Streets of Washington Presents – The Columbia Hospital, caring for Washington women

Streets of Washington, written by John DeFerrari, covers some of DC’s most interesting buildings and history. John is the author of Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats, published by the History Press, Inc. and also the author of Lost Washington DC.

The 100-year-old former Columbia Hospital for Women as it appears today (photo by the author).

The Columbia Hospital for Women and Lying-in Asylum was founded in June 1866 as a “hospital and dispensary for the treatment of diseases peculiar to women, and a lying-in asylum [maternity hospital], in which those unable to pay therefor shall be furnished with board, lodging, medicine, and medical attendance gratuitously.” Located at 25th and M Streets NW, just off of Pennsylvania Avenue, the hospital finally closed its doors in June 2002, ending an eventful 136-year history of serving Washington women from all walks of life.

Hospitals in the 19th century were charitable institutions that supported those who could not afford to have doctors visit them in their homes. Washington at the dawn of the Civil War had virtually none, aside from the recently-founded Saint Elizabeths asylum for the mentally ill in Southeast. Providence Hospital on Capitol Hill, organized by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul (and profiled in Lost Washington, DC), was the first general public hospital, but it took in mostly war-related cases and could accommodate very few D.C. residents.

J Harry Thompson
Dr. J. Harry Thompson, founder of Columbia Hospital for Women

Meanwhile, “large numbers of females were attracted to the city during the war, in search of relatives and friends, or for information from the [government] departments,” wrote Dr. John Harry Thompson (1824-1904), an ex-Army physician, in an 1873 report. “Anxiety and fatigue, as a natural consequence, caused suffering and disease, and hundreds of women, prostrated by sickness, and without means, were thrown upon the charities of the residents of Washington and the representatives from the different States to which they belonged.” Another early report noted that “in a number of instances…respectable married women had been confined in police-station houses, sometimes in the public grounds, and in one instance Dr. Miller, one of the oldest physicians of Washington, was obliged to deliver a woman on the steps of the State Department, and then take mother and child in a carriage and go to some of his patients to collect money to procure a shelter for the poor sufferer.”

With a combination of private donations and government support, the hospital first opened its doors in 1866 in the former Hill Mansion, on the northwest side of the 14th Street Circle (later renamed Thomas Circle) but was not there for long. After the landlord cancelled the lease in 1870, the hospital moved to another former private residence, the Tench Ringgold House at 25th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The hospital would stay at its new location for the rest of its existence.

A circa 1860 photograph of the Tench Ringgold House, aka Maynard Mansion, by Mathew Brady (photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.).

Tench Ringgold (1777-1844), a successful businessman and future U.S. Marshal, built his grand Federal-style mansion on a prominent knoll on this corner in 1812, when there was little else around, but he apparently didn’t live here very long. Within a few years he began leasing the house to various well-to-do tenants, including two British ministers, Sir Charles Bagot and Sir Frederick W.A. Bruce, and it became one of the young city’s social centers. Here in 1817 Bagot negotiated the Rush-Bagot Agreement, a treaty between Canada and the U.S. that restricted naval activity on the Great Lakes and remains in force to this day. Since the 1850s Edward Maynard (1813-1901), a prominent dentist and inventor of a distinctive breech-loading rifle, owned the house. Maynard is the one who first leased and then sold the mansion to Columbia Hospital in 1872.

By this time, the federal government was a major supporter of the hospital, which was key to its ability to accept all comers regardless of whether they could pay. Once settled into its permanent home, the 60-bed hospital drew many patients and began a series of alterations and expansions that transformed it from a Federal-style estate house to a proper Victorian hospital building, complete with mansard roof, capable of accommodating 100 patients. Those who could pay their way (at six to ten dollars per week) were given better quarters than the indigent, who were always in the majority.

Columbia Hospital c 1898 copy
The Columbia Hospital in 1898, almost unrecognizable as the former Ringgold House. The Nurses’ School is at the left. (Source: Historical Sketches of the Charities and Reformatory Institutions in the District of Columbia).

Thompson clearly had as a goal to advance the medical science of obstetrics and gynecology, and he saw Columbia as a model hospital for demonstrating new approaches. “No department of pathology has been so little understood or appreciated as that embracing the accidents and maladies peculiar to the female sex,” he wrote. As early as 1870, the hospital’s department of infancy and childhood diseases was spun off into a separate Children’s Hospital, which began in a small, 12-bed facility at the corner of 13th and F Streets NW and continues to this day in a modern facility on Michigan Avenue. Thompson was also instrumental in establishing a separate dormitory and school for nurses in a large house behind the hospital, a very progressive feature in its day.

