Hill Center Stays the Course in the Age of COVID

What a Difference a Pandemic Makes

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Six months ago, I would have written about Hill Center’s successful past year and the promising new year ahead. But then along came COVID. Like all community organizations, we have struggled to make our way in an uncertain world.

The good news is that we fully expect to come out of this challenging time stronger and better. The pandemic may have closed the building, but our resourceful and imaginative staff has come up with all sorts of ways to stay “open.”

Hill Center Superintendent Frank Robinson working on socially distanced meeting configurations

We are expanding online programming and have had an enthusiastic response. We’ve seen record online attendance for Talk of the Hill, culinary instruction, a live concert, book talks and art and music classes for children. Not all our 29 program partners can adapt their offerings to a remote audience, but we are still able to provide a wide variety of programming.

Two upcoming art events would be great live or virtual. Oct. 1, Hill Center will launch our first exclusively virtual art show. The show will feature 125 works from Uniting US Artists, a national group of veterans and family members, 30 of whom will have artworks in the show. (HillCenterDC.org/Galleries) Hill Center’s annual Pottery on the Hill Show and Sale will be bigger and better than ever. From Nov. 13-15, 45 potters from 10 states will be showing – and selling – their pots online. A silent auction to benefit Hill Center will run Nov. 5-15 and feature a pot from each artist. (PotteryontheHillDC.org)

While online activities serve our community and expand our geographical reach, there is no substitute for being there in person. Bringing people together physically builds community and trust among neighbors.

We look forward to resuming special events – outdoor micro-weddings as people pare down their celebrations, small-group tutoring indoors. We are reopening safely in accordance with the mayor’s directions and will hold events outdoors when possible, reduce the number attendees to accommodate social distancing, require everyone to wear masks, set up hand-sanitizing stations and air purifiers throughout the building, and increase disinfection and sanitizing of rooms and equipment. We’ve already successfully opened our doors to Busy Bees, a music and art camp for young children.

We are doing everything possible to steer the ship through this COVID storm. At the helm is the redoubtable Diana Ingraham, our first and only executive director, and her first-rate staff. It is astonishing how much is done every day by so few. Diana and her staff of 10 are the face and heart of Hill Center.

In normal times, they are assisted by a dedicated group of volunteers who greet people at reception, give tours and do data entry, among other things. There are about 50 volunteers available at any given time and they enjoy the opportunity to meet members of the community.

We have faced hurdles before and, always with help from our community, we have cleared them. Working together, we’ll handle this.

Planning for the Future
It was hard to imagine 20 years ago that a derelict building with scruffy grounds could become a thriving center for arts, education and community. The Old Naval Hospital – commissioned by Abraham Lincoln in 1864 – had not been maintained for years.

No seer could have envisioned that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor would one day take questions on the second floor while Tai Chi was taught across the hall. Now tiny ballerinas share a building with millennials who come to learn to make Dinner on a Dime or mingle with older neighbors at a Talk of the Hill conversation between veteran journalist Bill Press and a member of Congress. It all happens in a building where walls are hung with the works of local artists and on grounds that host both bluegrass concerts and weddings.

It took a while to get there. In 2002, a diverse group of neighbors organized the Old Naval Hospital Foundation to determine if this ugly duckling of a site could become a swan. As part of the transformation, hundreds of Hill residents contributed ideas and funds. After an $11.2-million restoration, Hill Center opened to the public in 2011 and a new community began to emerge. Hill Center was a success.

Before COVID, more than 50,000 visitors a year came for classes, concerts, lectures, art exhibits and other quality programs in the beautifully refurbished building. The carriage house that once held horse-drawn ambulances now houses a Michelin-starred café. The main building is fully accessible and responsibly green.

We quickly learned, though, that the building could become a victim of our success. Heavy use takes a toll on an old structure. We had achieved our goal that operating income pay for our operating costs. That income, however, cannot cover the major repair and replacement costs that will come as the facility ages. To preserve this historic landmark for future generations, we established the Hill Center Preservation Endowment to cover capital costs – elevator and roof repair, for instance – in perpetuity. The community again responded and the endowment is growing.

We hoped to weather COVID without fundraising, but this historic crisis has exhausted our means. Our efforts to support ourselves with government relief programs and other grants cannot make up for the deficit caused by severely reducing in-person programming and events. Now we need All Hands on Deck to raise $100,000 to keep Hill Center operating smoothly well into 2021 and beyond.

The campaign is called All Hands on Deck because we must work together to ensure Hill Center’s future. We are asking that donations for the next six months be designated to support operations. Based on conservative budgeting, this will enable Hill Center to continue expanding online offerings while maintaining the flexibility to open when safe.

I hope when you read about the state of Hill Center next year, we will have a different story to tell. I hope you will read about the incredible response to All Hands on Deck and all the people who have become part of our story. We can’t wait to see you again. In person.

All Hands On Deck
Hill Center needs to raise $100,000 to keep Hill Center operating smoothly well into 2021 and beyond. Our campaign is called All Hands on Deck because we must work together to ensure Hill Center’s future.

We are asking that donations for the next six months be designated to support operations. This will enable Hill Center to continue expanding online offerings while maintaining the flexibility to open when safe.

To donate go to https://www.hillcenterdc.org/donate/ or mail your tax-deductible donation to Hill Center, 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, Washington DC, 20003