, it has not always been treated with the respect or the recognition that it clearly deserves, and yet there is no question that, through it all, the structure has retained its elegance and its stature as one of the architectural and historical treasures of Capitol Hill.

A Landmark Is Born

The chain of events that led to building the grand structure can be traced back to 1799 when the Secretary of the Navy began deducting twenty cents from the monthly pay of all sailors and marines. That revenue was set aside to ensure that ill and injured seamen would be cared for at designated civilian hospitals. The next step came in the early 1800s when the Department of the Navy designated two small frame structures of its own on the grounds of the Washington Navy Yard to serve as a medical facility.

It was the large number of men needing treatment during the Civil War that propelled President Lincoln to ask Congress to appropriate funds to construct a new and more spacious hospital. As the fighting advanced during the early 1860s, the President came to see that a fully equipped facility was needed to provide injured sailors and marines with the most advanced medical treatment available.

And so, in March 1864 the Commander in Chief attached his signature to a formal request that $25,000 of federal funds be appropriated to construct the United States Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C. A major consideration in selecting a site for the building was that it be located within easy walking distance of both the Navy Yard and the Marine Corps Barracks, both in the southeast quadrant of the city.This requirement was fulfilled by square 948 on Capitol Hill, which consisted of three-quarters of an acre bounded by E Street on the south, Pennsylvania Avenue on the north, Ninth Street on the west, and Tenth Street on the east.

The cost of building the two-and-a-half story brick structure, over a raised basement and with exterior measurements of ninety feet by sixty feet, increased substantially during construction because wartime conditions made materials scarce and transportation lines fragmented. By the time the facility at 921 E Street—the main entrance was on the south side of the building so it faced the Navy Yard—was completed in July 1866, the total expenditures had swollen to $115,000.

Anyone inclined toward criticizing the cost overruns grew silent upon viewing the fine details that were blended together to create an imposing piece of architecture. The most prominent of the Second Empire elements were the mansard roof composed of hexagonal slates and the quoining that highlighted each corner of the building. Italianate features included the hooded windows on the upper floors and the handsome portico that marked the main entrance, complete with carved wooden posts and a balustrade crowning the flat roof. The Greek Revival style was incorporated into the new hospital with the broad pediments that were set into the mansard roof on both the south and the north facades.

The grandeur of the building did not end with the myriad architectural details, however, as the structure was rendered more impressive still by the iron work that was integral to the project. Most memorable was the elaborate fence that stood seven feet high and extended the entire perimeter of the property. Washington ironsmiths Frederick and August Schneider, two brothers who had their office at the corner of Eighteenth and H in the northwest section of the city, created the unique design. Each section of the fence consisted of thirteen vertical bars—corresponding to the number of original states—that extended upward from a base created by a row of seven cast-iron compass circles—representing the number of seas that were the province of the Navy. Hundreds of cast iron stars decorated the fence.

Additional ironwork on the building itself made it clear that the hospital and the fence were a unified whole. At the main entrance on E Street, the cast iron staircase that led from the sidewalk to the wooden porch included a hand railing and tall standards that held large gas lamps on either side of the walkway. At the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance, the fine wrought iron filigree on the staircase and porch matched the gazebo that stood among the dogwood trees and forsythia bushes that were planted around both the main building and the carriage house on the western edge of the property.

Architectural details inside the structure included plastered walls, Georgia white pine planking on the floors, oak wainscoting on the stairwell, and woodwork trim around the doors and windows that was painted to simulate chestnut graining. Interior wooden shutters were attached to most of the building’s seventy-five windows, many of which were double hung but some of which were of the casement variety with knuckle hinges.

Caring for America’s Embattled Heroes

The United States Naval Hospital opened its doors on October 1, 1866.Benjamin Drummond, an African American, was the first man to be admitted. The twenty-four-year-old Union sailor had been shot in one shoulder and both legs in early 1863 when Confederate forces attacked the ship on which he was serving. Drummond was captured and placed in a prisoner of war camp. After a few months, however, he escaped from the rebels and returned to battle. Despite the passage of three years, his wounds had never fully healed, and so he was sent to Washington for treatment. The New York native remained at the hospital until March 1868 when he was discharged at the end of his term of enlistment.

