Lost History: Providence Hospital and the Story Behind Providence Park

The hospital still exists, but it’s no longer in the original location. Providence Hospital once stood between 2nd and 3rd St. and D and E St. Southeast. The block is now Providence Park, which is an awesome place to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Providence Hospital in the early 1900s (Library of Congress)
Providence Hospital in the early 1900s (Library of Congress)

The former hospital used to occupy square 735 and was subdivided into 14 lots (see map below). According to the hospital’s website, it is the longest continuously operating hospital in the city. It was initially established as a teaching hospital during the Civil War.

The hospital expanded in the early 1900s and continued to provide care at the Capitol Hill location until the facilities began to show its age and a new hospital was needed. In the 1950s, discussion began on rebuilding the hospital. At the time, the decision was made to relocate the hospital to its current spot in Northeast D.C.. when engineers noted that rebuilding on the same lot would necessitate a two-year closure of the hospital. Thus, the spot at 1150 Varnum St. NE was selected.

square 764 - Baist real estate atlas 1909
square 764 – Baist real estate atlas 1909

The new hospital was mentioned in the Washington Post on January 6th, 1952, noting that it would cost upwards of $7 million.

Providence Hospital, begun here in 1861 to care for wounded soldiers of the Civil War, is going to build a new seven-million-dollar plant.

For the project, the Washington public will be asked to contribute one million dollars in a fund-raising campaign to begin early next month, officials of the hospital announced last night.

The new Providence Hospital, they said, will be constructed on a 15-acre site at 12th and Varnum sts. ne., near Catholic University.

The hospital moved to its current location in March 1956. Five years later, the old campus remained and on the 100th anniversary, the Baltimore Sun wrote the following article, on June 11th, 1961.

Providence was founded June 10, 1861. the grounds on which it stood for 95 years and where the Library of Congress and the nation’s Capitol still stand, were all originally part of the famed Cerne Abbey Manor tract, acquired in 1730 by a pioneer settler of Maryland, Thomas Notley. It was named for an old Benedictine abbey in Dorsetshire, England.

A portion of the tract descended through the much-intermarried Carroll family of Maryland.

A month after admitting its first patient–a typhoid case named Lawrence O’Toole, Providence was receiving casualties from Bull Run.

Hospital records show the admission, on July 22, 1861, of two privates of the 71st New York Volunteers, William Behan and George A. Cooke. Behan was described as suffering from “a wound of thigh.” Both were wounded the day before at Centreville in a skirmish preliminary to the First Manassas.

The old facilities were being leased by the Commerce Department (U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey) after the hospital left for Northeast. In October 1963, plans were announced to build a massive 10-story apartment building on the site, pending zoning change approvals. Four businessmen has purchased the property in 1962 for over $600,000 from the Sisters of Mercy.

One of the challenges these men were facing was a 1955 law that placed the property within an area of land in which Congress could eminent domain property to expand the Capitol grounds. Well, long story short, this real estate speculation didn’t work out for the investors, as they were unable to get the zoning change. Nevertheless, they paid $55,000 to have the entire complex demolished.

[googlemaps https://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=providence+park+dc&aq=&sll=36.173357,-95.625&sspn=51.442103,35.947266&ie=UTF8&hq=providence+park&hnear=Washington,+District+of+Columbia&ll=38.883596,-77.002826&spn=0.025335,0.073788&t=m&output=embed]

Following the failed attempt at developing apartments, the owners pushed to construct a parking lot on the site. They were unable to generate any revenue with the property and were looking to defray the carrying costs by charging fees on a temporary parking lot. The neighbors rallied against this as well, claiming the increased traffic would destroy the neighborhood.

By the end of the 1960s, the District government had considered the lot for a new junior high school. The Architect of the Capitol also expressed interest in acquiring the site. An article in the Washington Post on February 4th, 1969 stated that the plan was to purchase the lot and build a new headquarters complex for the Capitol Police roce. A total of $1,250,000 was written into their budget for the 1970 fiscal year. This plan also fell through.

For almost a decade, the property was the center of major feuds between neighbors, the investors and members of congress. Finally, there was some movement in June 1972. The Senate Public Works Committee formally rejected any proposals to convert the site to at temporary parking lot. The Committee also voted in favor of federal acquisition of the property as the new location for a school and dormitory for congressional pages.

A total fair market value of $1.4 million was allotted to acquire the land, now a pile of dirt. The proposed school on the site was to be named after recently retired former House Speaker John W. McCormack. Construction plans were set to take four years, and until they began, the site ironically was to service as a free parking lot for Capitol visitors. The neighbors rallied one more time against the parking lot and successfully killed the idea.

