The building now known as the Gardener’s House was originally erected as a hospital for ailing slaves. A series of documentary references indicate that construction was underway by November 1775, and that the building probably was completed by that following spring or early summer. The date of construction has been proven by the findings from dendrochronological sampling of structural timbers, which yielded a date of winter 1775/76 for when the trees that were grown for these timbers were cut down. The construction of this building was part of a major rebuilding episode which Washington initiated just before he left to command the American troops in the Revolutionary War. In addition to expanding the Mansion, Washington demolished the earlier outbuildings that had flanked the smaller house he had inherited from his older half-brother, Lawrence, and began to erect the various service buildings that front on the circle and line the north and south lanes.
The structure’s unusual floor plan appears to have been a result of its initial function as a hospital. The first floor was divided into three spaces, with two small rooms sharing the south end of the building, and a larger chamber, with a fireplace, to the north. The south rooms were formed by installing a wooden board partition to equally divide the space, with doorways providing direct access to each room from the north chamber. This arrangement meant that the exterior door positioned in the south gable (facing the circle) could not have functioned, but it was retained to symmetrically balance the façade of the Store House across the circle. This plan is summarized in a letter from Lawrence Washington addressed to George Washington on December 13, 1775:
I should be glad to be informd, in what manner the House – now Buildg opposite the Store House, is to be divided into partitions – in one of your Letters you say it is intended for the Sick – if so I would make Three Rooms in it – ½ the House or more in the part next the Chimney The Remainder divided into Two Rooms each of which will have a Window in it – The Door in the gable End to be of no Use, but Still to be there, that it may in its outward appearance look like the store.
Plantation records indicate that the structure was used to support the spinning operation for an indefinite period during the 1780s, as noted in a letter from George Washington dated June 13, 1785: “… beginning by the walk next the house I built for a Hospital, (since used for Spinning).” By 1792 it had been pressed into service as a domestic space, when one of Washington’s managers, an Irishman by the name of James Butler, was mentioned as having moved “into the house opposite to the Store.” By the following spring plans had changed, however, and the structure was dedicated to serve as the residence for the head gardener. The first gardener to occupy the building was the German, John Christian Ehlers, and his wife; by 1799 the gardener position was held by the bachelor, William Spence, who had been recruited from Scotland after Ehlers’s dismissal in 1797.
Apparently the interior of the Hospital had been left in an unfinished state, as a considerable amount of work was required in 1793 to make the building habitable for the Ehlers. This included installing wooden lath and then “plastering” and white washing the walls. Washington’s letter from April 28, 1793, provides the best description of the character of the space that we have, when he stated that the gardener was to move into this particular building, “on acct. of its having a room to lodge in above (which a decent Woman would require) and another below to Cook in, with a [brick] floor unsusceptible of fire.”