Just two blocks separate Whitman-Walker Health’s old and new buildings on 14th Street NW, but they feel worlds apart. The squat, bunker-like two-story building at 14th and R looks like a vestige of tougher times on the once crime- and prostitution-riddled street. Its glistening six-story successor blends in seamlessly with the high-end apartments and condos that have sprung up along the corridor. But the main difference is the glass.
“There was an assumption that LGBT people would have to go to a seedier part of town to get care,” says Shawn Jain, Whitman-Walker’s director of communications. When the facility at 14th and R opened in 1987, the AIDS epidemic was in full force, and Whitman-Walker, which has catered principally to LGBT and HIV-positive patients, shielded its clients from the judging public with a building that was inscrutable from the outside. Now, both the clientele and the perception have changed, along with the neighborhood, and the glassy exterior of the new building is a reflection of that change. “Our goal with this building is to help people own their identities.”
The new building, located at 1525 14th St. NW and nicknamed simply “1525,” is scheduled to open for patient care on May 18. It comes courtesy of a $9.8 million build-out from Whitman-Walker. But in the long run, the nonprofit community health center expects the move to be a money-maker.
Whitman-Walker owns its old building on 14th Street, known as the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center. And just as the changing times have allowed for greater openness in its operations, they’ve given Whitman-Walker a financial opportunity. The nonprofit is renting its new space, under a 10-year lease with Furioso Development. For the time being, it’s keeping some of its operations at the old space. But it’s also exploring development opportunities there, which would surely capitalize on the corridor’s rising fortunes and the chance for greater density. The result will probably be a new building that contains both administrative space for Whitman-Walker and a revenue-generating component, possibly housing.
“I think it’s a revenue opportunity for us,” says Naseema Shafi, Whitman-Walker’s deputy executive director.
That’s not the only chance for more revenue. The medical center is seeking to expand its customer base beyond the LGBT and HIV community with which it’s long been associated. (With the number of new HIV diagnoses declining, fewer than half of Whitman-Walker’s patients are HIV-positive these days, and just half are queer.) The pharmacy is front and center in this shift. Elizabeth Taylor has a pharmacy that’s open to the public, but few people know about it. The new pharmacy will face the street, with almost comically large numbers labeling the four counters and a light-up prescription system to safeguard privacy (and add a touch of futurism to the operation).
Patient care is also expanding considerably, and Whitman-Walker hopes to attract more patients who don’t match its historic customer base, including the wealthy professionals who live and work near the facility. Elizabeth Taylor has 14 medical examination rooms; 1525 has 28, with brand-new equipment. There are nine dental suites, compared to four at the old space, and the dental office will open to the general public for the first time. While Elizabeth Taylor has just one waiting room, the new building has one on each floor. They’re color coded to help patients orient themselves.
But even in an era of greater LGBT awareness and openness, setting up a space to serve that population has proved tricky. The toughest part? Building gender-neutral bathrooms.
“When the architect was trying to get approval for the drawings, code calls for men’s rooms and women’s rooms,” says Shafi. “They really had argue with [the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs] for the change.”
Photos by Aaron Wiener