Federal Flat To Fall
By Rich McManus
On the Front Page...
One by one, the names are coming off the directory inside the lobby of the 7-story, 79-unit structure divided into one and two-bedroom apartments and efficiencies at 120 Center Drive (formerly 12 West Drive, notes longtime resident Dr. Tillye Cornman, now retired to Gaithersburg). And with each name vanish decades of residence.
"It's very sad to watch," said Joyce Gormont, a critical care nurse who, for 27 years, shared Unit 211 with fellow nurse Eleanor Bayer. "Living there was like being part of a family, even though we weren't involved in each other's lives. It's hard to even realize we don't live there any longer," said Gormont, who recently moved with Bayer to an apartment in Rockville.
"It was not just an apartment house, it was a way of life for [residents] and for me," said Ophelia Harding, who was resident manager of the building for 23 years before retiring for health reasons in 1995 after 40 years of federal service. "I just loved it. It was like an extended family. It's a real special building and I'm saddened by its closing. It served lots of needs. But there were rumbles that it might close for some time."
"I'm sad to see it go because it served a good purpose," said Karen Queen, building manager at 20 for the past 8 years, who is presiding over the facility's gradual dismantlement. Last October, she and other colleagues from the Division of Space and Facility Management, ORS, which operates the Quarters Program that manages NIH's inventory of residences (including three single-family homes, a dozen duplexes and five houses at the Poolesville animal center), held a "town meeting" in Masur Auditorium, which introduced tenants of 20 to their building's bleak future. Residents learned then that everyone had to be out by Aug. 31, 1997.
"There were basically two reactions to our announcement," said Queen: "Those who were displeased, and those who were unhappy but understood why we are doing this. The people who were sad felt that [Bldg. 20] was a major icon for NIH -- it helped recruit people from foreign countries to come here to do studies. But many people also understood that change means progress in research, and that this is best for the NIH mission. I think they all took it in stride, but there were lots of questions at first. Some couldn't understand why NIH was tearing it down."
Over the years, the polyglot building has been a virtual United Nations of Bethesda, housing scientists and their families from all over the globe. There were Fogarty scholars-in-residence, future NIH and ICD directors including Bernadine Healy, Harold Varmus and Francis Collins, assistant secretaries for health, heart surgeons in training, physicians-on-call, hospital administrators, nurses, participants in sleep studies, and, increasingly, office types.
"It wasn't the same when they started turning some of the apartments into offices," said Harding, who recalls with delight the young surgeons just starting families that she met while NIH still hosted a heart surgery program. "It takes away from the apartment house -- it's just not the same. It was like night and day when the offices came. I knew all the residents and guests, and then there were so many people straggling in and out with the offices. It was good while it lasted. It will be missed."
Ironically, one of the invading offices, located in Unit 101, belongs to Boston Properties, a management concern that is planning construction of the CRC.
Six of the building's units were furnished and reserved for Fogarty scholars. "All they had to do was just put in some food and go right to work," remembers Harding. "The Fogarty scholars were the most delightful people. They were very humble. You could be talking to them today, then see them on TV later that night making some big announcement. They were very important people, but they wouldn't tell you that. You'd have to know that."
She recalls that Varmus spent 6 weeks at the apartment house while his home in Washington, D.C., was being made ready for occupancy. "As long as he had his bicycle, he was happy," laughs Harding. "The first question he asked me was 'Did my bikes arrive?' He was more interested in his bikes than in where he was going to stay."
Harding says Healy and various assistant secretaries for health opted for the hospitality of 20 over fancier accommodations elsewhere. "They could have had plush places down in Bethesda, but they chose to stay with us," she says, proudly. When HHS Secretary Donna Shalala held a major staff meeting at NIH several years ago, some of her lieutenants stayed in 20. Remembers Harding, "I got a beautiful thank you note from her later."
Most touching to Harding were the young families who reared kids under her roof, and who still stay in touch with her and visit with now-grown children.
"That was just a real, real good time," she reminisces. "The apartments were always well-kept and very clean, but it wasn't luxurious. There were no pools or central air conditioning. But the young doctors always came back to see me -- and the building -- when they came back to town."
