Nicky Cymrot, RE Hill Center

In 2000, neighbors organized to seek a suitable use for Capitol Hill's delapidated Old Naval Hospital. This interview is an oral record of the 11 year effort that resulted in its conversion to Hill Center.

Nicky Cymrot, founding president of the Old Naval Hospital Foundation, talked in this interview with board member John Franzén about the lengthy process endured to create a community-use facility at the site. Nicky and John describe in detail the many false starts, frustrating obstacles, and eventual successes that led to the dedication of the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital in November, 2011. At the time of the interview, the Hill Center had been operating for three years.

The 19th century Naval Hospital had deteriorated to an alarming degree and was essentially abandoned when neighbors first formed the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital to advocate for rehabilitation and an appropriate use. That group hired experts to assess the property and recommend possible uses. The Old Naval Hospital Foundation was created in 2002 in response to the Urban League Institute's recommendation that DC issue a Request for Proposal for rehabilitation of the building and creation of a community space. The Foundation would be the entity responding to the RFP.

The interview provides details of the many decisions that were required, how they were decided, and what people were involved. During the process, plans for facility programming and operation were developed. Research and community input informed the choices at every step.

Since its dedication, the Hill Center has proven to be a constantly active host for educational and cultural events, private celebrations, and community forums. The Foundation continues to operate the Hill Center as a nonprofit.

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Interview Date
June 25, 2014
John Franzén
David MacKinnon

Full Directory

Interview with Nicky Cymrot regarding Hill Center
Interview Date: June 25, 2014
Interviewer: John Franzén
Transcriber: David MacKinnon

FRANZÉN: It’s Wednesday, June 25, 2014. I’m John Franzén and I’m talking today with Nicky Cymrot, who spearheaded the effort to create the Hill Center on the Old Naval Hospital site on Pennsylvania Avenue on Capitol Hill, an effort that took more than ten years. We want to create an oral record of how all that went—how it started, obstacles encountered and the ultimate success. Nicky is the long-time president of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation and served as president of the Old Naval Hospital Foundation, the governing body for the Hill Center from the get-go. She was president of that foundation for over ten years. What was it, eleven years, Nicky?
CYMROT: Yes, eleven years.
FRANZÉN: Eleven years, up until just last year, and continues to serve on the board in a very active role and continues as president of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation. Nicky is married to Steve Cymrot, the founding president of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation, proprietor of Riverby Books [at 417 East Capitol Street, SE] and also very, very actively involved in the creation of the Hill Center from day one. The Old Naval Hospital site, of course, goes all the way back to the mid-nineteenth century—built in the 1860s to serve wounded sailors from the Civil War—and went through several phases, first as a hospital, then as a medical training school for the Navy, then as an old sailors and soldiers home. And then it was turned over to the District government, the DC government, for use as office space and so on, and served in that capacity for a few decades. But by about the 1970s or so, I believe it was, the place had been allowed to go to such wrack and ruin that it was essentially abandoned by the city. It walked away from it.
CYMROT: I think that’s a little earlier. I think …
FRANZÉN: Eighties?
CYMROT: Yeah, 80s, beginning of the 90s. There were different … the city put in different organizations, typically nonprofit organizations. Those folks operated their programs but of course they weren’t in any position to do any capital maintenance. And the city kept it going. They needed new wiring. They put wiring on the surface but they did no harm, which turned out to be good.
FRANZÉN: I remember the building from the first days that I lived on Capitol Hill in the early to mid-1970s. I didn’t really know what it was. It wasn’t really labeled. It was … there was no signage up. I always thought, you know, it’s a shame that somebody doesn’t do something with this place. I was not alone in feeling that way. As I recall, when I first did get inside of it to look around, we had falling plaster, we had water damage. There were some serious problems in there.
CYMROT: Yup, that’s true, that’s true. Luckily it was well-built and underneath those cosmetic things we had a very sound structure.
FRANZÉN: Good. The building did not belong to the District government though, did it?
CYMROT: No. The building did not get transferred to the District government until 2011—or was it [20]10—as part of a land swap between the District government and the Federal government with a lot of parcels of land in the city, in particular Reservation 13 here on Capitol Hill, which is [south of] where the stadium [RFK] is now and [includes] old DC General Hospital. The city wanted that piece, and that belonged to the Federal government. The Federal government wanted a piece of St. Elizabeth’s [Hospital, between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Alabama Avenues, SE] so they swapped that, as well as a lot of triangle parks and other properties in the city. Finally that swap happened and the DC government got title to this property.
FRANZÉN: That ownership question was an obstacle for us all the way through this. I say “us” because I served on the board of the Old Naval Hospital Foundation from the start. The start being about 2002, is that right?
CYMROT: That’s right.
FRANZÉN: And as you say, it didn’t get resolved until very late in the game. We could not go forward with construction for the renovation until that got resolved, as I recall.
CYMROT: That’s correct, that’s correct. I don’t think the city was thinking about that when they put out the RFP [Request for Proposals]. They just proceeded, thinking they had the right to do that. After they had awarded the RFP and started negotiating the lease with us, this issue came up quite late in the process, that, oh my goodness, they were going to have … they felt they couldn’t sign the lease with us until the property was in the city’s portfolio. So, there was some scrambling around associated with that too. The Congress had to get involved, and it happened. But it was one of those things that caused some turmoil for a while, and delays.
FRANZÉN: Right. Let’s go back a little in time, before the first RFP, before the formation of the Old Naval Hospital Foundation. There were people in the community and around the city, I think, who were looking at this property for some time, thinking something ought to be done with this. There were some early false starts along that line. The one that I remember in particular is that there was this idea that some people had that the place should be turned into a residence for the mayor.
CYMROT: Well, yes. That did happen before we got involved. I think it … I’ve read that Sharon Ambrose, who was our City Council member at that point, was the one who suggested that. But when the commission looking at a possibility of a mayor’s mansion or mayor’s home looked at it, they decided that it was not suitable. And in the end the city decided not to do that at all. But there was some time before we were involved where that was a consideration.
FRANZÉN: There were people in the community who were pushing to do something with this place.
CYMROT: Yeah, the public notice here on the Hill really began after a few of the immediate neighbors had formed themselves into a group called the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital. They took it upon themselves to get together a group of preservationists, including David Bell, architect, Scott Knight, architect, both of whom we’ve come to know very well, to look at the building and really assess what could be done and how it could be done in an appropriate way to restore it or rehabilitate it. So they did that and there was a technical report issued by that group which really laid out the basis for a restoration plan. And in the end, since we hired David Bell to do the project, and because David Bell hired Scott Knight to work for him, the two people who were involved at the outset were the ones ending up designing it and carrying out the whole restoration, the rehabilitation. I’m trying to use the word “rehabilitation” because this is not a pure restoration. There were some changes made, of course. Not much.
FRANZÉN: So this study was around year 2000?
CYMROT: Uh-huh. That’s correct.
FRANZÉN: This was the Urban Land Institute?
CYMROT: No, no. This technical report—January 30th, 2002—this technical report by the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital, Gregg Ritchie, president. And this is called “The Rehabilitation of the Old Naval Hospital.” And this is a complete review of what was there, what the situation was, with pictures and recommendations about how it could be restored or rehabilitated. So that was a technical piece here of about thirty-five, forty pages, I think. That’s in January of 2002, and in April of 2002 the Friends group had arranged, hired actually, the Urban Land Institute, called ULI, to come do one of their studies. They called it … they would bring in a panel of experts, five people, who had planning and financial and other expertise, and they came and stayed at the building for a whole week and interviewed many people and considered a variety of ways to use the property. Their task was to decide what the highest and best use would be, what a feasible use would be, and a way to get there from where it was standing at that moment. Now this group of Friends are people who lived immediately around the building. So they had been acutely aware of the deterioration of the building and they were sitting with this basically empty, deteriorating building right in their front yards. So they had a very big personal interest and they did a great service by alerting everyone else to the importance of this property.
