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Hill Center, D.C.’s former Naval Hospital and all-around arts hub

The 150-year-old structure was once endangered, but is now restored and ready to enrich Capitol Hill residents

All photos courtesy of Hill Center

At one point, Capitol Hill’s Old Naval Hospital was deemed one of Washington, D.C.’s most endangered structures by the D.C. Preservation League. Now, it’s an arts hub, called Hill Center, that is worth venturing to for classes, workshops, and other programs.

Here, learn about the history, the restoration, and the types of classes that are available in the 150-year-old historic building, located at 921 Pennsylvania Avenue SE.


The History

Photo via Library of Congress
Photo via Library of Congress

It was in March 1864 that President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation, authorizing $25,000 for the construction of the District’s first permanent naval hospital for those wounded in the Civil War.

Thanks to Ammi B. Young, the design for the building was completed, though the architect behind the original design is unknown. Other works in Washington, D.C. that Young has worked on include the Treasury Building and the Custom House & Post Office in Georgetown.

The Old Naval Hospital first opened in October 1, 1866. Until 1906, the Capitol Hill property operated as a hospital, but within 10 years of operation, it was considered too small and outmoded. It wasn’t until 1903 when Congress commissioned a new naval hospital.

Eventually, from 1907 through 1911, it served as the Naval Hospital Training School before being used as an office for the Naval Reserve, a Naval records center, and a site for medical examinations for WWI recruits. This continued until 1921 when it then changed its name to the Temporary Home for Veterans of All Wars. Here, veterans were provided temporary housing as well as medical benefits.

Finally, the property was declared surplus Federal property in 1963 and was later transferred to the D.C. government at no cost. Social service organizations later utilized the property, such as the Center for Youth Services, but over time the building was poorly maintained and later fell into disrepair. By 1999, the main building was virtually abandoned.

In order to save the building and site, the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital organization was founded in 2000. Two years later, a comprehensive plan was developed for the site’s reuse as an educational and cultural center for the community. By August 2007, the District accepted the proposal.

The Restoration

In June 2010, D.C. architecture firm BELL Architects began the complete restoration of the Old Naval Hospital building. In order to spruce up the c. 1866-constructed property, Bell Architects removed asbestos and lead-based paint from the walls and unveiled the many details of the original construction that laid beneath.

The architects sandblasted, cleaned, repaired, and primed the original iron fence, while recasting some pieces. Original doors, wooden porticos, and cast-iron stairs were also restored. During this process, a brick venting system underground floor was discovered.

To better the building for visitors, an elevator and a geothermal system were also installed. The building facade was later restored to its original colors, which are meant to mimic sandstone.

For the adjacent carriage house, which once served as stables for the hospital, it was converted to retail so that it could serve as a location for Bayou Bakery, which opened in 2015.

The entire project cost approximately $11 million.

The Classes

From film to cooking to the visual arts, the Hill Center allows a myriad of subjects for residents and tourists to learn from. Many of the spaces are also multi-purpose, allowing various types of workshops to be used in the same spaces.

While housed in such a historic building, Maggie Myszka, director of Marketing and Communications at Hill Center, said, “We are really proud of the vibrant home that we’ve become for arts and culture on Capitol Hill, and the neighbors and the community are really the driving force behind everything we do.”

The property also houses Blyth Templeton Academy, which, Myszka says, “adds a lot of really neat energy to the building.”

Hill Center isn’t alone when it comes to furthering the arts community in Capitol Hill. Other arts destinations nearby include the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Gallery O on H, and The Fridge.

If interested in taking a class at the Hill Center, be sure to check out the full catalog on the official website here.