In the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC, sits a hilltop overlooking the Potomac River and the monuments of our nation’s capital. Potomac Hill, as it is now called, was deeded to the United States government in 1791 and has since served our nation and the world as the site of major advancements in science, medicine, and technology. It is where the science of oceanography was born, where the moons of Mars were discovered, and where the underwater path of the first transatlantic cable was plotted. It also played a key role in the Civil War, the development of modern medicine, and the evolution of America’s foreign intelligence operations. The Potomac Hill campus totals 11.8 acres, consisting of two adjoining historic parcels known as the Potomac Annex (to the east) and Navy Hill (to the west).
Between 1844 and 1893, the first United States Naval Observatory operated on the Potomac Annex property before moving to its present location at Observatory Circle in northwest Washington, DC. In 1894, the old Naval Observatory building came to house the Naval Museum of Hygiene and later the Navy Medical School. Starting in 1903, construction of the Naval Medical Hospital took place behind the old observatory, including four pavilion-style wards, quarters for sick officers and nurses, a contagious disease building, and administrative offices. In 1942, the Navy transferred all medical services from the Potomac Annex to the new Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, and converted the vacated buildings into administrative offices for the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, which remained at this location for the next 70 years. The U.S. Navy transferred control of the Potomac Annex to the U.S. General Services Administration in 2012 through the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure program.
In 1904, the Hygienic Laboratory of the U.S. Public Health and Marine Hospital Service began operations on the Navy Hill property in a newly constructed state-of-the-art facility, which was later demolished to accommodate the adjacent E Street Expressway. Over the next 30 years, three additional buildings were constructed to serve the quickly expanding laboratory, which evolved to become the National Institutes of Health. In 1938, the National Institutes of Health moved to a much larger campus in Bethesda, MD, creating a vacancy at Navy Hill that was filled in 1941 by the Office of the Coordinator of Information, which later became the Office of Strategic Services and then the Central Intelligence Agency. In 1961, the Central Intelligence Agency opened its headquarters facility in Langley, VA, but continued to use the Navy Hill facilities until 1987 when the U.S. General Services Administration obtained custody and control of the property. It was at that time that the U.S. Department of State began using the three existing buildings.
Today, the legacy of the Potomac Annex and Navy Hill properties will carry forward as a single campus—Potomac Hill—through the stewardship of the U.S. General Services Administration and the U.S. Department of State. Together, these agencies are charting a new course for the hilltop in Foggy Bottom through the preparation of the Potomac Hill Campus Master Plan. This plan will guide the future rehabilitation, renovation, and development of Potomac Hill into a world-class federal office campus envisioned to serve the long-term needs of the U.S. Department of State as an institution of American diplomacy.
The Potomac Annex Historic District, which includes all primary buildings on the Potomac Annex property, is listed on the District of Columbia Inventory of Historic Sites and has been deemed eligible for listing on the National Register as a historic district. The original Naval Observatory is a National Historic Landmark as designated by the National Park Service.
A Hilltop in Foggy Bottom
The Navy has created a four-part video titled, A Hilltop in Foggy Bottom, that tells the history of the old Naval Observatory and the Potomac Hill property (videos are on YouTube).
- A Hilltop in Foggy Bottom - Part 1
- A Hilltop in Foggy Bottom - Part 2
- A Hilltop in Foggy Bottom - Part 3
- A Hilltop in Foggy Bottom - Part 4
The shortcut for this page is www.gsa.gov/potomachill