FRANZÉN: And as I recall, the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital were active in the community trying to publicize the need for doing something to save and restore this property.
CYMROT: Indeed, yes they did. And they also lobbied the government, lobbied the city, the mayor and the Council member to get involved, and trying to alert them to the possibility of doing something good there, but also trying to save them from living around the derelict building. They were effective at doing this. They were the ones who got us all started on it. These things came to fruition in early part of 2002.
FRANZÉN: You mentioned Gregg Ritchie. Were there any other people that stick in your mind as key players in that group?
CYMROT: Yes, oh yes. Gregg Ritchie was the president and Carl Kindel was very actively involved, and Dan Daley and Donna Hanousek. And Tommy Wells also was a board member with that group at the outset. They had two or three other people who cycled on and off their group. It was not a very large group but they were very effective.
FRANZÉN: Right. And Tommy Wells went on eventually to become our representative on the City Council.
CYMROT: He did. And also then at the time when we secured the right to do the renovation, or actually before that, Tommy had been on our, came on to our board too.
FRANZÉN: The Old Naval Hospital Foundation, which is a different organization.
CYMROT: Correct, a different entity. It did not exist at that time.
FRANZÉN: Right. Now, let’s get into the formation of Old Naval Hospital Foundation. When did you first get wind of the fact that the city was planning to put out a request for proposals on the Old Naval Hospital.
CYMROT: Well, Steve and I got involved when we … you know, the [Capitol Hill Community] Foundation had been asked to help fund the ULI report, or study. So we knew what was going on and we, the Foundation, did give a grant to the Friends to help pay for that, along with the Restoration Society [Capitol Hill Restoration Society]. And I think they had a couple of other funders as well. So we knew that there were, that these other folks were coming in. And then we heard that the process was going to be that this panel was going to be asking to hear from people in the community who had ideas about how that property could be used. It occurred to us that if we wanted this to be a community-use space we probably should get involved quickly, because at that time people were talking about the possibility that this could be … wouldn’t this be a fine office for a government entity or a law firm or another kind of nonprofit that might be doing work somewhere else, or maybe condos or rental apartments or retail. It was all up for grabs at that time. That’s what ULI was asked to do, was to consider the various [possible] uses for this property.
FRANZÉN: And there’d be recommendations or what?
CYMROT: In the end the recommendations where exactly what we wanted them to be, so Steve and I and other people went and were part of the community group that went in and gave our ideas about it. And so we were arguing as strongly as we could that this ought to be a community-use facility. Nothing else would do. And it should be one hundred percent community use. It shouldn’t just be something that was a token. In the end, what they came out and said was that just exactly—if we could have written it we couldn’t have done better. They said this building deserved to be a … was a gem and it deserved to be in community use. They also came to the conclusion that financially it didn’t make much sense for any of these other uses because while it looks like a pretty big building—it’s got sixteen thousand square feet of space in the main Old Naval Hospital building on four floors —but fifty percent of that is common areas, corridors and stairwells. So you’re talking about eight thousand square feet. They recognized how much it was going to cost to bring this building into compliance to current codes. They said it just didn’t make sense for any of these other uses financially. That was a good thing for us. They recommended that the city put out an RFP for a developer, someone to come in to redo the building. And have as part of the RFP that there should be an amenity to the community in the rehabilitation. They weren’t of course specific about that and I think we just took that and said, “Let’s just go with it. Let’s just make that happen.”
FRANZÉN: Right. So the city did in fact come out with that RFP.
CYMROT: Well, it took quite some time. I mean, at the end of this study then … this is another thing that the Friends did. They just kept pushing on the city to go ahead and put out an RFP. And we organized right away then, pretty soon, trying to put together an organization which would come forward with a real proposal and be in a position to respond to an RFP. That is what we did.
FRANZÉN: So this is the Old Naval Hospital Foundation, launched in ’02?
CYMROT: Yeah, it was. Our first organizational meeting was really in September of 2002. People involved at that moment were Sharon Ambrose, and T.C. Benson who was a … Sharon was our City Council member at that time. T.C. Benson for her fundraising expertise. Steve and I were there. You, John, were on this group. Mark Gitenstein, lawyer. Betty Ann Kane, who had been the prior City Council  member. And Larry Molumby and Donna Scheeder were part of this organizational group that met in September of 2002. We formed what we called a steering committee at that time. It wasn’t until 2003, in November, that we actually met as a board of directors. By then we had incorporated as a 501 (C)(3) organization.
FRANZÉN: Was the RFP out by that time? When did that come out?
CYMROT: 2004
FRANZÉN: It wasn’t until 2004?
FRANZÉN: Okay. We put our heads together and came up with this proposal which was not quite the proposal that eventually got enacted and built upon. So there was a phase one and a phase two here, because there were actually two RFPs before this got done.
CYMROT: Yup, that’s correct. The first proposal, the first RFP was put out at … it may have been the end of 2003, because I know we submitted it, our response, in April of 2004. Then we waited and we waited and we waited and we waited. What happened is that we had decided the way we wanted to use the building was to put the Southeast Branch of the [DC Public] Library on the ground floor and the first floor of the building and reserve the second floor and third floor for community use—educational, cultural activities and community use. So we were trying to share the space.
FRANZÉN: Sort of a mini version of today’s Hill Center would have been on the second and top floors.
CYMROT: Correct. And the existing community library in that part of the neighborhood was the Southeast Branch Library located in an original Carnegie building located just a block and a half away at Seventh and Pennsylvania Avenue. And it’s a very small, beautiful building.
FRANZÉN: One of the smallest libraries in the city.
CYMROT: It is, it is. And we thought it would be swell to have the library operating out of the Old Naval Hospital—still a good location—and to combine the two uses. We spent a very long time putting this RFP response together. Unfortunately we had a weakness. We couldn’t get the library administration ever, ever, ever to commit to wanting to do this.
FRANZÉN: Now, as I recall, what that was about was the fact that we had a head of the DC Public Library who expressed interest, but then she left and she was not replaced. There was an interim director for a long time and the interim director would not commit to this idea.
CYMROT: Correct. [He] would say, yes, he thought it was good idea. Various people in the administration of the library were enthusiastic. The head of the board was enthusiastic. But we never could get a positive, absolute response. And so, while we went forward because we had lots of letters of support from the head of the board for the library and others, we never had the director saying we actually want to do it.
FRANZÉN: There was support expressed also by, I think … did the National Trust for Historic Preservation weigh in at that stage?
CYMROT: I think they were advising us about the restoration and I don’t think they were taking a position on the use of the building. And I should say that the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital, the group that had got us all excited about getting involved, they also had decided not to take any position on the use of the space as long as the things they were concerned about—the restoration be done well, that it have a good community impact—they would stand back and let the process go forward.
FRANZÉN: Right. Okay, so we had this weakness of proposing a partner that had not come all the way to the altar.
CYMROT: That’s true. So what happened in the end is there was one other entity that had submitted an RFP response. And that was an organization called the Art of Living Foundation. Their mission, I think, was to … oh, I know they did programs in yoga and breathing techniques and relaxation.
FRANZÉN: Meditation.
CYMROT: Meditation, that’s right. And a very legitimate organization—international NPO [nonprofit organization]. They were active here in the city. They wanted a space that was close to the Capitol. They had, I think, funds to go forward with this. So, the two of us were in competition. All of this was being done out of our sight, so we didn’t know what the considerations were. And in the end the Mayor just withdrew the RFP.
FRANZÉN: Picked no winner.
CYMROT: Picked no winner and said, “Let’s think about this again.”
FRANZÉN: Right. There was another factor here and that was what we were proposing to do to the physical building. We were talking about doing something a little different than what stands there today.
