After 136 years, the Columbia Hospital for Women closed its doors in 2002 and gave way to the Columbia Residences condominiums. But not before Foggy Bottom activists had obtained a financial contribution from the developer and used some of those funds to lure Trader Joe’s to a neighborhood lacking grocery stores.
The Columbia Hospital for Women and Lying-In Asylum (maternity hospital) was a unique institution. Since its founding in 1866, more than 275,000 babies were born there, including Duke Ellington, Al Gore, Arrington Dixon, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Marion Barry, and Katherine Heigl. From its beginning, it served individuals of all races, although it remained segregated until 1964.
Columbia Hospital was a pioneer in the of innovative techniques in obstetrics, gynecology, and neonatal care. In 1925, it became the first hospital to use babies’ footprints for identification. It was one of the first maternity hospitals to create a nursery for premature infants, and the first to provide classes for expectant fathers. It also opened a nurse training school in 1892. It was also a leader in the care of children, with its Clinic for Children (founded in 1870) giving rise to the current Children’s Hospital on Michigan Ave.
During the Civil War, J. Harry Thompson, an Army physician and later Columbia Hospital Chief Surgeon, was concerned about absence of medical support for indigent women who came to Washington searching for their relatives or information from the government. He received approval from President Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin N. Stanton, to establish a 50-bed hospital for women, with 20 of these beds to be reserved for the wives and widows of U.S. soldiers. Congress chartered Columbia Hospital in 1866.
In March 1866, the hospital opened in the Hill Mansion at Thomas Circle (Massachusetts Avenue and 14th Street). When that lease expired in 1870, the hospital leased, and purchased in 1872, another residence, the Tench Ringgold House (also known as the Maynard Mansion) at 25th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The house had previously housed the British Legation and was the site of the signing of the 1817 Rush-Bagot Agreement between the U.S. and Canada, which still restricts naval forces on the Great Lakes.
By 1904, it was time for a new hospital building (one that, e.g., had elevators). A new building was built in 1915 in an Italianate style, featuring tapestry brick, terracotta details, limestone trim, and an overhanging Spanish tile roof, with ventilation towers and a roof garden. The main block has connected Y-shaped wings (originally one for obstetrics and the other for gynecology). This design allowed for exterior windows to maximize ventilation and sunlight for patients.
In 1953, Columbia Hospital ownership was transferred to its board of directors and it became a private, non-profit hospital. In 1958 and 1978, large modern additions were made to the buildings.
By the 1990s, the small hospital could not compete financially with larger institutions providing more comprehensive healthcare services. In 1997, it considered but rejected a takeover bid by nearby George Washington University Hospital. In 1998, Columbia filed for bankruptcy, emerging from court protection the following year. It continued to operate until May 2002 and the structure was designated a DC historic landmark in December 2002.
Developer Trammell Crow purchased the building for $26 million, planning to convert it to a high-end condominium and retail space. The architects removed recent additions, restored the building’s original Y-shaped wings, including their south-facing sun porches, and rebuilt the rooftop covered loggia. It completed the 225-unit Columbia Residences condominium in 2006.
But not before the developer struck a deal with the Foggy Bottom Association. Area residents wanted a grocery store and 140 of them wrote letters to Trader Joe’s, asking it to move in. Moreover, in 1987, the FBA had obtained from Columbia Hospital a legal restriction limiting the size of the building’s expansion. The FBA agreed to the lifting of that restriction in return for a substantial cash payment. $1M of that payment went to providing an incentive for the Trader Joe’s grocery store to locate on the ground floor of the new building, where it remains today. The remaining funds are held by the Foggy Bottom Trust for use in community defense and improvements.
Sources: John DeFerrari,“The Columbia Hospital, Caring for Washington Women” (Aug. 29, 2016),http://www.streetsofwashington.com/2016/08/the-columbia-hospital-caring-for.html; Hannah Natanson, “‘We lost something special’: The women’s hospital in D.C. that became a Trader Joe’s,” The Washington Post (Aug. 17, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/08/17/we-lost-something-special-womens-hospital-that-became-trader-joes/; Adda M. Lawson, “A Historic Hospital,” Am. J. Nursing (Feb. 1934), https://journals.lww.com/ajnonline/Citation/1934/02000/A_Historic_Hospital.4.aspx; Columbia Hospital for Women, Historic Landmark Nomination (2002), https://historicsites.dcpreservation.org/items/show/124; Pamela Scott & Antoinette J. Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia, New York: Oxford Univ. Press (1993) at 231.