Columbia nurses c 1900
Columbia nurses pose in front of their dormitory and school, circa 1900. (Source: Centennial Anniversary 1866-1966, Columbia Hospital for Women).

Despite the initial progress, as time went by Columbia’s story became one of veering from crisis to crisis, weathering long periods of slow decline followed by sudden bursts of reinvestment and modernization, which inevitably could not be sustained for the long term. Over the years, the limited accommodations of the old Ringgold Mansion proved troublesome, to say the least. Often orderlies were unavailable to deliver meals to patients, who had to climb up and down the stairs to get to the dining rooms. Early on, hospital administrators petitioned Congress for “hot and cold running water in operating and consulting rooms.” In the summer months, the lying-in wards (where new mothers recovered from childbirth) had no running water during the day. Administrators pleaded for a water tank and pump, a fire escape, and, after electricity was installed in 1896, an elevator. Nothing came easily.

An 1891 article in The Washington Post described a typical flurry of activity to update the facility. The hospital “was not prospering; it wards were all but empty, and there was only one paying patient in the institution,” the Post gloomily reported. But then new management had been appointed, and an investment of $2,500 was made to fit out a new operating room with “every improvement known to modern science.” Particularly notable was the fact that “The room is floored and walled with marble, and the whole interior can be washed with a hose whenever desired.” The Post concluded that Columbia had been transformed into “one of the best hospitals for women in the country.” The good feelings wouldn’t last.

By 1904, the need for a new hospital building was apparent, and the District Commissioners recommended to Congress that $300,000 be appropriated for a new building. The old Maynard Mansion, according to The Evening Star, “is one mass of patches. It retains enough of the ancient style of architecture to defy the most accomplished builders in efforts to make it modern.” The operating room, which had been rebuilt yet again the previous year, was “the only feature of the institution that can be called anywhere near perfect.”

It turned out to be a hard sell. While the federal government was being asked to foot the bill for a new building, hospital operations were under the direct control of the District Board of Charities, which wanted to close the facility and send its patients to other District institutions. A protracted struggle ensued between the hospital’s board, which included a senator and two congressmen, and the Board of Charities, which soon wanted to consolidate all its charitable activities at a new general hospital to be built elsewhere in the District. For eight years the matter lay unresolved. Then in January 1912, a women’s organization associated with Columbia called on all of Washington’s women’s clubs to petition Congress to keep the hospital open and fund a new building. One impassioned supporter of the drive who had given birth at Columbia wrote to The Evening Star:

Oh, how I wish I could place this darling blue-eyed boy of mine on the desk of Speaker Champ Clark and call on all present: Behold a Columbia Hospital baby! Saved at Columbia Hospital for women: Look at this boy, this beautiful specimen of your own sex and then dare to take this institution away from the mothers!

The female uprising appears to have worked. An appropriations act passed that summer included funds for the new hospital, and by 1913 initial plans for a large new building were complete. The designer was Nathan C. Wyeth (1870-1963), a highly successful and well-connected architect who would later become the District’s municipal architect. Wyeth’s design emphasized natural light and air as the most important elements of the healing process. His steel-frame building featured two distinctive Y-shaped wings, one for obstetrics and the other for gynecology, connected by an administrative wing at the rear. The Y-shaped wards were said to allow a maximum amount of sunshine into the rooms. Screened porches spanned the ends of each floor, and the central roof featured a large pergola-covered terrace.

1913 Columbia Hospital elevation detail
1913 planned elevation for the new Columbia Hospital. (Source: New Building for Columbia Hospital for Women).

The architectural style was said to be Italian Renaissance, featuring tapestry brick, terracotta details, limestone trim, and an overhanging Spanish tile roof, all intended to promote restfulness and healing. “The building, which is of rough gray brick, with heavy tiled roof, is Spanish in architecture,” The Evening Star observed, noting that “while the design, of necessity, does not lend itself to beauty of outline, its fitness to the purpose of the building gives it a charm emphasized by its originality.”

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The hospital nears completion in 1916. Note that the old hospital, partially visible on the left, remained in operation while the new one was being built. (Source: Library of Congress).

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Columbia Hospital shortly after completion in 1916 (Source: Library of Congress).

The hospital’s spaces were carefully segregated by race and type of patient, a practice common in Washington hospitals at that time. The first floor was for African-American non-paying patients, the second for white non-paying patients, and the third for “private patients” (i.e., those who could afford to pay). Operating and delivery rooms were on the fourth floor and kitchens and dining rooms on the fifth. [Segregated wards continued in some Washington hospitals until the 1960s; Columbia desegregated its wards in 1964 in response to organized protests.]