CYMROT: True. Our architect at the time was Judith Capen, the firm of Judith Capen and Robert Weinstein, who have a practice right across the street. And they are historic preservation specialists. Their idea about how to make this happen was to put an exterior addition on the building, perhaps a glass one on the west side of the building, in fact, where we’re now entering—to put a four-floor addition there that would house the … let’s see, that would have been one of the stairways, the fire stairways, and also an elevator and I think bathrooms too. Their idea was to put those common-area things on the outside of the building on every level.
FRANZÉN: This could have saved space inside for more program uses and so on …
CYMROT: Correct, correct. More program use and not having to tear up quite as much. You know, John, I don’t think it [the city’s rejection] ever got to that. I think the fact that we … I firmly believe the mayor was not thinking about what the impact on the building was going to be. I think that he and his staff made a decision based on other considerations.
FRANZÉN: And the mayor in this case was Tony Williams.
CYMROT: Tony Williams, yeah. I would be surprised if we could have been successful proposing that. I still believe that it would have been a good solution. I think it could have been done appropriately.
FRANZÉN: As I recall, we were proposing that you would be able, with this tower—this glass tower on the west side—you would be able to enter the [main] building either at the ground level or the first floor level and or at the second floor level, depending on whether you were going to the library or to the …
CYMROT: Yes. You could have closed off, like when the library was closed, those doors could have been closed on those levels. That was the idea. We never had a [specific] proposal about how it would look. We never, the architect never came up with a rendering of how it might look. So that was left to everybody’s imagination, and depending on how you thought about this, you thought that would look good, bad or horrible, and so …
FRANZÉN: There were some preservation purists who did have objections to that view ...
CYMROT: Oh yes. I think it would have been a very difficult sell. Looking back on it now, I think that we were lucky that we didn’t have to fight that battle, because I’m not sure we would have been successful.
FRANZÉN: Speaking for myself, I think we were probably lucky also in not winding up in bed forever with the DC Public Library, just because of the administrative complications of that.
CYMROT: That was always a question. Oh, it would have been very complicated. We were offering to build the whole thing. We weren’t asking the city to invest too much in that. We were very optimistic about how we could run this program and support that. But our hearts were pure. We thought it would be a wonderful idea and I can imagine that it could be. But that didn’t happen. So we had a period of time there … I know that we met in February of 2006. We never stopped meeting. We just continued to hammer away at what we were going to do.
FRANZÉN: Virtually every week as I recall.
CYMROT: Well, we did that for a very long time. And then we took a little hiatus after, in 2005 when, after the RFP had been withdrawn. But we met again in February 2006 and we had a resolution saying that we were going to continue to work on it—that we were going to continue to press a vision of this building as a community-use space and that we would come up with a plan that would use one hundred percent of the space. And we all signed that [laughs] to say, “Let’s keep going.” That’s what we did. Ultimately the city did put out another RFP. This time the city had agreed to put in $6 million to help with the rehabilitation.
FRANZÉN: Did the city agree to do that before or at the time of the RFP, or did that come later?
CYMROT: No, it was part of the RFP. By then they had agreed to put that into the RFP, that the city would invest that much in it. I think Sharon Ambrose, our Council member, had a lot to do with that. So we went forward that time with quite a different plan. By then we had decided to look at this from a business point of view and in a different way. We had had some help, some consultation, with a few people trying to decide how we could come up with a business plan that would support an ambitious cultural and educational center using this building. And basically we turned it into a real estate project, in large measure.
FRANZÉN: What do you mean?
CYMROT: We are in the business of using the space, renting the space in different models. We are renting offices on the top floor, so our thought was we would put nonprofit offices on the top floor. We would come up with … we had nine rooms up there we could create. We’d rent those rooms, each one to a different nonprofit organization, and provide an office space where they could share a common area and a conference [room] and a little kitchenette. We knew that would be popular. So we could count on rent from those organizations. And those would be monthly rentals, or yearly rentals. And then we have a carriage house there on the property. We decided that the very best use of that would be to put a food service facility in there, a café of some kind. Something that would serve food not only to people who used the Hill Center, but people who would come from the outside. We had a series of ideas about that and I’m happy to say that we’re, I think we’re about to achieve that. We thought we could do it much sooner than now, but it’s taken awhile. Then we talked about how we could use the space on an hourly basis to rent to people to use for their own programs. And in addition, we would have classes and programs and presentations. So we just figured out how we could make a go of this by using the space in a variety of ways around the clock, seven days a week. Well not around the clock. We close at ten or eleven at night. Otherwise seven days a week we’re going.
FRANZÉN: So, three or four income streams …
FRANZÉN: So, three or four income streams, making it self-supporting.
CYMROT: Right. And this was a different idea for a nonprofit organization to have a business plan that could support it that wasn’t going to have a big line item that said outside grants, outside support, every year. So we have been very hard and fast in keeping to that goal that this organization would be a self-sustaining … well, we had to be self-sustaining. We had no other support coming from the city, or anyone else. But we’ve been very … we have to be diligent in making sure that we’re taking in income and can meet our expenses there.
FRANZÉN: You said this is a new idea, but we did have a couple of models that we were looking at as we planned what this thing was going to look like.
CYMROT: Well, the new idea that I’m speaking of is that a lot of people have the idea that an arts organization or a cultural organization of course cannot sustain itself and has to ask for outside support at all times as a big part of their budgeting. And we were just determined not to do that, because for one thing we didn’t want go into competition with every other nonprofit organization around here. The other thing is I don’t think we wanted to be in the business of having to raise money all of the time. That’s the part that was a new idea.
FRANZÉN: But in terms of the program aspect of the place we were looking at the 97th Street Y[MCA] in … is it 97th Street? Did I get that right?
CYMROT: Absolutely, 92nd Street Y in New York City …
FRANZÉN: Ninety-second Street Y, I’m sorry, in New York City.
CYMROT: Is the Cadillac model for all of these continuing-education, cultural-educational centers.
FRANZÉN: Right, much bigger that what we have here, but the same basic idea.
CYMROT: Oh my goodness. Well, at the time we went up to visit, to just really get an idea of what they were doing, it was a $48 million operation. So that’s how big it is. They own a lot of property. They have a big facility. They have very ambitious programming in a lot of different areas, and it’s made an enormous impact in Manhattan. Just everybody knows about it.
FRANZÉN: And there was another place, in Cambridge.
CYMROT: Cambridge [in Massachusetts]. There was a Cambridge Center for Continuing Education, I think they called it, up there. Many cities, many communities have, well, all variety of different kinds of programming. Sometimes they’re recreation centers that have programming. Around here, McLean Community Center has full-time programming day and night and a theater attached to it. So they operate under different names. We did investigate all the different kinds we could look at.
FRANZÉN: Okay. So we offered this second proposal. We had, again, competitors for that.
CYMROT: Actually there were seven proposals. There were seven proposals that were submitted for the second RFP. I never saw them, of course, because we were just one of the competitors. But I understand that they were sound. So there were seven good proposals that the review committee had to decide about. They put together a very large review panel made up of, the city did, of members of different agencies in the city plus some community members, a good many community members. They were very careful about thinking about the impact on the community of the various different proposals that had come before them. I don’t think it was a given, by any means, that we would be selected, because I think by this time there had been a good bit of publicity about the building and others had gotten interested in putting their programs there. I suspect that we were successful because it was a hundred percent community-use project. The other thing is that, while we had no track record, we had not been in existence before, we had by then been very fortunate to have received a $2 million grant from the Congress which had been organized by Senator Mary Landrieu, the senator from Louisiana, and Congressman Sam Farr, congressman from California in the House. They were able to get that through the Congress. That gave us money so that at least we were legitimate and we could come and bid on a proposal like this with some degree of confidence that we could pull it off.
FRANZÉN: We had some money in the bank. So that was $2 million from the Feds …
CYMROT: Two million.
FRANZÉN: That was really critical, as I recall.
CYMROT: Oh, absolutely. Without that I don’t think anyone would have paid much attention to us.
FRANZÉN: Right, right. One of the competitors in that second round was CAG, the Community Action Group …
FRANZÉN: Who were occupying the carriage house at that time. Could you say a little about that organization?