The medical facilities at the new hospital were concentrated on the building’s second floor and included a dispensary, four wards for enlisted men, and a separate ward for officers. All of the wards were spacious, some measuring eighteen feet by thirty-five feet, others twenty-two by twenty-four. The largest room on the ground floor was the mess hall, with the rest of the space divided into administrative offices and the living quarters for the medical director and a surgeon who both resided in the building.

Doctors of the mid-nineteenth century believed that it was vital to allot each patient ample space during his treatment and recovery. The interior design of the building reflected this priority, with the two main floors both having fourteen-foot ceilings. Hospital records boast that, with a total of fifty beds in the various wards, each patient had 1,155 cubic feet of air to guarantee proper breathing.When a Department of the Navy physician visited the hospital to conduct research for an 1893 book titled Notes on Naval Hospitals, Medical Schools, and Training School for Nurses, he judged the ventilation in the Washington facility to be “remarkably good.” Dr. J.D. Gatewood was particularly complimentary of the plethora of metal grilles that were set into the walls—some near the ceiling, others close to the floor—to bring fresh air into the patient wards. He also had praise for the building’s plumbing system, writing, “The bath-rooms and water-closets on each floor are in the rear extension, which is 9 feet deep and 43 long. They contain good tubs, and well trapped bowls with overhead tanks.”

The building was heated by coal, with hot air distributed throughout the four levels via masonry shafts connected to a boiler room located in the basement. That lowest floor had nine-foot ceilings and was partially above ground level so light could enter through two dozen casement windows. Other space in the basement was devoted to a jail cell, the kitchen, the laundry room, and living quarters for the hospital’s apothecary.

The attic was divided into two large wards, but patients were placed there only when all other beds were filled, as the medical standards of the day determined that the nine-foot ceilings on that level were less than ideal for patient care. It is unclear how frequently that top floor was called into service, but some such occasions definitely occurred during the years immediately after the war. According to Dr. Gatewood’s book, at one point in 1871 the number of patients being housed in the building exceeded the capacity by more than a dozen.

As the decades passed, however, the number of patients being treated at the hospital declined markedly. During the initial year of occupancy, 181 men were treated; by 1885, that figure had dropped to 110. Annual reports completed by the Secretary of the Navy indicate that only a minimal amount of money was spent on maintaining the building. A close reading of the attention given to the Washington hospital in 1893, for example, shows that what was characterized as an “entire renovation” consisted merely of painting the interior woodwork and laying a new floor in the basement. None of the detailed reports makes any mention of updating the configuration of the wards or other space inside the hospital or adding on to the exterior of the building, which could have necessitated tearing down one or more of the formidable walls that had been constructed as part of the original ventilation system.

In his 1902 report, the Secretary of the Navy stated point blank that the medical facility, after thirty-six years of service and no major alterations, had become “antiquated and insufficient, and conforms in no respect to the conditions of modern hospital requirements.”

Continuing to Serve the Navy

The first two decades of the twentieth century marked a difficult period in the life of the building. Although the structure retained its elegant and dignified exterior, Navy officials forced the property to endure a long list of varied and sometimes ill-conceived uses that were not always in concert with its status as a historical and architectural landmark.

From 1902 to 1906, the building continued to provide medical treatment for ailing sailors and marines while a modern facility, dubbed the New Naval Hospital, was being constructed on Twenty-Third Street in the northwest quadrant of the city. It was at this point, then, that the Capitol Hill structure assumed the name that it is known by today: the Old Naval Hospital.

