When I think of where I live, I think first of the cold. I’ll often walk my dog down 25th Street late at night, when you can walk around in the heart of Washington, DC and not see a single trace of other people except for a light on in one of the dozen or so apartment buildings across the street. I’ll dig my left hand deep down in my pocket, and clutch at the leash the small dog pulls, anxious to get out of the blustery December air. After I walk past the darkened windows of Trader Joe’s, I’ll turn left and see the dark, looming, shapeless building. Skirted by small lights illumining the sidewalk that leads to the front door, the nine-story building fades into the black sky, its slanted roof crowned by a single beacon of light.
The building that was once the Columbia Hospital for Women has occupied the site that is now located at the corner of 24th Street and L Street since 1870. In response to the influx of women entering the city in search of missing relatives, the Secretary of War E. N. Stanton designated funds to establish the fifty-bed hospital, specifying that twenty beds be held for widows of Civil War soldiers. Health care facilities in the metropolitan city were laden with injured soldiers, and the women entering the city often faced adversity in pursuit of care. The Columbia Hospital for Women and Lying-in Asylum originally opened in the Hill Mansion at Thomas Circle, but quickly relocated and expanded in 1914 to its current location. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill over to its board of directors, and it became a private, non-profit hospital. Breaking ground in obstetric and gynecology techniques, the Columbia Hospital for Women was the birth site for more than 250,000 babies since its founding in 1866.1
The Columbia Residences, a luxury 225-unit, $140 million development of the historic Columbia Hospital for Women, an Italianate building dating from the late 19th century, has several units for sale!2 With the recent addition of two wings on the west and east sides, the building sits on the corner of 24th and L Street, smack dab between bustling downtown and trendy-chic Georgetown – what more could you ask for? How about access to the building’s private rooftop swimming pool, full gym, covered garage, and round-the-clock security service? Still not sold? You’ll have stunning views of the National Cathedral, Georgetown University, and the Potomac River to the East, and K Street, the White House, and the Washington Mall to the West! Steps away from the Foggy Bottom Metro Station, the Columbia Residences is the quintessential location for everything Washington – call to make your appointment to tour TODAY!
The cold, white hallway to the gym on the west side of the apartment building feels like a hospital. Halfheartedly decorated with nondescript floral paintings, identical to the hallway upstairs, I rarely pass anyone else as I walk through the least-populated floor of the building. Even at the heart of the Nation’s Capital, the only sound I hear are my keys jingling as they hang off of one finger, and the soft, muffled sound of my feet hitting the drab, olive green carpet. I walk down the hallway further, down a handicapped ramp, and wave the censor on my keychain. A piercing beep indicates my permission to enter the gym. The stark white, sterile walls and overhead florescent lights are almost blinding. A large fan stands on the far side of the room, plugged in, and turned on full speed. The elliptical machines, treadmills, and weights are lined up orderly against the walls, and I feel a chill up my spine when I remember the history my father shared with me about the room: I am standing in the Columbia Hospital for Women’s morgue.
After my parents agreed to separate in 2007, my father moved from our family home into a two-bedroom floor unit in the Columbia Residences. Having worked for the company that developed the old hospital, he knew the history of each room before he decided where he wanted to live, and chose the floor unit despite its close proximity to the former morgue. The building’s history is marked by deaths and births, by ends and beginnings. It remains to this day a place for lost spouses, seeking refuge, and looking for answers. The place that represents the end of one chapter of my father’s life is not represented by the new life of the building, but rather the cold, eerie history seeps through the walls and hangs in the air, undeniable and unavoidable.