March 27, 2017

Reimagining St. Elizabeths Asylum

  • By: Meghan White
The Center Building is the oldest on campus, and will be the new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security.

photo by: John M/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

The Center Building is St. Elizabeths' oldest structure. It will become the new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security in the fall of 2018.

On a bluff overlooking the Anacostia River in southeast Washington, D.C., sits a sprawling campus of buildings nestled among expansive lawns and numerous trees. While some of the buildings are uniformly made of red brick with crenellations and large, symmetrical windows descriptive of their Collegiate Gothic architecture, others are newer and depict various styles, and are scattered liberally across the landscape.

St. Elizabeths, a mental institution for more than 150 years, has been in a constant state of flux, with patients coming or going, buildings being constructed, expanded, or adapted, and acreage increasing with every decade. Founded by the pioneering Dorothea Dix, who advocated for sympathetic and moral treatments for the clinically insane, St. Elizabeths became a leader in this new progressive healthcare trend once it opened its doors in 1855.

Until the Civil War, the asylum was known as the Government Hospital for the Insane. However, the name changed when hundreds of soldiers suffering from the trauma of the war stayed at St. Elizabeths. They appropriated the name of the original tract of land the hospital was built on because many of the soldiers wanted their true whereabouts a secret. The name was formalized in 1916; the apostrophe was omitted as it first appeared in the 1600s.

Eventually, de-institutionalization in the 1960s led to an ever-decreasing number of patients. By the late 20th century, St. Elizabeths no longer needed all 100 buildings on the campus. For the past decade and a half, many of the buildings sat empty, unmaintained and exposed to the weather, and the hospital was listed on the National Trust's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2002.

However, a new phase in St. Elizabeths’ life is beginning. Across Martin Luther King Jr. Ave lies the 176-acre west campus, which is owned by the General Services Administration. With the help of architecture, engineering, construction, and preservation firms, 52 buildings on the west campus will be renovated into modern offices to fit at least 40 branches of the Department of Homeland Security by the fall of 2018.

It’s an incredible undertaking that has been long in the making. The initial plan for the project was met with criticism from the preservation community, who were concerned that much of the historic fabric that qualified St. Elizabeths as a National Historic Landmark and as a surviving example of Dix’s vision would be altered substantially or removed altogether. Others were concerned that bringing the estimated 17,000 federal employees to the campus would not lead to economically reenergizing adjacent neighborhoods because employees would have little reason to leave the expansive campus. Despite these concerns, the plans pressed on.

The Center Building at St. Elizabeths housed both offices for hospital administrators and wards for patients.

photo by: National Archives and Records Administration

The Center Building, shown here in 1900, housed both offices for hospital administrators and wards for patients.

The first phase of construction and renovation began in the fall of 2015 with the Center Building. Technically comprised of eight buildings, it is the earliest structure on the campus. It is styled in the Kirkbride Plan, named for mental health advocate Thomas Kirkbride. His guidelines for mental hospitals recommend a center core flanked by staggered wings. This was believed to benefit the patients, as they could be grouped by illness and have plenty of access to natural light.

Charting a plan to preserve as much of the Center Building as possible required evaluations of the structural components, Section 106 consultation, and documentation of all character-defining features, to name a few. Following those results, the building was divided into three zones—restoration, rehabilitation, and renovation. Despite occasional setbacks from structural failures or partial collapses, other work at the Center Building has continued, such as paint analysis of the wards. While the historic building will be adapted into government offices, the careful documentation of consulting preservationists will preserve a record of St. Elizabeths' storied past.

Though the hospital is closed to the public, one can witness the history and evolution of St. Elizabeths with an exhibit at the National Building Museum. It focuses on how the hospital’s architecture and landscaping aligned with the “Moral Treatment movement” of the late 19th century and the belief that mental illness could be cured by architecture. Consisting of 200 photographs and 100 artifacts—mostly borrowed from the Center Building—the exhibit brings to life the incredible story of St. Elizabeths from its beginning to today.

The exhibit, called “Architecture of An Asylum: St. Elizabeths 1852-2017,” opened on March 24, 2017 and ran until January 15, 2018.

Stories: Behind The Walls At Crownsville State Hospital

View of the main building at Crownsville State Hospital

Established in 1911 as the Hospital for the Negro Insane, the hospital was a place to treat and house African-American patients separate from white patients. Is there a future for these buildings that will do justice to the memory of the patients who lived and died here?

Meghan White Headshot

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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