In 1906, some of the space in the older facility was used to care for Navy personnel with minor ailments while the rest of the building was vacant. Meanwhile, the second story of the carriage house became an isolation ward for sailors who suffered from contagious diseases. From 1907 to 1911, the main building was home to the Hospital Corps Training School that prepared enlisted men to provide medical treatment aboard the Navy’s various ships. Major modifications were made so the former hospital’s interior space could more adequately serve as an educational institution that provided living space for some sixty students. The changes included converting the basement into a dining room, the first floor into a lecture hall and reading room, and the second floor into dormitory space. School officials soon became dissatisfied with the property because the grounds were not large enough for military drilling and medical training exercises.

From 1911 to 1921, parts of the Old Naval Hospital served as the headquarters for the country’s Naval Reserves and as the Navy Records and Clerical Center. The sections of the building that were not suitable for offices, including the basement and most of the second and third floors, went unused for most of this period. During World War I, some of the vacant space was converted into a clinic where potential new recruits underwent their physical examinations.

In 1921, the Washington Post reported that the venerable edifice was on the brink of being torn down. The item read: “The old Naval hospital at Ninth and E streets southeast, for many years a Washington landmark, will probably be demolished or considerably remodeled in the near future, for it is obsolete for hospital use, and a bill has been introduced in Congress by [Michigan] Representative [Carl] Mapes to authorize the construction on the square where it stands of a branch of the District [of Columbia] public library.

“It is barely possible that the building may be remodeled for library use, or at least that a part of the structure may be retained, for the outer walls are some 2 feet thick and the interior walls more than a foot thick. But considerable expense would be necessary for remodeling, and it is probable that a new building would be more satisfactory, if the Mapes bill is passed. “The building dates back beyond the civil war times and had been abandoned as a naval hospital long before the world war, when it was once more returned to use for recruiting purposes and for storing naval records. [Navy] Secretary [Josephus] Daniels is said to be in sympathy with the plan to put up a branch library in the square.”

Opening the Doors to Men from All Services

Demolition was avoided when, in 1922, the Old Naval Hospital embarked on a new chapter in its history. Indeed, the landmark’s new use enabled it to serve a much larger constituency than its original mission had allowed.

By the third decade of the twentieth century, large numbers of former soldiers and sailors from the various branches of the armed services were coming to Washington to apply for benefits such as military pensions or long-term disability care. Because of the ever-increasing size and complexity of the federal bureaucracy, these veterans often were required to spend several days in the nation’s capital while wending their way through the various governmental departments and agencies.

The men needed a place to stay; the Old Naval Hospital provided it. The building’s Capitol Hill location made it particularly attractive as the Temporary Home for Soldiers and Sailors, as residents could either walk or use nearby streetcars to reach the offices where they needed to complete paperwork, answer questions, or undergo physical examinations. The structure’s interior space was well suited to its new role as well, with the fifty men eating their meals in the basement dining room, spending their free time playing cribbage or reminiscing about their military days while sitting in one of the lounge areas on the first floor, and sleeping on cots in the dormitory area on the third floor.

Any veteran could stay at the home for free as long as he had less than $50 in his pocket and no odor of alcohol on his breath. A resident was asked to leave, though, if he used “loud or indecent language” or was caught gambling. The men were assigned daily cleaning tasks, kitchen duties, and minor maintenance activities to assist the full-time staff that consisted of a superintendent, two cooks, a watchman, and a janitor.

According to the home’s rules, the word “temporary” meant that no one could remain in the facility for more than ten days. This particular regulation was not always enforced, though, with many veterans stretching their stay in the clean and comfortable facility well beyond the official limit. The most successful violator of the residency rule may have been George W. Branzell, an 83-year-old former cavalryman who fought in the Spanish-American War and stayed at the Old Naval Hospital for just under two years.

The bulk of the operating expenses for the home came from contributions by thirty-five veterans organizations, with especially hefty donations provided by the national offices of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, while Congress also made an annual appropriation. The building itself continued to be owned by the federal government, which leased it for $1 a year to a group of veterans who constituted the home’s board of managers.