CYMROT: The Community Action Group was led by Hal Gordon, a charismatic and effective leader. He had organized the Community Action Group. This was a substance abuse organization. They had a … it was a residential program. The organization owned, I think, a hundred or so apartments and they would house individuals who had substance abuse problems. At the outset, I think, they got these people because they’d find them on the streets and they’d bring them in and give them housing and give them programs for many months. I don’t know how long each person could stay. But it was not a small organization, it was a big one. Eventually they ended up being one of the many substance abuse programs that the court system would send offenders to. They would tell these folks, “You either go through one of these programs or you’ll go back to jail.” So Hal Gordon said that helped him a lot, as it was not an easy thing for folks to go through these programs. He said, “But the idea of going back to jail was a powerful incentive.” So he appreciated that. The Community Action Group used the carriage house as their offices. They had actually restored it, I think, to use. When they found it, it was really derelict. They did a certain number of things, with the city’s approval. It was not historically correct what they had done but they put it to good use and they had been in there for some time.
FRANZÉN: Right. So that was just the carriage house which they were renting from the city.
FRANZÉN: And they had no presence in the main building.
CYMROT: None at all. No, they didn’t. So I never saw their proposal. I think I heard that they had partnered with some other entities who might have use … were interested in using the main building. They may have decided that they wanted just to stay in the carriage house. That’s what they always told us that their interest was—remaining in the carriage house.
FRANZÉN: Okay. Getting back to our proposal. As I recall, in paper form, it was at least two inches thick. [laughs]
CYMROT: It was.
FRANZÉN: It was a lot of material, including description of financials.
CYMROT: A lot.
FRANZÉN: We’d done some studies of other organizations in the city to get comparables. We looked at rental property rates in the neighborhood to be able to project what we might be able to rent space for and so on and so forth.
CYMROT: It was. I mean, we had to prove to them, and ourselves as well, that if we were successful here we could raise the rest of the money that would be required for the restoration, because by then we had a full restoration plan. We knew how much it was going to cost—which at that point we thought would be about $10 million. It was closer to 11 [million] when we finished, because there were substantial delays after this. But we had to show the city in a convincing way that we could raise the rest of the money between what they planned to put in and what we needed—and that we could sustain ourselves going forward—because the city wasn’t about to give this to someone that was not going to be able to sustain themselves. Also, we had a complete restoration plan with a whole design team and all of their résumés and a proposal of how we were going to do it. We had the general contractor already chosen and all the sub-contractors, and all of their credentials were included. One of the great advantages we had is that we had met and had been working with Tom Regan, who was the principal of Regan Associates, a development and project management team organization. They had been in business many, many years. Tom Regan had thirty, forty years of experience.
FRANZÉN: Specifically in historic restoration.
CYMROT: Historic restoration and new construction. But he had at one time been the director of the PADC, Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, that had redone all of Pennsylvania Avenue downtown between the Capitol and the White House, or a large part of it. So anyway, Tom had recently been working, his organization, with the restoration of the Carnegie Library downtown, which the Historical Society of Washington had hired them to do, and had done a wonderful job and had been highly recommended to us. Tom agreed to come work with us pro bono unless and until we were awarded and RFP to redo the building. At that point we would start paying him, his organization, his firm.
FRANZÉN: And Tom, I recall, had real expertise, not only in the physical aspects of historic restoration, but he really knew the ropes of dealing with the city on this stuff.
CYMROT: He did, he did, and he knew how to put together an RFP response. He knew how to do every bit of this. I would hate to think how we could have gotten through it without Tom. He was a wonderful, fine man, a gentleman, a highly skilled person with a wonderful organization behind him. So when the time came for the project management piece, they did a wonderful job for us. We started meeting … he met with us starting in 2004. He helped us put together the 2004 RFP and stayed with us until we were successful in the next one.
FRANZÉN: And our architect, as I think you mentioned earlier, was David Bell.
CYMROT: David Bell, who had been the volunteer for the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital in assessing the building. His chief architect in his firm, who did the project management for him, was Scott Knight, who had been involved from the get-go. They both live in the community. We’ve had a wonderful relationship with them.
FRANZÉN: Right. They continue to be involved now as we go forward with the work on the carriage house.
CYMROT: Indeed they are, yes.
FRANZÉN: The construction firm?
CYMROT: At the suggestion of Regan Associates, Whiting-Turner was brought in because of their extensive experience with historic properties. This was a small, little project for them. They’re one of the big contractors here in the city and they do very many large scale projects. But they came in and, again, did a great job for us. The project was carried out on time and on budget—under budget, actually. We enjoyed having them there very much.
FRANZÉN: So, this whole team was specified in the proposal that we laid out for the city.
CYMROT: Yes, yes.
FRANZÉN: Right. Then of course there was a … our team had to go in and actually meet with the review board and so on.
CYMROT: We did, we did.
FRANZÉN: And make the pitch.
CYMROT: We did, we did. And they interviewed all seven of the competitors. And we were delighted, thrilled, when we were chosen. That happened …
FRANZÉN: When was it?
CYMROT: September of 2007. So, we put in our proposal in February and they did not make their decision until right after Labor Day that same year, 2007. Actually the RFP also spelled out the terms of the lease of it. We went in, after they chose us, then we spent the next year negotiating the lease. There wasn’t much to negotiate. We all agreed on all the terms, but just the bureaucratic back and forth and getting it done, it took a whole year.
FRANZÉN: Now, we talked earlier about the ownership of the building. The city was proposing to lease this property. We, the Old Naval Hospital Foundation, would not own it. But the city didn’t own this property, so …
CYMROT: That became complicated too, because they pointed out that they couldn’t sign a lease. So our lawyers came up with the idea of, well, give us an access agreement. We will go in under an access agreement that you can give us and start our design process, do a little bit of the demolition, because we needed time to do that as well. So, that’s exactly what we did. We ended up operating under that access agreement until very near to the time when we were ready to move into the building. We were all just operating on faith that it would all get signed and sealed in time for us to move in and start using the space. Every step along the way there were complications. We just kept going. We just said, “Well, alright, that’s how we’ll do it.”
FRANZÉN: Let’s talk a little bit about fundraising. You mentioned the $6 million that the city was offering up front [and] the $2 million that we were able to obtain from the Federal government on the grounds that this was still a federal building at the time. But then we had to get the rest of the way to $10 million and ultimately $11 million. Can you describe how that process worked?
CYMROT: I can. First of all, we had decided that we would try to get … apply for historic tax credits on this project because the …
FRANZÉN: This is a Federal program.
CYMROT: This is a Federal program that is in place to encourage developers and owners to restore, rehabilitate, historic properties rather than take them down or disregard their historic aspects. So the project is, since we are a nonprofit organization, the program is that these are tax credits that the government will give you if you qualify. It’s supposed to be up to 20 percent of the redevelopment, of the costs of the redevelopment. Certain things don’t get included, but most things do. So in our case, with a $10 million project we were hoping … in the end we got a million dollars, I’ll just say that. It could have been [up to] two million. I can’t remember why ours came down to a million, but that’s how it ended up. But that was a lot for us and we wanted to do that.
FRANZÉN: But it involved finding investors, right?
CYMROT: It did, because as a nonprofit organization we don’t pay taxes, so we can’t take advantage of a tax credit on a tax return. A private developer can do that. So we had the right to sell our opportunity for these tax credits to a private investor. That thought became … it took a long time.
FRANZÉN: It’s a very complicated process legally, as I recall.
