The gathering place

A historic Capitol Hill building is getting a new lease on life — and attracting interest from lawmakers and area residents in the process.

The Old Naval Hospital, commissioned in 1863 by President Lincoln and derelict since 1998, will reopen this summer as the Hill Center, a civic and cultural facility aimed at enriching the neighborhood with its offerings.

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“This is an important missing element to an otherwise cohesive community,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said. “This is a real community center, a free community center.”

The building is located on the 10th block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE, less than a mile from the Capitol, and the team in charge says it has benefited from the support of Capitol Hill residents such as Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

“The Hill Center will provide a mix of classes, lectures, performances, public policy forums as well as civic activities that will appeal to many local residents, including our neighbors who are public servants,” says Rosemary Freeman, the project’s spokeswoman.

Landrieu and her husband, Frank Snellings, hosted a fundraiser for the Center in September at their East Capitol Street home. Among the honorary hosts were Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). They were joined by Reps. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), John Fleming (R-La.), Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), Mel Watt (D-N.C.), David Wu (D-Ore.), Del. Norton and former Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.).

“They’ve got the entire neighborhood on the Hill involved in fundraising, even in the midst of this terrible recession,” Norton said, adding that neighbors have been pleased to make the “priceless property” into something useful to their everyday lives.

To Freeman and her colleagues, these connections present an opportunity for the political community to make use of the center.

Nicky Cymrot, the president of the center’s board of directors, points out that the building’s many rooms, lit by dramatic eight-foot windows, can accommodate from 10 to 250 people.

“I can see a time when an office or organization would come here to hold a press conference or a special meeting,” says Diana Ingraham, the center’s executive director.

The building’s top floor also includes a suite to house small nonprofit organizations. And, like the 92nd Street Y in New York City, another source of inspiration for the facility, the space will gather local as well as out-of-town figures for various speakers series.

At 16,000 square feet, the facility will house classrooms — including a kitchen classroom, a computer lab, a soundproof music practice room and several large gallery spaces for rotating art exhibits. A small adjacent building, known as the Carriage House, will be home to a cafe.

The restoration process hasn’t been easy, Cymrot notes, as the building was nearly in ruins when the construction began. The design team took 32 coats of paint from the walls in order to replaster them. They are now refurbishing the original pine floors as well as the doors, casements and the heavy iron fence that surrounds the property.

“It’s an instant connection with the past, working here,” says Freeman, pointing to two ancient shoes found during the renovation.

They’re also implementing eco-friendly technology, like a geothermal heating and cooling system and low-flow plumbing. The project will cost $12 million in total.

“We wanted the best equipment because we want the restored building to last into the future,” Cymrot says. “We tried to be cutting-edge, and in some cases, what we wanted was too far ahead of the curve to implement.”

Since it was originally constructed, the building has served as a hospital for Civil and Spanish-American war veterans, a training school for doctors and a temporary home for veterans seeking to fulfill their pension claims in the city. Its most recent incarnation, before it was left vacant in 1998, was as an office for social service organizations.

In 1999, the property was declared an endangered place by the D.C. Preservation League. Eight years later, in 2007, the Hill Center proposal was accepted by the city after a competitive bidding process. 

“It’s a beautiful building and it’s a terrible eyesore for the city,” Landrieu said of the site’s previous abandonment. “And for years it struggled to try and become something useful to the community, so I was happy to try and help it.”

The renovation team says it is looking forward to the opening this summer. 

“For so many years, the Capitol Hill community has thrived by using church basements and school classrooms to bring people together. What we hope to do is continue that rich history and give the community — both the residential and the political sides — another place to assemble,” Cymrot says.

Debbie Siegelbaum contributed to this article.