For twenty years, the Old Naval Hospital proceeded smoothly in its role as a residential facility. A problem arose in 1942, however, when the District of Columbia’s property survey officer, Paul Chalupsky, announced plans to tear down the fence surrounding the building and use the iron to make bullets needed to fight World War II. Members of the home’s board of managers were so opposed to the plan, saying the fence was historically significant, that they presented an ultimatum: If Chalupsky scrapped the fence, they would close the home. Faced with the prospect of turning fifty aged veterans into the street in the middle of a world war, the officer withdrew his proposal.

But soon after the war ended, the Temporary Home for Soldiers and Sailors faced an even more formidable threat. In 1947, Congress stopped appropriating money to the facility and, instead, began requiring the District of Columbia to provide the funds—about $45,000 annually—to supplement the contributions by the veteran groups. District officials were not happy with the new arrangement, as virtually none of the men living in the home were permanent residents of the city. By the mid 1950s, the facility was surviving only because, each year, the board of managers persuaded members of Congress to force the District to come up with the money to keep the home alive. In 1963, that annual effort failed, and the home closed its doors.

Serving the District of Columbia

After first being used by the United States Navy for almost six decades and then providing a home for veterans of all branches of the military for another four decades, the Old Naval Hospital faced an uncertain future. For almost two years, the historic building stood vacant—its windows covered with plywood and “No Trespassing” signs posted on the grounds—as officials debated what should become of the property.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy wanted to make it a training center for young offenders after they were paroled from Lorton Reformatory; a congressional committee considered converting it into a residence for Capitol Hill pages. But both proposals ultimately were rejected—lack of money killed the Kennedy plan, another site was chosen to house the pages.

In April 1965, it was finally decided that the building should be made available to the government of the District of Columbia, which was in desperate need of additional space at the time. And so, for the next four decades, the building served the citizens of Washington, D.C., in a dizzying number and variety of capacities.

Although the specific years that many of the uses began and ended are unclear, the operations housed in the structure ranged from the Metropolitan Police K-9 Corps to a child development center and a Community Action Group to the headquarters of the 6-B Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

One of the most successful and lengthiest uses of the property was as the Center for Youth Services. Housed in the building from 1982 through 1998, the non-profit agency targeted District residents between the ages of twelve and twenty-one. “Young people have a lot of stress today,” center director Myra Wesley King told the Washington Post in 1982. “It comes from trying to decide‘Who am I? What am I going to be?’”

The center sought to help its young charges work through those questions by offering them a wide variety of services—from stress management classes to academic tutoring to job training—while also providing instruction in any number of activities—from martial arts to dance, modeling to arts and crafts. Although the youngsters were encouraged to enjoy themselves, King made it clear that her charges were also expected to work hard during their time at the center. “This is no place to hang out,” the former District police officer told the Post. “Each person here must be involved in productive activity. Our whole program is focused on the transition from adolescence to adulthood—and that’s no easy journey.” King maintained a zero-tolerance policy with regard to alcohol and other drugs, and she also strictly prohibited abusive language and weapons of any kind.

The Capitol Hill neighborhood clearly embraced the Center for Youth Services, with some fifty residents donating their time as volunteers to help the eight full-time staff members with the various services and activities. Fund-raising efforts reinforced the fact that the community supported the center; only $50,000 of the center’s budget came from the federal government, while $140,000 came from individual contributions. Positive feelings by the neighbors were enhanced by the fact that the center’s staff members were committed to making the facility look its best. Included among the activities routinely assigned to young people coming to the center were mowing the grass, planting flowers, and painting the iron fence surrounding the property. Receiving Recognition as a Landmark.