The new building was constructed in phases, from 1913 to 1916, while the old one continued to operate next to it, thus allowing for uninterrupted hospital operations. It must have been very noisy. The timing was fortuitous, however, as Washington began one of its explosive war-related growth spurts that led by the early 1920s to crowded wards and beds parked in corridors. In 1919 a prenatal care program opened, followed by the first dedicated prenatal clinic in the country in 1921. So many babies were being delivered by 1925 that Columbia started recording footprints of babies as a way to uniquely identify them, a method that later became commonplace in hospital maternity wards.

Then, with other, newer Washington-area hospitals opening, Columbia’s occupancy rate declined. Decreased federal financial contributions led to budget deficits and deferred maintenance. The hospital’s superintendent announced that the hospital would have to close in 1929 if additional funding could not be obtained. There was talk of merging Columbia with Gallinger Hospital (later renamed D.C. General Hospital), but Columbia was saved at the last minute when the newly-formed D.C. Community Chest covered its financial shortfall. Community Chest funding kept the hospital open through the difficult Depression years.

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Columbia Hospital for Women as it appeared in the 1950s (photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.).

World War II brought renewed overcrowding at Columbia and a shortage of doctors and nurses. By 1942, Columbia staff found themselves hiring taxicabs to ferry women on the verge of giving birth four and a half miles across town to Gallinger Hospital because the Columbia maternity wards were all full. A 1946 article in The Washington Daily News noted that some babies were still being delivered in corridors because crowding persisted. In 1958, the Wilfred L. Goodwin wing, a large, modern addition on the east side of the building, opened after its $2 million cost had been largely supported by a grant form the Ford Foundation. Another sprawling addition was attached to the southeast corner of the complex in 1978.

Columbia lobby c 1960
The main lobby, circa 1963 (Source: Columbia Hospital for Women brochure, courtesy of Evelyn Cuttino).

After prospering in the 1960s and 1970s (the rise of Medicare and hospitalization insurance helped), Columbia again struggled financially in the final decades of the 20th century. Specialized hospitals across the country were endangered, and Columbia began to court a potential buyer. in 1997, it officially dropped its women-only restriction, shortly after carefully considering but ultimately rejecting a takeover bid by nearby George Washington University Hospital. Both Suburban Hospital and Washington Hospital Center had also considered taking over Columbia, but neither tendered an offer. In 1998, Columbia filed for bankruptcy, emerging from court protection the following year.

CHS 16285 Q20 detail
Aerial view of the hospital before restoration. The 1958 and 1978 additions are visible on the right, as are alterations to the original sun porches. The original pergola-covered roof terrace on the central building is missing, replaced by air conditioning units in 1950 (photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.).

Then in May 2002, after delivering more than 275,000 babies in the course of its history, Columbia Hospital finally closed its doors, done in by competition from larger, more efficient institutions providing more comprehensive healthcare services. In 1916, when its building was constructed, the Star had lamented that “the social life of the city has left the section where the Columbia building stands,” but in 2002 the property just off Pennsylvania Avenue was one of the most desirable in the city. Developer Trammell Crow purchased the building for $26 million, planning to convert it to a high-end condominium. The iconic structure was soon designated an historic landmark. The architects, Shalom Baranes Associates, working with the D.C. Historic Preservation Office, removed the clumsy recent additions on the east side and restored the building’s original Y-shaped wings, complete with their south-facing sun porches. The covered loggia on the rooftop, which had been removed in 1950, was recreated. The resulting 225-unit Columbia Residences condominium was completed in 2006.

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Special thanks to Bruce Yarnell of the D.C. Historic Preservation Office and to Anne McDonough and Jessica Richardson of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., for their invaluable assistance. Additional sources included The Columbia Hospital And Lying-In Asylum, A Government Institution, Its Past and Present Management (1877); New Building for Columbia Hospital for Women (1913); Annual Report of the Columbia Hospital for Women and Lying-in Asylum for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1914 (1914); Columbia Hospital for Women, Centennial Anniversary 1866-1966; Columbia Hospital for Women: D.C. Application for Historic Landmark (2002); William D. Calderhead, Dacor Bacon House (1999); James M. Goode, Capital Losses (2003); Adda M. Lawson, “A Historic Hospital” in American Journal Of Nursing (Feb. 1934); Charles Moore, ed., Historical Sketches of the Charities and Reformatory Institutions in the District of Columbia (1898); Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia (1993); J. Harry Thompson, Report of Columbia Hospital for Women and Lying-in Asylum, Washington, D.C. (1873); and numerous newspaper articles.

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