Metro Weekly

Sculpture Dedicated in Memory of Whitman-Walker Clinic

''Pillar of Fire'' honors health care providers who faced the challenges of the early days of D.C.'s HIV/AIDS epidemic

The JBG Companies, a real-estate development firm, dedicated a piece of public art Monday afternoon to the Whitman-Walker Clinic and the health workers who provided care to patients during the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The new tribute sits on a parcel of land at 14th and S Streets NW, where the Whitman-Walker Clinic once stood.

The sculpture, ”Pillar of Fire,” was designed by Frederick, Md.-based artist William Cochran and is inspired by an ancient tale of a pillar of fire that once led a lost people through the desert at night. Specific design elements honor the birth of the clinic and specialized care given to each patient. John Coventry assisted Cochran with lighting and technical assistance for the sculpture.

WWC Memorial Sculpture Dedication

WWC Memorial Sculpture Dedication

(Photo by John Riley)

”The title comes from this notion that when we get scared, as humans, we tend to bring out these old, dark myths of the Old Testament God that punishes people for sin and things that don’t make any sense. It’s darkness,” Cochran said in remarks at the Nov. 4 dedication ceremony. ”And a place like Whitman-Walker has to work uphill against that to bring dignity and compassion to people caught up in a terrible situation. It’s the first responders that we have to focus on in a crisis if we want to understand the best and highest that humans are capable of. That’s why this piece is a celebration. The ‘pillar of fire’ refers to the health care workers at Whitman-Walker, who did, in a moment of history, something so incredible that it can be an example for all of us, for the ages.”

Surrounded by employees of the JBG Companies and Whitman-Walker Health, the community health center that has since supplanted its Whitman-Walker Clinic predecessor, Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who served as the executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic from 1984 to 1999, praised JBG for dedicating the sculpture to the early responders in the fight against HIV and AIDS, noting, ”A lesser developer would have cared less about this.” Graham also invoked the memory of all the patients and health care providers who have died in the passing years, holding a moment of silence in their honor.

”This is a celebration of the human spirit,” Graham said. ”Because the human spirit that worked in this building, that worked with individuals who, very often, were very poor and facing what was then thought to be a terminal illness – and was, in fact a terminal illness – who had no resources, no support system, very little in the way of friends and supporters, often abandoned by their family, abandoned by their employers. They came to this building as a place of hope and response.”

In a short statement, David Chalfant, the director of development for Whitman-Walker Health, recited the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: ”Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

”When I first came to Whitman-Walker in 1992, working with Councilman Graham, then Executive Director Jim Graham, I learned about a love and a compassion for people, who, sometimes people wouldn’t even touch them, and there was love, and there was compassion, and there was caring in this building, in this community.”

”And back in ’92, we talked about holistic health care – treating the whole person, not just the disease,” Chalfant continued. ”And here we are in 2013, talking about patient-centered medical homes, treating the whole person, not just their illness. … Today, Whitman-Walker has grown not only into a place that delivers some of the best HIV care in the city, but some of the best primary care anywhere. The great thing about Whitman-Walker is it’s not just a place on a map. It’s a commitment to quality and excellence in care, and we’re very proud to be able to deliver that today, whether you’re gay or straight or HIV-positive or HIV-negative.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at

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