When Hill Center opened to the public seven years ago this month at 921 Pennsylvania, my colleagues and I collectively held our breath.
How would Washingtonians respond to this imaginative reuse of the Old Naval Hospital site, which had languished in disrepair for so many years? Would our array of arts, education and cultural programs draw the range of visitors we were hoping for? And could we really meet our goal of making the place financially self-sustaining?
By now our principal worries have been well put to rest. More than fifty thousand visitors a year stream in to Hill Center to seize a wide variety of opportunities to expand their horizons and participate in community life.
Thanks to partnerships we’ve established with a range of artists and educators, these visitors are taking classes in languages, dance, drawing and painting, cooking, creative writing and more. They’re attending first-rate musical performances in all traditions, along with lectures, films, candidate debates, book talks, and policy discussions with major public figures. And many are renting Hill Center space to host a meeting, celebrate a birthday or hold a wedding.
These visitors are all ages. We have dance for two-year-olds, tutoring and summer camps for elementary and high school students, hands-on sessions with top chefs for millennial foodies. And they’re coming from the whole Washington area. Fully fifty percent of Hill Center users live somewhere other than Capitol Hill. With frequent attention from WAMU, The Post and other media outlets, the place has become a prime destination for city dwellers looking for interesting things to do.
As for our promise to be financially self-sustaining, we can claim success there too – with an asterisk.
Now that the Center is fully up to speed, all operating expenses – a little over $1 million a year – are being covered by operating income. The revenue streams include, among other things, course fees, ticket sales, space rentals, program grants and art sales (the entire main building doubles as an art gallery, with a new show of regional artists going up every few months).
Another critical revenue source is the café in the property’s historic carriage house. Our first tenant there, Bayou Bakery, wasn’t able to make a go of it, but its successor is off to a very strong start. Little Pearl is the third eatery in the neighborhood, after Rose’s Luxury and Pineapple and Pearls, by Michelin-star chef Aaron Silverman and is pulling in delighted diners from all over the city.
The success of the Center’s ambitious business plan is a tribute principally to Diana Ingraham, who has served as our executive director since before we opened. She’s resolutely kept her eye on the goal, experimented boldly with new programing ideas to broaden the Center’s appeal, and recruited and inspired a crackerjack team of staff and volunteers. Their collective hard work and helpful, welcoming attitude are reflected in the bottom line.
Securing the Center’s Future. But covering operational expenses is not the end of the story when it comes to Hill Center’s financial needs. A historic structure such as the Old Naval Hospital, even after thorough and meticulous renovation, will continue to have issues over time, some of them quite expensive. Eventually the elevator fails, the HVAC units give out, the roof needs replacing, and by now we know that operating income alone will not produce the kind of margin it would take to cover these capital repairs and replacements.
With that reality in mind, we recently commissioned a professional study of the Old Naval Hospital’s entire physical plant – main building, carriage house, fence and grounds – that projected likely capital expenditure needs many years into the future. Looking at those costs and factoring in the historic performance of the equities markets, the study concluded that all of the facility’s likely capital needs could be covered in perpetuity if we were to establish a Hill Center Preservation Endowment Fund in the amount of $3 million.
Early this year the Hill Center board formally committed the institution to that goal, and the early, quiet phase of the fundraising campaign (seeking pledges from larger givers) has already begun. A public appeal to the broader community – to the whole range of individuals who’ve come to know and love the Center and its offerings – will be coming soon.
As we’ve planned and prepared for this effort to secure the Center’s future, I’ve been thinking more than usual about the Old Naval Hospital’s past. The history of this facility, called for by President Lincoln during the Civil War, can be seen as a story of three doors.
The hospital’s historic main entrance faces south toward E Street, not north toward broad, ceremonial Pennsylvania Avenue – a choice that looks odd today. But in the 1860s very little of the neighborhood to the north had been built. The hospital’s positioning pays homage to the Navy Yard, the ship builder and munitions maker down at the foot of Eighth Street that was the community’s economic foundation.
After the hospital outgrew its site and moved downtown in 1906, habits and patterns changed and the “back door” on the Pennsylvania Avenue side came to be treated more and more as the building’s main entrance, as the site became a Naval medical training school, then an old sailors and soldiers home, then office space for DC government agencies and a variety of social service organizations.
When we completely renovated the building to create Hill Center in 2011, we restored and preserved those two entrances, honoring the past, but for routine public access we created a new, third door on the west side. Positioned at grade, with no steps, it ensures that the Center will be accessible and welcoming to everyone, and it’s in that spirit that we operate the facility and work now toward its permanent protection.
John Franzén is a founding member of the Hill Center board and its current president.