Harding said that Bldg. 20 served NIH's research mission by keeping scientists close to their work and disengaged from the hassles and congestion of workaday life in ever-urbanizing Bethesda. "The convenience of it gave them lots of time for research. All of the scientists were such dedicated people. They wouldn't eat if their wives didn't drag them to the table. But they were always very humble and gracious. If you did anything for them, they appreciated it."
In addition to researchers, the building housed a cadre of personnel essential to CC operations, including the late Jesse Ferguson, clinic administrator in the hospital's outpatient department, who died in his apartment in Unit 312 just days before he was scheduled to retire July 1, 1997, after 34 years at NIH. He had moved to Bldg. 20 in the spring of 1985 to meet a somewhat grim need -- as the hospital's AIDS patient volume grew in the mid-eighties, officials with authority to spend funds were required to be on-call 24 hours a day so that autopsies and funerals could be arranged at any time of day or night. "They needed someone to do these jobs quickly," said Ferguson, "because the quicker the autopsy, the better the results for the scientists. They don't do as many of those cases now, though."
Ferguson, who was remembered at a memorial service in Masur Auditorium July 8, said the building was essential as a residence for employees who always had to be able to get to work, no matter the weather. "It's been a convenient thing," he noted. Not only do employees stay there, he continued, but also patients: "There are seven rooms over there that make up the Guest House, for patients who can manage by themselves, and their relatives. All those rooms are on the first floor. I guess they've been there for the past 15 months or so.
"I found it to be very pleasant," he concluded. "You meet a lot of people. There were on-call rooms over there for physicians, and the junior surgeons had to live there when NIH still did heart surgery. You met a lot of doctors who stayed there while in transition to permanent homes in the Washington area. And a lot of foreign scientists lived there initially, until they reached a transition point. Nurses' assistants and licensed practical nurses from the Indian Health Service used to have to stay there during their training assignments. It's served a lot of different functions over the years."
Like any home, the building has known both great joy and deep sadness, especially Ferguson's sudden passing. Many children were reared under its roof, though the children's playground outside Queen's first floor efficiency-turned-office is now unused and still. And it was a boon to recruitment and relocation to countless NIH'ers. But in 1996, a young nurse committed suicide in her apartment. And some of its longest-term residents, including Dr. Joe Hin Tjio, who left last February after 38 years (and whose book and art covered walls were a defense against the dull utility of a federal flat), and Dr. Tillye Cornman, who spent many years on the first floor in Unit 105 before leaving recently for Gaithersburg, departed with regrets about the fate of the structure.
"I'm sad to leave because this building is going to be destroyed, but I'm happy I was not one of the executioners," Cornman noted.
As of late June, some 50 residents -- mostly short-termers who have lived there a year or less -- still called 20 home, said Queen, who along with Lenora Vauss, a housing management specialist, is wrapping up the show there.
"It will be a ball-and-chain demolition," said Queen, "no imploding at all. They're going to bring it down with a wrecking ball." On Sept. 1, site preparation work will begin, followed by demolition a month later. Queen has had NIH property managers assess what objects remain of value in the building; a public auction will disperse whatever items the General Services Administration does not tag for other facilities. Among these are kitchen cabinets, toilets and sinks, appliances and light fixtures.
"We haven't had any offers yet for the Murphy beds that come out of the walls," laughed Queen. "The doors will come down with the building, but some locks will be reused." Queen herself will continue to do facility management, "but it just won't be an apartment building." She is scheduled to work at Rockledge temporarily before moving to a new eight-story Neuroscience Center being built off of Executive Blvd. for NIDA, NINDS and NIMH employees, due to open at the end of 1998.
Queen reports that when rental rates "increased drastically" at Apartment 20 some 5-6 years ago, occupancy rates fell off and never recovered. Those who remained were, as both Harding and Queen say, here to do a job. "They basically live in their labs when they are not in the building," observed Queen.
"It's been a good ride," she concludes. "I've learned a lot. I've grown a lot. But I know I'm going to learn more where I'll be placed."
That's pretty much how other subjects of the Bldg. 20 diaspora feel.
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