CYMROT: Well, it is convoluted, and it is done every day because it’s turned out that an awful lot of nonprofit organizations have taken advantage of this tax credit program. I think the rules the IRS set up at the beginning really were not contemplating that this would be a vehicle that nonprofit organizations would use. So, in order to qualify, you have to find a qualified investor, and that investor … then you have a deal with that investor. That gets to be complicated. You have to set up a partnership, basically, for five years. The investor comes in as actually the owner of the project, and you have to set up a couple for-profit entities and another nonprofit entity in order to meet all the requirements and rules involved in this. There are certain people who are expert at this, certain law firms and accounting practices who do this all the time. Happily there were several here in Washington, so we were using the best possible advisors. It’s a very expensive process. A lot of [legal] fees, accounting fees. That’s where the money went, now I remember.
FRANZÉN: But we did succeed at that.
CYMROT: We did succeed.
FRANZÉN: We are now in this relationship with an investment group that has about another two years to run …
CYMROT: Correct. Yes, we’re three years into that.
FRANZÉN: And then that will be free and clear.
CYMROT: Yes. And that has been very useful. So the money came from … almost six million from the DC government in the end; two million from the Congress; a million dollars from the tax credits. We were fortunate to receive a Save America’s Treasures award of $150,000. Sadly, that program no longer exists. The Congress did not continue its funding. Then the rest of it, which was about $2,500,000, we raised from the community. So that’s how we spent a good bit of our time.
FRANZÉN: A good bit, yes. As I recall, it was quite a campaign.
CYMROT: Well, and it was entirely a grass roots effort. We did it by having house parties in many people’s houses. Many, many, including your house. I remember you had the first one, I think.
CYMROT: It was successful. We just sort of went on the road with our little show. We had a wonderful video that had been produced for us by a company here in Washington. Its principal lives here on the Hill, Jeff Pulford. It’s called Interface Multimedia. And he did a realistic, very realistic [animated] tour of the rebuilt Old Naval Hospital. We got people, lots of people, excited about that.
FRANZÉN: Another big piece of that community-based funding was from the Capitol Hill Community Foundation.
CYMROT: Oh, indeed it was.
FRANZÉN: A quarter of a million?
CYMROT: Yes, $250,000 was the kickoff to the fundraising drive. And that came from the Capitol Hill Community Foundation. I’m the president of that organization. You were on the board of that organization as well and we both know that was a highly unusual thing for us to do. The only other similar thing we had done, the Community Foundation, was to support the restoration of eight elementary school libraries here on Capitol Hill. We did raise a little over a million dollars to do that. We put in, I think, the Foundation made a substantial investment in that. But this was the biggest thing we had ever done. We gave $250, 000 and it was a wonderful kickoff to the fundraising drive for the Old Naval Hospital Foundation.
FRANZÉN: It really made a big difference to get things focused and rolling. We had a team, a steering committee—I don’t recall exactly what we called it—a committee to lead this fundraising effort. Leading that committee was Gary Peterson.
CYMROT: Gary Peterson came in as the chair of our campaign committee. Our organizational strategy was to find fifty people who would each organize fundraising around their contacts. In the end we organized these house parties. The campaign people, many of them, had house parties in their own homes. Through a great deal of effort, this money was raised in the end. One of the strategies was to “sell off” naming rights to the rooms in the building. We had a couple of early investors. The National Capital Bank agreed to give $200,000 for the right to dedicate the Lincoln Hall, which is the largest room in the building, to George Didden, who was their chairman who had died. [George Didden III died in December, 2017.] We had several other investors who made substantial contributions for rooms in the building. We also “sold” sections of the fence. We have a huge monumental fence around the property, with 108 sections and the big dividers and the corner posts. We “sold” eight-foot sections of this big iron fence for $5,000, in return for which you could get a plaque put under the fence with your name on it or whoever’s name you wished. We “sold” the divider posts for $1,500 and the corner posts for five and ten and fifteen thousand dollars and big gates for $25,000. In the end I think we raised something like $650,000 just from selling the elements of the fence. We called it the Good Fences Make Good Neighbors Campaign.
FRANZÉN: That was really the … sort of the grass roots aspect of this whole effort. Also, there were pieces of the grounds, the gardens …
CYMROT: Oh, gardens. Oh, wonderful. We have glorious gardens over at Hill Center that were designed by the firm Oehme van Sweden, headquartered here on Capitol Hill, with the principal designer, Lisa Delplace. They did a beautiful job for us. We named each of the gardens. We asked for contributions in return for plaques that go into the gardens. That’s been wonderfully successful as well.
FRANZÉN: As we went forward with our construction plan, we did have to deal, as I recall, with the National Park Service. Particularly regarding what we had proposed to do within the building. Could you go into that?
CYMROT: Yes, the National Park Service. The Park Service became involved because of our status as a tax-credit project, Historic Tax Credit project. In those projects the Park Service has jurisdiction over the plans of what you’re going to do. As a practical matter they work in conjunction with the District’s Historic Preservation Office. But they often have different points of view. When it came down to the plans for the property here, the District of Columbia was fine with everything we intended to do on the inside of the building. But the Park Service looked at it and their reviewer was not happy about two walls that we proposed to take down in the interior of the building. All of the walls in the building were masonry, about 12 inches thick, and of course bearing. So this was going to be two walls that were to be taken down to create the largest space in the building. The building was a series of rather small rooms, with a couple of exceptions. We needed a place where we could put a good many people. By taking down these two particular walls we created a room that could hold about a hundred people seated.
FRANZÉN: This is the Abraham Lincoln Hall.
CYMROT: The Abraham Lincoln Hall that the National Capital Bank underwrote.
FRANZÉN: On the second floor.
CYMROT: On the second floor. Those were the only walls in the whole building … the only change that we made to the original [layout] in the building. But they were not pleased with that and the reviewer was inclined to not accept that part of the plan and to refuse to authorize it. So we did have a … that would have been terrible situation for us. We couldn’t figure out how we could run our program without having an assembly space to do presentations and concerts and lectures—all of the kinds of things that we intended to do. In the end, through a good bit of effort, that dust-up did go by and we were successful. But it delayed us for a while. We were scared about it because it would have had a substantial … I mean, we think, devastating. We couldn’t possibly have gone forward with the program we had in mind if we couldn’t have a room that could hold more than fifty people, which is where we would have been if we had not been successful.
FRANZÉN: And that room now will hold about a hundred or more.
CYMROT: Oh yes, one hundred seated, and it is used all the time, every single day, multiple times. We simply could not exist without it the way we’re operating, for sure.
FRANZÉN: And otherwise the interior of that building is pretty close to the original configuration. We did have to put in the two fire stairs in the opposite ends of the building, and an elevator.
CYMROT: Correct. That’s correct. Yes, that’s true. The two fire stairs were inserted by the architect into existing rooms … what had been existing rooms on two of the floors. He left all of the doors and transoms and every evidence of the existing rooms, or the original rooms. That had to happen. What else? The elevator, yes, got punched through, so that took a piece of a room, but he was very careful, that is the architect, to make it very obvious where that had been taken out. In some places you can even see into the elevator shaft, so you can see that it was part of an existing room before.
FRANZÉN: And as I recall, he did … we put in a special kind of elevator in order to avoid putting a big bump on the roof for the mechanical …
CYMROT: That’s true. Most elevators required what they call … have to overshoot the shaft, and this one was … Kone is the name of the company. It also had its motor on it, so it didn’t have to have a separate elevator room.
FRANZÉN: The motor’s right on the cab.
CYMROT: It is, yes. It’s, I think, a German company. It’s been very successful. And yes, for the reason that you suggested. It did have to protrude on the roof a few inches, but you can’t notice it from the street level.
CYMROT: David Bell, the architect, is as pure a preservationist as you can find. We encouraged him in every respect to be firm about things that he felt strongly about. We supported him at every single turn. Everything he wanted to do.
FRANZÉN: Yeah. The plaster walls in there, as I remember, were kept as plaster. We didn’t cover over damage [with drywall]. We restored the plaster.
CYMROT: Oh my goodness, it looked like a crossword puzzle at some points because they had plasterers in there hammering every square inch to see where there was weakness. They took out anything that was weak and put in new material. You absolutely cannot tell what’s old and what’s new.
