Gallinger Municipal Hospital Psychopathic Ward

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Gallinger Municipal Hospital Psychopathic Ward
Construction Began 1920
Opened 1923
Closed 1988
Demolished 1990
Current Status Demolished
Building Style Pavilion Plan
Architect(s) Snowden Ashford
Location Washington, DC
Architecture Style Colonial Revival
Alternate Names
  • D.C. General Hospital complex


The old psychiatric ward at Gallinger Hospital was built in response to national reform trends, but construction was also spurred on by the dire need for mental health care facilities in the District of Columbia. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, St. Elizabeth and the Washington Asylum Hospitals were the only institutions in the city that cared for the mentally ill.

After the old almshouse, erected in 1847, was vacated in 1907 with the opening of the Blue Plains facility, it was used as a ward for the mentally ill. Conditions there were considered deplorable. The entire facility was often characterized as dilapidated and in 1916 became the subject of a newspaper expose decrying the squalid conditions as a "disgrace to the capital." In spite of this reform fervor, construction was delayed on the hospital by the political squabble over the hospital's site and the onset of World War I.

The Galiinger Municipal Hospital Psychopathic Ward was built between 1920 and 1922. The structure is an important example of a period and typical of psychiatric hospital design, and it also reflects the success of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts policy in implementing a uniform classical architectural expression for the District's public buildings after its formation in 1910. Designed in 1919 by Municipal Architect Snowden Ashford (1866- 1927), the hospital ward was constructed by local contractor George H. Wynne at a cost of $766,200. Upon completion in 1923 the facility gamed immediate notice for its efficient Colonial Revival design and was featured in the influential health care journal Modern Hospital in 1924. it was also illustrated and described in a standard text on hospital planning, The American Hospital of the Twentieth Century (1926). The building group epitomized the "home-like" pavilion ward believed to be the best architectural solution for the general hospital's treatment of short-term psychiatric patients during the 1920s.

Gallinger Hospital was originally to be placed in Northwest Washington, but strenuous Public protests influenced Congress to site the facility on Reservation 13. Plans for the hospital were developed by Washington architect Leon Dessez in 1915- However. Dessez's contract expired after 1917 and the delay caused by the prolonged fight over the hospital site and the change of site required new plans and revised cost estimates. Subsequently, Snowden Ashford prepared the designs for the building group and probably benefited from Dessez's Colonial Revival studies for the facility, which were approved by the Commission of Fine Arts for the 14th and Upshur Street N,W. site. Ashford's Colonial Revival design for the hospital buildings was emblematic of the conservative municipal architectural expression envisioned in the design policy of the Commission of Fine Arts.

The new psychopathic ward opened on January 1st 1923, and the facility's early history was indicative of the symbiotic relationship which developed between the psychiatric wards of general hospitals and state institutions for the mentally ill before World War II. The ward's function was to provide care, examination, and observation of persons suffering or believed to be suffering from mental illness, pending commitment to St. Elizabeth Hospital. The facility also administered short-term care for patients and, when the courts requested, evaluated the mental faculties of criminals and juvenile delinquents.

The Gallinger psychopathic ward also was a psychiatric educational center. Doctors on the faculty at Georgetown and George Washington University medical schools were appointed visiting physicians at Gallinger and their students cared for and treated patients in the general hospital and psychiatric wards. An even more formal link evolved between Gallinger and the Capital City School of Nursing (1877-1972) which was integral to the hospital !s operation. These developments were significant because a whole generation of doctors and nurses in Washington would benefit from study of the psychological and emotional needs of the psychiatric patients at Gallinger in the 1920s and 1930s. The educational program at the hospital was indicative of national trends that encouraged the integration of medical and psychiatric instruction and promoted new career patterns in the mental health professions.

Although serious patient complaints concerning the building or care at the facility were rare, investigations of the hospital were conducted in 1929 and 1941 in response to charges of malpractice. The press usually sensationalized any news about the psychiatric hospital and causes for inspections. In fact one reporter claimed he was held there as a political prisoner. He stated he had been placed in the hospital against his will by the police because of his discovery of corruption in the Veterans Administration, The reporter's eyewitness account, of his stay at the hospital was a rambling essay of abuses he had suffered there in 19.3d entitled. The Capital's Siberia. In each instance formal investigation reports cited no substantial grounds for complaints and praised the hospital's staff for their efficiency and high spirits in the face of shortages of equipment, personnel, and financial support.

In 1944 the District Commissioners requested St. Elizabeth Hospital's superintendent Dr. Winfred Overhoiser to inspect the psychiatric facility and make recommendations for improvements. In his report Overhoiser stated that the main problem was structural because the building was Ineptly planned" and "barnlike" in appearance. He suggested that a new psychiatric building be erected and that the old ward be converted for other uses. Ironically, a member of Overholser's inspection team was Dr. Samuel W. Hamilton of New York, who had initially praised the design in his 1924 article in the Modern Hospital. What had been a model psychiatric facility to the eminent psychiatrist in the 1920s was now outmoded and a "place of astonishing inconvenience" by the end of World War II.30 A new psychiatric facility was built at the hospital in 1955, and the old ward underwent major interior conversions in 1962 and 1976.[1]

In the 1970s the building became part of Area C Community Health Center under the management of the Department of Human Resources and until recently has functioned as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center and venereal disease clinic. Construction of a prison on the site was planned in 1986, with preservationists contesting the plan until 1989.[5] The buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in February, 1989 and were demolished c. 1990. The controversial closing of the public hospital in 2001 ended the inpatient services and the city's indigent health care system was transferred mostly to the Greater Southeast Community Hospital. The DC Jail is located to the south of this historic health-care complex.