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Walter Reed National Military Medical Center
Directly inspired by Bertram Goodhue’s celebrated tower design for the Nebraska State Capitol, the Bethesda Naval Hospital stands as a landmark along the now busy Wisconsin Avenue/Rockville Pike corridor northwest of the nation’s capital. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took a very personal interest in the design of a new naval hospital in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. His former role as Secretary of the Navy and well-documented interest in architecture made him keenly involved in this project. In 1937 Congress appropriated the funds for a new Navy medical facility to replace the crowded buildings at the Old Naval Observatory in Washington. President Roosevelt helped choose the site in a still undeveloped section of Bethesda.
This decision was one of several in the period, including construction of the Pentagon in Virginia, that moved government facilities out of the capital and into the surrounding suburbs. Bethesda was also home to the new campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), built at the same time and located directly across Wisconsin Avenue. While the NIH campus included a more conventional grouping of institutional buildings, Bethesda Naval Hospital took the dramatic skyscraper form first sketched by Roosevelt on a piece of White House stationary. The President had given a speech at the Nebraska State Capitol in 1936 and was greatly impressed. His concept for Bethesda Naval Hospital included a tall, stepped central tower with a flat roof, flanked by much lower wings. Consulting architect Paul Cret refined the form into a twenty-story tower with strong vertical lines of stacked window bays and a base of interconnected three- and four-story pavilions. The government architect of record for the project was Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks architect Frederic W. Southworth, whose office executed the final drawings and supervised construction.
Bethesda Naval Hospital is a reinforced concrete and structural steel building, clad with quartz-faced concrete panels. The main decorative element is the treatment of the stacked window bays. Bronze window sash with serpentine spandrels contrast with the lighter quartz wall cladding and emphasize the hospital’s vertical lines. The elegant building sits in a bucolic, landscaped site and is characteristic of Cret’s later work in Washington, D.C. and beyond.
When completed in 1942, the complex housed a 500-bed hospital and training and research facilities, including a medical school, dental school, and the Naval Medical Research Institute. Bethesda Naval Hospital provided medical care to each sitting president and many other dignitaries and Navy personnel. Wings were added to the pavilions around 1960 to increase capacity. In 2011, Bethesda Naval Medical Center merged with Walter Reed Army Medical Center, formerly located in a historic campus along Sixteenth Street Northwest in Washington, D.C. The Bethesda facility was renamed Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Rhoads, William B. “Franklin D. Roosevelt and Washington Architecture.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, DC52 (1989): 104-162.
Schmidt, Raymond P. “A Tower in Nebraska: How FDR Found Inspiration for the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.” Prologue41, no. 4 (Winter 2009): 1-6.
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