FRANZÉN: Nearly all the original flooring is still there.
CYMROT: Well, it turned out that there were two layers of floor, John. That was a surprise. I guess not for long. We thought that that was original flooring we were looking at, but that wasn’t true. A new floor had been put in at some time in the past. So we had two layers of wood flooring there. The only place in the whole building where the really original floor now shows is on the second floor between the original stairwell and the opening to Lincoln Hall; the middle door to Lincoln Hall. At that level they had to take up the newer level of flooring and reveal the lower level of flooring because it met up appropriately with the steps. Before that it was kind of like a tripping point. So they sloped up. If you’re not aware of it … you’ve never noticed it?
FRANZÉN: I haven’t noticed it.
CYMROT: Okay, so at that particular area you will see random-width pieces of flooring. That’s original. All the rest of the flooring in the building, that are all smaller dimensions, is the second layer. But it is pine.
FRANZÉN: Okay. Yeah, it looks like the old Southern pine—tongue and groove?
CYMROT: Yes, indeed it is.
FRANZÉN: Very nice stuff.
CYMROT: We’ve enjoyed it now for about two and a half years, keeping it polished and uncovered. Recently we had to make a decision to put some runners in the hallways and on the steps because modern boots and lady’s high-heeled shoes with stiletto heels were making a terrible mess of the steps and hitting where the grooves are and splitting it. Also, it was making a lot of noise, tromping around in there. We realized with a lot of programs going on, having people going up and down the steps making too much noise wasn’t a good thing, so recently we’ve put in some very, I think, attractive, nondescript carpeting. It softens the effect a lot. We left big borders on the sides so you can see the original floor.
FRANZÉN: Right. And it’s a green building. The renovation was done with the environment in mind.
CYMROT: It was. David Bell designed it to … he said it probably would meet LEED Silver Standards, which is not the highest, but the best that could be achieved in this building. We as a board decided not to go for official LEED certification because it’s very expensive. It was going to cost us, I think it was forty, fifty thousand dollars to go through the process. We were interested more in the result than the [certification], so we were happy with what he did. We were particularly pleased, and I think we had a lot to do with it, with the decision to put a geothermal heating and air-conditioning system into the building. In fact it had not been specified [in the proposal to the city]. We took, the board took the lead on that and insisted that that be considered and added to the plan. And that happened. In the end there were thirty-five, thirty-two wells dug 352 feet deep out in the west side of the building. That’s a lot of wells. We had a drilling rig there from West Virginia pounding for a couple of months doing all of that drilling.
FRANZÉN: And the way that works, as I understand it, is that the fluid that runs through this system runs down into the well and up again so the earth, having a constant temperature of fifty-four degrees, something like that, will cool that fluid in the summer and warm it up some in the winter. The units that are inside the building then will take it to the desired room temperature from there.
CYMROT: Correct. It’s a closed-loop system. It’s just lots of big black pipes that go into those wells and up again and back into the pump room. We don’t have to have a furnace or a cooling tower and we’re not burning any fossil fuels in the process here. It is true that each of the units in all of the rooms are heat pump units and so they do have the ability to cool; those coils can cool the pipes going through or heat them, room by room. That’s a great thing for us as well, because when we have a large party or a large gathering on the second floor or any of the rooms, we have to cool those down to fifty-five, sixty degrees before people walk in because when a whole bunch of people come in it heats up the rooms very quickly. But we can do that one room at a time. You don’t have to crank the cooling in the whole building in order to accommodate that.
FRANZÉN: Another thing that impressed me about that renovation was that virtually all of the windows, at least on the main floors, were preserved, the sash windows from 150 years ago.
CYMROT: Well, that was a big conversation. As a result of that there’s no insulating property on the windows. But no one, the architect or any of us, wanted to change those windows because they’re beautiful. We all knew that you couldn’t even get, begin to get wood that was as strong or good as what’s there now. And it’s worked out just fine. With the heating and cooling system we have we’re not troubled by any particular cold air coming in in the winter. It’s worked out fine.
FRANZÉN: Yeah, they [the windows] seem to have a pretty good seal. They did a great job restoring those. We’ve put in audio/visual amenities throughout the place.
CYMROT: Oh, everywhere. At the time we were coming on line here with this building—we moved in at the end of 2011—we had to make our decision about most everything in 2010 and then the months prior to moving in. We decided just to go as modern as we could—just go all the way. So we put speakers everywhere. We put in projectors and screens coming down. We have audio/visual hard-wire connections everywhere. We also had a redundant wireless Internet system put in the building. We had cable brought in for television. We did everything we knew to do. Even having done that, it was only a matter of months before some of our equipment was outdated. Within two years the audio/visual part was largely outdated, because this was one of the last analog systems that our company had ever installed. They went over to digital after that. That was too bad. We’ve had to do some retrofitting just recently that we feel we probably could have been warned about. We tried hard.
FRANZÉN: But these elements were really critical to making the place attractive to potential renters of the space …
CYMROT: Absolutely, absolutely.
FRANZÉN: For conferences and seminars and what have you.
CYMROT: I suspect as years go by this will all sound funny that we were so intent on getting hard-wired aspects in here and we wanted to be sure that people could do Skype and have their video conferencing equipment. So we bought all of those things, all of those pieces of equipment, and we’re prepared to do that. We have a … in the Abraham Lincoln Hall I think it’s set up … you can have sixteen microphones going, separate microphones. Now we’ve not done that many but we did make provision for it. I could say something about the lighting too, because at the time that the building was being designed we were pressing for LED lights. LED lights were not really common yet. This would have been 2010. People used them outside in, I’d say, parking lots and things like that. But they weren’t being used extensively in interiors of buildings. The designers told us that they just really couldn’t specify them because they didn’t have any confidence yet in the either the fixtures or the light bulbs.
FRANZÉN: They were also very expensive.
CYMROT: They were and are expensive. So the architect specified compact fluorescent fixtures in most cases. So that’s what we ended up putting in, with the exception of a lot of track lighting that went in because we knew before we opened that we were going to turn a lot of wall space into rotating exhibit space. We wanted to set it up like they would in a gallery. So we had a lot of track lights installed and we were using halogen fixtures for those. They of course are hot, very hot, causing a lot of heat, but they’re effective. What’s recently happened, just this last six months, is we’ve retrofitted a whole lot of our compact fluorescent fixtures. We changed the ballast so we could put LED bulbs in. We bought them and put them in. We changed all of the halogen light bulbs in the track lighting to LED lights because by now there’s more control over the color that you’re going to get when you buy these things. But they’re still expensive by our standards now. They say they’ll last for many years, but that’s yet to be seen.
FRANZÉN: We’ll see. Getting back to the historic aspect, one of the things that we committed to do in our proposal to the city was to include historic commemoration and explanation in the place so people would understand more about what was here back in the day and where all this came from. How did that play out?
CYMROT: Well it played out beautifully. Throughout the process we had the volunteer enthusiastic help from a number of folks in the community who are historians and work as historians. A number of different people had done research on the building. So we had accumulated a good many different kinds of research material on the history of the building. But what we decided to do was to name all of the public rooms after an historical figure. We would put a plaque on the outside of each of the rooms to describe the person after whom the room was being named and why, with a little historical text. That process happened by Nancy Metzger, a local historian, coming up with a number of other people she conferred with. They came up with a list of people after whom we might name rooms. She had a long list, and Nancy and I sat down together one day and we just made decisions. We decided we needed males and females and black citizens and white citizens and famous people and not so famous people. We wanted a combination. So we wanted it to be that when someone would come to the building and look at all of these different plaques and think about them, that they would get a real picture of what was going on in the community. I think we did a good job. In the end we executed that and Maygene Daniels, who is the archivist for the National Gallery, got involved. She took Nancy’s initial write-ups about the people and did additional research, collected photographs, worked with a designer at the National Gallery whom we hired to design the plaques. They are now in place and I think they accomplished what we wanted them to do. We also had the idea that we would do a great big historical, permanent historical exhibit somewhere in the building. And we didn’t get to that yet. I mean that could still happen in the future. I think we’re thinking maybe we can be more effective doing it a different way. Maybe not take up gallery space. Maybe do something that would be on a TV screen or something that would be a more modern way of presenting the history of the property rather than taking over big walls and putting up permanent exhibits.
