During the nineteenth century, the area that currently encompasses the Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) was rural and isolated from the District of Columbia (DC). To the south of the site was a Civil War fort named Fort Stevens. On July 11, 1864, Confederate troops led by General Jubal Early attempted to enter the city, but were turned back by Union troops on what later became the WRAMC site.1 In the 1880s, 131 acres of land between Seventh Street and Rock Creek was purchased by J. D. Cameron, which included the 110.1 acres WRAMC occupies today.2
In 1905, at the time the land was purchased for the Army hospital, the area contained a mixture of woodlands, farmland and summer estates. At that time, a farmhouse and outbuildings, located near Cameron’s Creek, were probably owned by Thomas Carberry.3 Along the western border were woodlands, and west of Cameron’s Creek was farmland.4
The need for an Army hospital on a separate military installation dated back to the Civil War when Surgeon General William A. Hammond first conceived of the need for a military medical reservation in the District of Columbia. His 1862 report recommended a permanent hospital complete with a medical school and a medical museum.
Lieutenant Colonel William Cline Borden, also a surgeon, hoped for better facilities and was spurred on by the death of his friend Walter Reed, a renowned doctor and scientist who proved that yellow fever was carried by mosquitoes, who died in 1902 following an emergency appendectomy. Borden lobbied both Congress and the Army Medical Department for an Army medical center containing a hospital, medical school, museum and library. His grand plan took on the moniker “Borden’s Dream.” In 1903 he commissioned local architects Marsh and Peter to produce a watercolor rendering and sketch plans for a medical campus. The plans featured the main hospital administration building set on a curving main drive, with groups of hospital wards, staff housing and a chapel, arranged in a nearly symmetrical pattern around an ample amount of open green space. The curving drive linked the most significant buildings on the site.
A board appointed by the Secretary of War solicited for a suitable location in the District of Columbia with the result of “some forty different offers” proposed.5 Borden, who sat on the board, reported:
…“that although the hospital was not a city hospital, it should be located within convenient reach of the main railroad depot, on a good road, and should have street-car facilities, adjacent water main and sewer, also the site should be well elevated, well drained, and sufficient size to give good air space about the hospital and to allow erection of other buildings which would eventually be required.” 6
In 1905, Congress appropriated $100,000 for the purchase of 42.97 acres of land in the northern portion of the District of Columbia. The original site was bounded by Brightwood Avenue (renamed Georgia Avenue in 1909) on the east, Aspen Street on the south, a line near 14th Street on the west, and a portion of Dahlia Street on the north.7
In 1906, $200,000 was appropriated for the construction of a new hospital and the land was designated a military reservation to be known as the “Walter Reed United States Army General Hospital,”8 named for Borden’s friend Walter Reed.
The central hospital and administration building (Building 1), designed by local architects Marsh and Peter in the Colonial/Georgian Revival style, was completed in 1908 and opened May 1, 1909 with administrative offices, room for 75 patients, an operating room and a kitchen.9
In 1923, General John J. Pershing signed the War Department order which created the Army Medical Center. The Army Medical Center Building (Building 40) was built west of the hospital at a cost of $500,000 and the first wing was completed in 1924.10
By 1917, Walter Reed was treating thousands of World War I patients and begins to grow rapidly. At the beginning of the war, Walter Reed is only able to accommodate 121 patients. In 1918, the Army School of Nursing opened at Walter Reed; its first graduating class has more than 400 students.
Between 1920 and 1922, 44 additional acres of land were purchased on the north side of the campus.11 A year later, after the campus was expanded and temporary buildings were constructed, that capacity grew to 2,500. Even as Walter Reed treated those wounded during World War I, the center admitted thousands of civilians swept up in the nationwide influenza pandemic.
Then, as World War II raged on more than 18,000 service members are admitted in 1943 alone. The figure tops the previous record of 13,752 service members hospitalized during World War I. The increase in patients pushed the Army to purchase the old National Park Seminary nearby to create a “convalescent section.”
In 1948 General John Pershing died at Walter Reed. Pershing, who led US forces in Europe during WWI, was a vocal supporter of the hospital and advocated for the medical care of the soldiers who served under him. His room at Walter Reed became known as the “Pershing Suite” and thereafter housed famous officers, including General Peyton March and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, during their hospital stays at Walter Reed.
The new building for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology was completed in 1955. It was built to be atomic bomb-proof, with dense concrete walls and no windows. Decades later, the institute helped identify the remains of unknown soldiers from Vietnam and victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Then-Vice President Richard Nixon entered Walter Reed as a patient with a staph infection in 1960. He left in early September of that year, but was not completely recovered by the time he had to participate in the first televised Presidential debate. Nixon famously appeared six and frail next to a very vibrant John F. Kennedy. Nixon eventually recovers from his illness but loses the 1960 presidential race.
Seven years after leaving the White House, in 1968, President Eisenhower enters WR as a patient. He spends eleven months at the hospital and is treated for coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure. He dies at Walter Reed in 1969 and is one of six US President’s to receive treatment there.
In 1977, the new Hospital, Building 2, was completed at Walter Reed; it took five years to construct. The building was supposed to replace the older facilities at Walter Reed and is so large that it required its own electrical power plant that has the capacity to power a city of 50,000.
During all its more than 100 years of activity, Walter Reed served more than 150,000 active duty and retired personnel from all branches of the military. Besides US Military members, the U.S. President, Vice President, Senators and Representatives were authorized to and did receive care at Walter Reed.
In 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) recommended that the Army close the WRAMC, with the name to be carried over to the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) in nearby Bethesda, Maryland.
For over a century, the WRAMC provided facilities for patient care, medical research and educational development for the Armed Forces of the United States. Patients have included soldiers from all branches of the Armed Forces; their dependents as well as, retired military personnel, heads of state as well as high ranking government officials.
Eligible elements for the National Register of Historic Places.
Click image to enlarge.
- KFS Historic Preservation Group, p. 9.
- Ibid, p. 9.
- Ibid, p. 11.
- Mary W. Standlee, “The Walter Reed General Hospital of the United States Army,” by Major William C. Borden, Postface of Borden’s Dream, Washington, DC: Borden Institute, 2009, p. 436.
- Ibid, p. 436.
- KFS Historic Preservation Group, “Main Section, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, DC, Section 106 Report – Draft Report,” May 1994, p. 11.
- War Department, General Orders No. 83, May 2, 1906, from Walter Reed Directorate of Public Works Archives, Box 3, Folder 58.
- Standlee, pp. 437-438.
- Undated report, Walter Reed Directorate of Public Works Archives, Box 3, Folder 62.
- Walter Reed Army Medical Center Centennial: A Pictorial History, 1909-2009, Washington, DC: Borden Institute, 2009, p. 28