In 1888, Washington DC was a small, middle-class, southern city where the rich built houses around the White House and the poor huddled in alley slums. Disease was a huge problem because the heat and humidity of the city, built on a swamp, posed a constant threat of malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid.
"Chronically ill people, who could not be cared for at home, simply had no place to go. Often they were placed in any kind of institution that would take them, regardless of their special needs. Hospitals, for the most part, accepted only patients who could pay and little was done to alleviate the suffering of the poor."
It was during this time that Mrs. Charles Hill, niece of philanthropist William W. Corcoran (originator of the Corcoran Gallery and co-founder of Riggs National Bank), decided to create a home "for the helpless, destitute, incurable sick of the city" by soliciting donations from family and friends. Within a year, The Washington Home for The Incurables opened in Meridian Hill with two patients in a six-room house without electricity or running water.
By the second year, there were 11 patients and an overwhelming workload for the nurses and helpers who pumped water from a well and carried it in buckets inside for drinking, bathing, and laundry.
Four years later, The Home moved to a, 50-room brick building on the northwest corner of what is now Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown. An elevator was needed in the four-floor building so money was raised to buy and install one. Unfortunately, there was not enough money to buy a motor to run the elevator: "It is being run by hand until a proper motor can be put in. To accommodate a number of invalid chairs at a time, is a matter of much labor and no little risk to depend upon human strength to run it and it is only used at stated hours each day."
By 1895, there were 42 people in The Home: 26 women, 10 men and six children with diagnoses ranging from consumption and rheumatic heart disease to infantile paralysis (polio) and cancer. The Home was the first facility in the area to admit people with cancer that was believed at that time to be highly contagious. The only people turned away were "those suffering from drugs, drink, insanity, tuberculosis, and venereal."
"The early years at Georgetown were a time of strong growth; as The Home received ever increasing numbers of applicants, the Board and staff kept looking for ways to add more beds, to care for more of the impoverished gentlefolk of the city. Within two years of the move to Georgetown, the Board Room had been temporarily converted to a men's ward while funds were sought to construct a new wing. By 1898 electric lights were installed and work was begun on enlarging the facility."
As the waiting list for services grew larger, The Board and President spent considerable time looking for another location for The Washington Home. "In some parts of the city an institution such as The Home was considered undesirable and there were many delays and disappointments before the quiet, wooded site between Tilden and Upton Streets on Wisconsin Avenue was found, bought, and paid for."
In October ,1923, as "the fledgling Washington Cathedral was rising just a few blocks south of the new Home site on Wisconsin Avenue," the foundation stone was laid for the new building to be situated on 11.5 acres. A year later, Board members and friends helped move patients from the Georgetown Home to the new Home where, within a month, the patient census was over 100.
"The screening of new patients for admission was very difficult. Many applied who were not ill but simply old and alone and they had to be refused. Only those whose condition was such that care and nursing was essential to their living were admitted and yet, even with the much larger space, the waiting list remained a worry."
With the US entry into World War I in 1917 came critical shortages in goods, services, and medical personnel. The volunteer Gray Ladies Service of the Washington Home for The Incurables, an off-shoot of the American Red Cross, formed in 1942 to help short-staffed nurses care for patients. They wore gray uniforms to distinguish them from the nurses who wore white and patients affectionately called them "gray ladies.' Over the years, the Gray Ladies' duties changed to meet the changing needs of the patients and The Home but their mission remained constant: to add quality to patients' lives.
By 1933, The Home was again over capacity with once-private rooms holding two and three patients and makeshift rooms created out of bookcases and hospital screens in hallways. Two more wings were added to the building by the late 1930's to accommodate another 77 patients.
The land The Home owned not only allowed for building expansion but brought in additional revenue as well. Half of the frontage on Wisconsin Avenue was leased to Sanitary Grocery Company and "in July 1940, after some months of dickering, the Board granted a lease on a small amount of the frontage to the United States Postal Service for a post office. The structure was built by the Home and the rent added income to the ever-strained budget."
Throughout its history, the Washington Home and Community Hospices has found visionary ways to give personalized, high quality, long-term and end-of-life care to meet the changing needs of area residents. Since its beginning in 1888, The Home has built larger facilities, expanded staff, and added programs of care: cancer, Alzheimer's, hospice, respite, short-term rehabilitation, and wound care.
Constant building renovations and additions throughout the years, often funded by generous benefactors, allowed the Home to serve more people and offer new programs. A new physical therapy room was built in 1960. Medicare and Medicaid were enacted in 1965 and, during the next year, The Home was the first facility in the District of Columbia to be certified for reimbursement.
In 1978, The Home admitted the first patient into its inpatient hospice unit, one of the first in the country offering comfort care to people in the final stages of their lives. The Home led the way in healthcare service once again as one of the first facilities in the area to serve people with Alzheimer's disease and related conditions in its Special Care Unit opened in 1985.
Home hospice care began in 1986 and two years later The Home razed its building on Upton Street and replaced it with a larger, state-of-the-art facility. The building, designed by an environmental psychologist, primarily from the perspective of the patient, offers private rooms and direct-access to outside landscaped gardens from all floors. Subacute care, for stroke and post-operative patients recently discharged from a hospital, was initiated in 1996.
As medical technology has helped lengthen people lives, the need for palliative and end-of-life care has increased. In 2001, The Home acquired Medstar Health Visiting Nurse Association's hospice program assets and the authority to provide hospice care in Maryland and Virginia in addition to the District of Columbia. And, after 113 years of existence as The Washington Home for The Incurables or The Washington Home the organization adopted a new name that reflected both its long-term and end-of-life services: The Washington Home and Community Hospices.
The following year, in 2002, The Washington Home Center for Palliative Care Studies was established to conduct policy-related research to improve the quality of care for chronically ill people. Today, The Washington Home and Community Hospices is investing in technologies that allow our caregivers to spend more time giving compassionate care and less time filling out paperwork. We are adding programs to meet the changing needs of our residents and patients and we are reaching out into more communities in Maryland, Virginia, and the District to provide hospice care to everyone in need.
This history is a compilation of information from: The First One Hundred Years of The Washington Home, 1988, Nancy S. Montgomery; The Gray Ladies of The Washington Home for the Incurables: an informal history of the first fifteen years; An Early History of The Home; and The Historical Society of Washington DC.