FRANZÉN: But Hill Center visitors now can get a little historic background from our volunteer docents.
CYMROT: Yes they can. We have a group for it. There are six or seven people who have been trained. They have been given all of the information about the history, as we know it, of the building. They are available to give people tours. Even if they don’t go on a tour, I think we have a written piece now. It isn’t a professionally produced one. Eventually we should have a handout that will have all the information we have on a brochure of some kind. But we don’t have that yet.
FRANZÉN: In addition to those volunteers, we have a whole team of volunteers that have really become a critical component of the success of the Hill Center.
CYMROT: Well, we do, because with being open seven days a week, from early morning until late at night, so many events going on in different spaces in the building, we often have to ask volunteers to come in and help just man the place. Especially for big events we need people at the doors, let folks in, hand out programs, and we always have a volunteer in the reception office. Right now we’re so crowded for space that we have two staff members in there too. Around the clock, whenever we’re open we have at least one volunteer in that space as well, to let people in the door, answer the telephone, give directions.
FRANZÉN: And we have a hired staff, led by an extraordinary woman, Diana Ingraham.
CYMROT: We were lucky, we were lucky. Diana came along and wanted to do this. We all knew right away that she would be a terrific person to do this. We were able to hire her in February of 2011. She set up her office in the carriage house along with our property manager in the general contractor’s office and went right to work.
FRANZÉN: So she was actually involved during the fundraising phase before the place …
CYMROT: Yes, absolutely involved in all...
FRANZÉN: Quite a long time before the place opened its doors.
CYMROT: Oh, yes indeed. She was charged with making all of these fine dreams that we had come true. And she did it. She did a beautiful job. We continue to enjoy having her there and she’s enthusiastic about it and has brought enormous value to what’s going on there. We were so very lucky and she’s made wonderful decisions about staffing. We have a big staff now. I think ten, eleven, twelve people. But it takes that to keep this place open that many hours a day.
FRANZÉN: Right. Let’s talk about the carriage house.
FRANZÉN: You’ve mentioned that the plan, in our proposal, was to turn the carriage house, which was a stable from back in the day when we had horse-drawn ambulances, to turn that out-building into a café. That has taken awhile, but we’ve had a breakthrough just earlier this year.
CYMROT: Well, it did take a while. As you said, this was a stable. It had been used by the Community Action Group as an office, so it had been put together—improvements were made so that could happen. But basically it’s an old carriage house just sitting there. We began marketing it well before we moved in ourselves. We were hoping to find someone who would like to come operate a café there. We had the idea that the …
FRANZÉN: A restaurateur.
CYMROT: A restaurateur. We had hoped that we could find someone who would be there seven days a week and three meals a day and would have pretty low prices and could offer interesting food and would be an asset to the operation of the Hill Center, both for the people who were in the building and programs that are going on in the building and also as a stand-alone attraction for the community to come and use the space as well. It took longer than we expected to find the right person. We had a lot of people come and they were interested in making into a little fine dining place, a very charming little carriage house restaurant. That really wasn’t what we wanted. It was going to be too expensive for most people to enjoy it. Also it turned out it was going to cost an awful lot of money to renovate this space. We have gone through a long process with a restaurateur now who has signed a lease with us and is excited about being there. His name is David Guas. He operates a restaurant which he calls an eatery. It’s called Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar and Eatery. He has one such operation out in Arlington, Virginia. We’ve been there many times, gotten to know him, and think he has exactly the right kind of operation for what we need there at Hill Center. What’s happening right this minute, where are we now, we’re in June of 2014, and the building permits have been filed and we’re hoping that he will be able to get permission to do the building and will be in by October or November of this year. The Old Naval Hospital Foundation will be making a very substantial investment in the build-out of the carriage house.
FRANZÉN: There’s a considerable amount of work yet to be done on that building.
CYMROT: Oh my goodness, yes. We’re going to have to put on a new roof and need to bring in utilities. In the restoration that we did [already], we did replace all of the windows and the doors of the carriage house, and we also did get permission to put an addition on the carriage house. We call it a conservatory room. It’s like a big glass room that faces the main hospital building to offer additional space for dining, because we knew that, the way it was configured, there just wouldn’t be enough seats in that place to attract anyone. So David Guas is putting in a full baking kitchen upstairs and also a full hot line. His food is New Orleans style. I think it’s going to be wildly popular. All of us are enthusiastic about it.
FRANZÉN: The lease is technically with the city. I don’t know that we’ve really gone into the details. We don’t need to go into a lot of detail about the lease, but the Old Naval Hospital Foundation does not own the site. It’s owned now by the city, since the Federal transfer. It’s on long-term lease to the Old Naval Hospital Foundation.
CYMROT: Yes, we have a 65-year lease with the District of Columbia. We have paid the rent for the entire time. What we agreed to do is rehabilitate the building and to operate a self-sustaining program there that would be a benefit to the community. We outlined exactly what that benefit would be in our RFP response. I’m happy to say that we are almost three years into the effort now. We’ve been open almost three years. It is a wonderful thing to see. Most everything that we had envisioned has come to life. It is stronger in some areas than others. But almost all of our goals are being achieved. Economically we’re on track—ambitious. We’re almost at a million dollars a year in operating expenses, but we think by the end of next year at least, or middle of next year, we’ll be operating in the black. We expected to lose money for a few years because we had to staff up in order to manage all the programs that are going on there. So everything is going well. We’re very enthusiastic about it.
FRANZÉN: So we … the Foundation is really running the place. The city’s involvement at this point is minimal to the extent that …
CYMROT: Oh they have no more financial involvement whatsoever. We took on all responsibility for capital upkeep and any kind of improvements that had to be made over time. They have no more responsibility for that at all.
FRANZÉN: And we’re in charge of managing the deal with the restaurateur.
CYMROT: Yes. The restaurateur is a sub-tenant of the city. The city had to approve the lease, which they did.
FRANZÉN: That [the foundation’s lease with the city] was a what, a dollar-a-year kind of lease?
CYMROT: Ours, yes it was, uh-huh.
FRANZÉN: So it’s paid in full for sixty-five years.
CYMROT: Sixty-five years. We just went ahead and paid the whole thing.
FRANZÉN: That’s great. Let’s talk just a little bit further about the programming within the place. As I remember, as we were putting together our proposal years ago that we were going to present to the city, we were pretty careful to go out and ask the community what they wanted to happen here.
CYMROT: We did. We had a number of community meetings. But in addition to that, we sent out a survey online to about five thousand people, plus others that got forwarded to—a real survey asking them what they were interested in, what they might respond to, what they didn’t want. That was very useful. That was a guiding document for Diana when she first started putting the program together, because she knew how people had responded, saying what they were interested in doing. As she would describe it now, she spent the last two and a half years trying many different things. Some experiments have been successful. Other experiments have not been successful. It has been a very interesting experience to be there watching how this happens. For instance, African dancing was a popular thing to do, but when the African dancers were there, and drummers, nothing else could happen in the building. So that had to be weighed against …
FRANZÉN: Because of the noise …
CYMROT: That had to be weighed against the popularity of the program. So I think in the end we have different kinds of step programs and others that are incorporating the same kind of dance, but maybe not incorporating the drummers. We had a situation for a while where we had a martial arts group that had a wonderful program for children and was wildly popular, but there too we found that the light fixtures were jiggling down below and lights would flicker, and we thought, well, maybe not. Maybe this isn’t going to work. It’s just been a process of elimination to see what works and what doesn’t work. What we have found, and we’ve been so lucky about this, it that people love to have programs and events and performances at Hill Center. So it’s, at this present moment, it’s a juggling act every single day to see how many different things can get squished into the building and have happen at the same time and make everyone happy. Because you can’t put a yoga class next to a loud music event. So there’s a certain amount of judgment that has to be used at all times. We have things going on in the gardens. We have things going on outside at both ends of the building and three or five or eight rooms in the building full of things going on. It’s wonderful to observe.