While continuing to serve as a fully functioning building, the Old Naval Hospital also began to be acknowledged and honored, some 100 years after its construction, as an important example of mid-nineteenth century architecture. In 1964, the District of Columbia’s Joint Committee on Landmarks designated the hospital a local landmark because of its contribution to the cultural heritage as well as the visual beauty of the city. Recognition was expanded beyond the community level in 1974 when the exterior of the Old Naval Hospital was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Another crucial step in the structure’s evolution as a landmark came in 2000 with the creation of the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital. The officers of this non-profit corporation are committed to the building’s current and future well-being, a role that had become critical after the Center for Youth Services vacated the building in 1998. The Friends of the Old Naval Hospital place particular emphasis on ensuring proper preservation and restoration of the building and grounds, while also developing the historical record associated with the property and providing educational services to the public about the Capitol Hill treasure.

The First Patient

Because Benjamin Drummond was the first patient admitted to the Naval Hospital when it opened a year and a half after the Civil War had ended, the details about the Union sailor hold a unique place in the building’s history.

On the morning of January 21, 1963, the twenty-year-old New York City native was serving aboard the USS Morning Light on blockade duty off the Texas coast. At 6:30 that morning, Confederate forces launched an attack with two steam-powered cutters known as “cotton clads” because of the bales of cotton piled around the sides as makeshift armor. There was very little wind on that particular morning, which placed the sail-powered Morning Light at a great disadvantage.

By about 10 a.m., the rebels closed to artillery range and hit the Northern vessel with a number of shells, doing considerable damage. By 11 a.m., the attackers had moved to small-arms range, and a detachment of soldiers from the Texas Mounted Rifles fired back at them. Drummond, an African-American man who stood five feet four and a half inches tall, was in the masts when his ship was struck. After being hit in the shoulder, he fell to the deck and sustained additional shots in both legs.At the end of the siege, 109 Union sailors—twenty-nine of them African-American—were captured and placed in a prisoner of war camp. Although most of the men were held for eighteen months, Drummond managed to escape after seven.

The injured sailor was taken to a hospital in New Orleans where his wounds were treated. He then reenlisted and was assigned to the USS Squando, a monitor that patrolled the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.

Despite the passage of more than three years, Drummond’s wounds had never fully healed, and so he was sent to the nation’s capital for treatment. On October 1, 1866, he became the first patient admitted to the new Naval Hospital on its opening day. The veteran remained at the hospital until March 1868 when he was discharged at the end of his second enlistment. He then returned to his native New York City to resume life with his wife Laura, whom he had married before the war, and their son.

Drummond was granted fifty percent disability because of his combat wounds, and in 1872 he was awarded a pension of $4 a month. He later petitioned for and received an increase to $12 a month. Benjamin Drummond died, not from the injuries he sustained during the war but from kidney disease, in 1881. He was thirty-nine.

A Window into Nineteenth Century Medical Treatment

The medical records from the Old Naval Hospital, which are preserved at the National Archives, provide portraits of the individual patients who were admitted as well as a window into the medical treatment those sailors and marines received. For a time traveler from the early twenty-first century, one of the most intriguing aspects of patient care is the prominent role that was played by alcohol.

In the spring of 1868, Richard Kaine was admitted to the hospital with chronic bronchitis that he had developed because of the cold conditions aboard the ship he was assigned to the previous winter. The twenty-six-year-old suffered “violent coughing episodes,” according to his medical records, and was placed on a diet of “milk mush.” As for medication, Kaine was given glasses of whiskey three times a day. The mush and alcohol apparently did the trick, as the sailor returned to active duty after two months.

Although whiskey was the alcohol of choice among the members of the medical staff, they sometimes tried alternatives. Marceline Perez, who was diagnosed as having a muscle disorder, initially received several glasses of whiskey each day. When he remained “feeble and barely able to raise himself in bed,” his doctor switched him to “a steady diet of beer and sherry.” Perez, a native of Spain, was not happy with the change, however, complaining that he preferred the whiskey. The doctor acquiesced to the marine’s wishes and, within a matter of weeks, was able to report that Perez was walking “downstairs and finally out in the yard.” He then returned to active duty at the nearby Marine Barracks.