The Architect of the Capitol held additional meetings in 1977 with members of the Capitol Hill community to discuss options for the site, in the event that the page school idea failed to be realized. The winning proposal was the build a sizable housing complex for senior citizens. In addition, the community successfully lobbied Congress for $375,000 in funding to turn the ugly, dirt-filled lot into green space, crossed by two concrete paths.

The page school project died due to lack of funding, and the senior citizens project failed to gain enough support.

proposed senior citizen housing - Providence Place
proposed senior citizen housing – Providence Place

The park was yet again in the middle of real estate controversy in 1990 when the University of California was looking for a location to build a multimillion-dollar education facility. Fortunately, the neighborhood was blessed with luck again and the university selected an alternate site on Rhode Island Ave. NW, near Scott Circle.

What was formerly the site of the oldest hospital in Washington, has successfully fended off numerous proposals to rid the neighborhood of its beautiful park. It remains today as a great, open green space, criss crossed by two concrete paths, with the nickname X-park.

Check out the Google Street View of the park today.

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About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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  • Steve S.

    I was born @ Providence Hospital (the “new” location) in ’63.
    Never knew the backstory. Thanks.

  • Bayshoregrandma

    thanks for these pictures! I had pneumonia at age 3 and was treated at Old Providence @ 1954. I was afraid of the nuns who cared for me (their habits and large hats and the needles they shot me with every few hours scared me). Back in those days, mothers were not allowed to stay overnight with their children! I wasn’t eating (I thought the nuns were trying to kill me!) On the way home, I asked my Dad to stop at The Little Tavern on Pennsylvania Avenue S.E. and I ate four hamburgers!

  • David H

    Who owns the land now?

  • Marie

    I walk by this park every day – covered in grass and trees – and I wouldn’t have known all the history that came before my time. There is a little plaque on the site that mentions Providence Hospital, but I loved reading this post and seeing the photos. Thank you!

  • Chris Cavas

    You didn’t mention the nuns’ dormitories on North Carolina Ave between 1st and 2nd Streets – – still there as apartments. Thanks for featuring Providence Hospital – I was born there, decades later lived two blocks away.

  • Sheila

    I was born in the old Providence Hospital in 1948. I never saw it as an adult, but I have seen the new Providence, however that was a long time ago too. I always wondered what it looked like. Thank you!

    • Eldorado48

      I also was born there in ’48 and also grew up in that area

  • WalkableNeighborhoods

    A park… across the street from another park. Real imaginative Capital Hill.

  • dolores

    I think this may be the only photo I have ever seen of the Providence Hospital I was born in in 1946. Thanks for posting it.

  • maggieq

    I was born at the old Providence Hospital in 1939. All my life I have loved the US Capitol Building, to me the greatest structure in the entire world. It was not until looking at the Google
    map of the site of the old hospital which now is the X Park, that I realized that I, and everyone
    born there over its 95 year existence, were essentially born at the US Capitol. How cool is that?!

  • Maureen

    I was born in old Providence in 1955 during a huge snow storm. I was told that there were no vehicles on the road, not even the police. My mom said that her mother wanted them to walk to the hospital. My mom asked her of she wanted her to have the baby (me) in a snow bank. She said that my dad got the car started and took his hand to melt the ice and snow on the front windshield and all he could see to drive was where his hand had been. They got mom to the hospital with not much time to spare. That’s why my dad and oldest brother always called me Stormy. I miss them so bad.

  • Jim Majors

    I was born in the Old Providence hospital May 12 1949. I too think it is cool to have been born on Capitol Hill. My Grandfather was a trolley car driver in the 1940s.

  • Deve Mitchell

    I was born march 31,1959 my mother told me that the hospital I was born in was torn down yet looks like the time line does not fit old vs new providence? was there a chance the old providence was still in operation in march of 1959???

    • Sheila

      Yep, they didn’t actually didn’t move until about 1963. I was born there in 1948.

  • Joan

    Joan
    I was born in the old Providence Hospital April 17 1942, my two sons were born in the new Providence Hos. 1959 and 1960 this is the first time I have ever seen a picture of the hospital thank you

  • FLORIDA LADY

    My Picture was taken with the Mother Superior and Providence Hospital Administrator and was in the news Paper when they were raising money for the new Hospital. I cannot find the newspaper clipping, but I have a picture. I was in the hospital for a long time, I saw the leaves on the tree turn from green to many colors, and then they fell off the trees. Sister Mary Lewis would come to me and put me in a wheelchair and take me to the Chapel to pray. My arm was saved from amputation and Jesus has been with me since those days