FRANZÉN: You mentioned the survey that we took in the community. As a result of that survey, I think, we decided to put in the teaching kitchen because there was a very high interest in cooking classes.
CYMROT: Well that’s interesting. I think, John, that we had that in the plan from the get-go. What’s happened is interesting to me. We’ve had many cooking classes, but there’s lots of time in the day when that room is not being used. So that’s one of the areas where we have growth potential. What we have also discovered is if we had a commercial kitchen people would want to be using it all day every day. It would not be in a teaching way, but there’s a huge interest on the part of entrepreneurs to have a place they can go and produce food they can sell elsewhere. And there are a couple of other entities that have opened that are doing that. We never were able to do it. We could not put in what would be a code-compliant commercial kitchen. We had some problems there in doing it.
FRANZÉN: Looking forward, what do you see as the challenges over the next few years? Do you see this place changing in significant ways? What do you see as the main challenges going forward?
CYMROT: I think the main challenge will be the decision-making process on what the balance of programs should be in the building. Up to now, we’ve had space to let various things happen, and if they don’t work well that’s fine, we’ll do something different, or we’d have extra room. But we haven’t made specific decisions in every case that this is the kind of program we want to have in this particular space at all times. We haven’t really influenced the balance of what’s there. And I think that, going forward, we’re going to have so much demand in so many areas that real decisions are going to have to be made about what we want to be doing and be sure that we can articulate what our vision is and stick to it and be sure that those executing the vision are aware of what that vision is and what it needs to be.
FRANZÉN: That’s a matter of setting priorities.
CYMROT: Setting priorities. Be sure that we keep the balance that we always said we wanted between different kinds of people, different age groups, different levels …
CYMROT: You asked me about what the challenges are going forward. So I think on the programmatic side it will be a challenge to be sure to continue to analyze what is happening and what the board wants to have happen. We’ve learned so much now about the capacity of the building and what works and doesn’t work, so that those decisions will be easier to make in terms of knowing whether we can accommodate certain kinds of things. I do think from our experience so far that we probably underestimated the on-going cost of capital upkeep on the building. We recognize now that we have to be painting and repainting all the time. That the fence started to rust the minute it was put back in place. Last year a Boy Scout troop came and scraped the fence in some places and put on new paint. But that is on-going. We recognize that we had to put carpet down because of the noise level and wear and tear on the floors. We had to retrofit the A/V system already. We retrofitted the lights. The computers that we bought at the outset, many of them are ready to be replaced. We were aware of these things and we had what we thought were very good charts that would help us know what was coming up. But I think, anecdotally now, that we probably underestimated the cost of running the place because we have very high standards. We don’t want it to look run down. We enjoy the acclaim we get when people walk in and say, “Oh my goodness, it’s so beautiful, so beautiful just walking into the gardens here and coming in. Oh my goodness, this is so surprising.” We all love that. So I think we’re always going to have those standards.
FRANZÉN: Well, it has been an adventure, this whole process. You and I have been involved in this, along with some wonderful people, for a dozen years now. More years to come. We’re both still on the board. Thank you for your time today.
CYMROT: Thank you John and thank you for all you have done to make this possible, because I know and you know that most of the words that we use to describe Hill Center, and have from the very beginning, came from you. As the manager of our message right from the get-go, you’ve kept us constant, consistent and at a very high level of quality. So we can only thank you for your enormous talents in doing that for us. And I hope you will never stop doing that.
FRANZÉN: Well, you’re very kind, thank you. But I must say there were others on the board and beyond the board who did an enormous amount of work to make this enterprise a success. Bonny Wolf, a very early addition to the board, is the one that came up with the name, Hill Center.
CYMROT: Do you remember why she did that?
CYMROT: She said, “Well, I think there are three things wrong with our name: ‘Old,’ ‘Naval’ and ‘Hospital.’” [both laugh] So we all laughed and said, “Well, you’ve got a good point there.”
FRANZÉN: She had it right. And then of course there’s Guy Martin.
CYMROT: Oh my goodness. Well let me just jump right in there, because …
FRANZÉN: Guy is now the president, of course. Your successor.
CYMROT: He is.
FRANZÉN: He was involved at a very early stage and critical late in the game as we were dealing with tax credits and other things.
CYMROT: Well, so much of the process turned out to have legal aspects to it and Guy was our lead man there on all things legal. His firm, Perkins Coie, was working pro bono for us. Guy himself was the leader of the pack. We involved three or four law firms in the whole shebang. By the time we got to the end of it, highly complicated matters—the leasing with the city, the tax credit project, a whole separate firm. We just ate up lawyers’ time. We were happy that we could get a good bit of it pro bono, but without Guy we would not have been able to manage it all. Very complex matters over and over again, one right after another—legislative matters, lobbying the government. All the things that Guy has spent his career doing he did for us as an incredibly active member of the board. He was the vice president for a number of years and, as you just said, has taken over as president. We’re so lucky that he’s willing to continue to do that.
FRANZÉN: We can’t possibly name everybody, of course, who’s made a major contribution here, but who were some people that particularly stand out?
CYMROT: Well, I always talk to people about our board saying that it’s like a puppet show. Everybody was put on for a particular purpose and when their cue came everybody jumped up and did what they were there to do. I would say in particular, people like Sharon Ambrose, who had the big perspective about this, jumped up on numerous occasions with the city to put in helpful plugs for us and also did an enormous thing by getting the city’s contribution to this effort put up to a reasonable amount so that it really did help to make the project possible. But other people like T.C. Benson helped us with our fundraising strategy. Of course, Steve, my husband, who never lost energy from the minute we started and was always pushing to expand the vision. Mark Gitenstein, such a wise, wise person, sat with us until he became the ambassador to Romania. So we missed him when he left. And Betty Ann Kane, who was certainly familiar with everything to do with the city, was highly helpful throughout the whole process. And Donna Scheeder, who’s had a career in politics and at the Library of Congress as a librarian, had good judgment all the way along the line. She served as our secretary for many years. And Jennifer Smith, a very effective leader in the school system here in the District, and has gone on to do other things, was terrific in helping us in our programming. And Tommy Wells was wonderful too until he got himself elected as Sharon’s successor. We had to ask him to leave the board, because we didn’t want any potential conflicts of interest. So we missed him. And Bonny Wolf, of course, always wonderful in her writing ability and good ideas. But aside from board members … and not even getting into the people that we put on late as we were beginning to open, like Mike Canning and Rosemary Freeman, who’ve had an enormous amount to do with our rollout of our Hill Center. I think about Ann Goodwin, who as a volunteer sat for years helping behind the scenes on all the fundraising and giving a professional edge there. And Vania Georgiva, who is a highly trained financial person who helped with the budgeting and all of the analysis going forward. And Cathi Smith, who came in in retirement to take over the Special Events section of our project here and put us right on the map within a month. She has done an awful lot for us. She still is around as a consultant. But we’ve been so lucky. There were so very many people in the community who gave all of their talents whenever asked and continue to do so. That’s one of the wonderful things about this community.
FRANZÉN: Yes, well, we said at the outset that this was not going to be just a community building, but a community builder. And I think it has done exactly that.
CYMROT: Yeah. And we gloss over all the financial assistance that people gave us. We don’t gloss over it, but I mean it made so much difference, you know. A lot of times you do fundraising and you can’t be sure that anybody’s individual contribution is that important, but boy was it important here. We needed everything that people gave us and we were amazed at the generosity, and continue to be today.
FRANZÉN: Yes, it makes me proud to live where I live.
CYMROT: Thank you, John.
FRANZÉN: Thank you.