Not every patient was deemed an appropriate candidate for whiskey. John A. Bryan was sixteen years old—he’d joined the Navy at age twelve—when he was admitted to the hospital with a case of pneumonia. Whether because of his age or other factors, the young man was repeatedly given arrowroot, which doctors of the time used to absorb poisons, and was placed on a diet that required eating either chicken or steak as part of every meal, but his treatment regimen included no alcohol of any kind. Bryan apparently didn’t agree with his doctors vis--vis his not needing intoxicating beverages, as on one occasion he left the hospital and spent the evening at Tunnicliff’s Tavern just down the street. When he returned the next morning, the medical staff punished him for his “debauch” by confining him to the jail cell in the basement of the hospital. Two days after that, Bryan’s doctors pronounced him “cured” and sent him back to active duty.

Neither alcohol nor the other forms of treatment used at the time guaranteed complete success with every patient. John Casel had suffered a gunshot wound when another marine accidentally discharged his musket and hit the twenty-one-year-old, who was sitting just a few feet away, in the face. Doctors gave Casel whiskey as well as morphine, and nurses used needles to remove as many grains of gunpowder from his nose and right cheek as they could. When he was sent back to active duty, however, his doctor wrote that the young man’s face would be severely scarred for the rest of his life.

Some patients were even more unfortunate. After Edward J. Dougherty was admitted because he complained of having no energy, the doctors diagnosed him as suffering from an inflamed intestinal tract. They were initially encouraged because his “pulse improved under the influence of port wine,” but then his condition rapidly deteriorated. The doctors then gave him arrowroot and brandy, placed soda bicarbonate on the back of his tongue every hour, and placed a “hot poultice to his belly.” When Dougherty then began vomiting, he was given “morphine in sherry wine and flaxseed tea” as well as turpentine that had been diluted with sugared ice water. On his third day at the hospital, the marine private died, at the age of twenty-two.

Hospital personnel also failed in their efforts to save John James. The fifty-one-year-old marine private was admitted to the hospital, according to his medical records, after “swallowing two fluid ounces of dichloride of mercury with an intent to self-destruct.” Doctors immediately gave the suicidal patient “whites of eggs as an antidote,” but his stomach was still inflamed. They next had James drink wine and beef tea, but they feared the worse when he became delirious and emitted a “cadaverous odor.” He died after four days.

For some patients, being hospitalized led to their discharge from military service. Soon after Charles Deming was admitted, the medical staff determined that his ill health was due to his having contracted syphilis. The doctors attempted to treat the disease, but their efforts were repeatedly hampered by the patient’s “intemperate habits.” Specifically, Deming kept going AWOL—absent without leave—all night and then returning to the hospital intoxicated. Hospital personnel punished the thirty-seven-year-old sailor by denying him anything to eat or drink except bread and water. When this didn’t stop him, they tried putting him to bed without his clothes, thinking that he wouldn’t leave the hospital naked. But then Deming started stealing items of clothing from his fellow patients, prompting a doctor to discharge the patient from the Navy.

Another seaman ultimately reached the same point but did so by traveling a very different route. Nicholas Sacroft was diagnosed with chronic rheumatism and treated by having iodine applied to his aching joints and limbs. When his right eye also became infected, the two leeches that the doctors attached to an area near the eye apparently ended that problem. The soreness in Sacroft’s muscles continued, however, so the combination of arrowroot and lemonade that he initially had been treated with was replaced with opium. The doctors increased the dosages of the drug several times, but when the muscle pain not only persisted but increased, the forty-six-year-old Sacroft was finally discharged from his military service. His stay went on record as one of the longest in the history of the Washington Naval Hospital: 656 days.


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Daniel S. Donahue, “A New Lease on Life: The First U.S. Naval Hospital, Washington, DC,” Navy Medicine, November-December 200, 5-7.

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J.D. Gatewood, MD, United States Navy, Notes on Naval Hospitals, Medical Schools, and Training School for Nurses, with a Sketch of Hospital History (Baltimore: Press of the Friedenwald Co., 1893), 276-278.

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Last updated October 9, 2008