St Elizabeths Hospital

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St Elizabeths Hospital
St Elizabeths Hospital
Established 1852
Construction Began 1852
Construction Ended 1855
Opened 1855
Current Status Active
Building Style Kirkbride Plan
Architect(s) Thomas U. Walter; Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge
Location Washington, DC
Architecture Style Gothic Revival, Gothic
Peak Patient Population 7,000
Alternate Names
  • Government Hospital for the Insane
  • United States Government Hospital for the Insane


The west campus

In November of 1852 a tract of land overlooking the Anacostia River was purchased for $25,000 from Thomas Blagden. Construction began almost immediately on the center building, a red brick fortress designed in Gothic revival style by Thomas U. Walter, who also designed the dome of the Capital Building. The hospital was built following the Kirkbride Plan, most of the construction of the center building was done by slaves.[1] It opened in 1855 as the Government Hospital for the Insane. The Hospital's early mission, as defined by its founder, the leading mental health reformer Dorothea Dix, was to provide the "most humane care and enlightened curative treatment of the insane of the Army, Navy, and District of Columbia." During the Civil War, wounded soldiers treated here were reluctant to admit that they were in an insane asylum, and said they were at St. Elizabeth's, the colonial name of the land where the Hospital is located. Congress officially changed the Hospital's name to St. Elizabeth's in 1916. By the 1940s, the Hospital complex covering an area of over 300 acres. At its peak, 4,000 people worked and 7,000 patients lived there.[2] It was the first and only federal mental facility with a national scope. The first appropriation towards building the Government Hospital for the Insane was of $100,000, and was made by Congress in 1852 for the purchase of land. The organic act creating the institution and outlining the duties of its officers and providing for the admission of various classes of insane patients was not approved until March 3, 1855. The hospital, however, had been opened for the reception of patients on January 15,1855.

The creation of the hospital was due very largely to the activity of Dorothea L. Dix. She drew up with her own pen the outlines of the organic act establishing the institution, and virtually named its first superintendent , Dr. C. H. Nicholas. During the latter part of her life Miss Dix spent much of her time at the hospital, where quarters were always reserved for her, and the little desk upon which she drew up the original act creating the hospital stands in the board room in the main building.

On the first of July, 1855, the President named a board of visitors, as follows: Benjamin F. Bohrer, M. D., president; William W. Corcoran, Jacob Gideon, Professor Grafton Tyler, M. D., Daniel Ratcliff, Professor Thomas Miller, M. D., William Whelan, M. D., U.S.N., Robert C. Wood, M. D., U.S.A., and Rev. P. D. Gurley, D. D. The make-up of the board has, in the main, followed the plan of the first board, namely, to name as members of the board on representative of each of the classes card for in the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service, usually the acting or the retired surgeon-general of these several services, a lay physician, a lawyer, a clergyman, a layman, and in recent years two women.

The east campus

The original main building was built from brick made on the place, and in architectural style is a modification of the Kirkbride plan, each wing receding for the center, in echelon. The building itself is in the collegiate Gothic style. This main building was several years in building and wings were added to it from time to time. Other construction, however, was undertaken in the meant time, and shortly after the opening of the hospital, during fiscal year 1855-6, a building was opened for the colored insane, which the superintendent state in his report he believed to be the "first and only special provision for the suitable care of the African when afflicted with insanity which has yet been made in any part of the world."

While it was undoubtedly very largely in Miss Dix's mind that the Government Hospital for the Insane should be essentially a military institution, still the organic act provided also for the admission of patients from the District of Columbia. The District of Columbia in those years, however, was a rather small affair and so the number admitted to the hospital was not very great. The total number of patients admitted from all sources during the first year was only 63. During the Civil War, however, the hospital was conveniently located for utilization by the army and navy, and in 1861 on the its buildings, the West Lodge, was set aside for the wounded seamen of the Chesapeake and Potomac fleets, and a little later a couple of wards in the main building were prepared for the reception of sick and wounded soldiers. The following year the annual report shows that the General and Quarantine Naval Hospitals, with 70 beds, in charge of Surgeon N. Pinkney, of the Navy, and the General Army Hospital, with 250 beds, in charge of the medical officers of the Government Hospital for the Insane, "have been successful operation during all of the past year"; while in the following year it is again noted that the General Hospital, with 250 beds, known as the St. Elizabeth Hospital, and the separate General and Quarantine Naval Hospitals, with 60 beds in both, "all free tenants of the institution, under our supervision, are maintained in full activity and usefulness."

Here is the first mention of the name of St. Elizabeth as applied to the hospital. It was taken from the name of the tract of land upon which the hospital stood, which has been known ever since the settlement of the country as the St. Elizabeth tract. The application of the name St. Elizabeth to the hospital was the result of the disinclination of many of the soldiers who were not insane to have the institution in which they were temporarily resident called the Government Hospital for the Insane. In January of 1863, at the request of the Surgeon-General of the army, certain rooms of the hospital were set aside for the convenience of one of the manufacturers of artificial legs, and soldiers who had lost a limb by amputation in any one of the district of neighboring hospitals might, if they wished, be transferred to the St. Elizabeth Hospital as soon as the stump was healed, to be fitted with an artificial leg. These were the men who, while resident in the hospital and getting their artificial limbs adjusted, did not wish to be considered patients in an institution for the insane, and so St. Elizabeth Hospital came to be a name applied to the institution. The St. Elizabeth referred to is the Hungarian saint about whom many legends of kindness to the sick and afflicted folks were written, and so the name came to be retained because of its singular appropriateness.

Dr. Godding had been appointed upon the hospital staff some time 1863. He came from Fitchburg, Mass., and previous to hist connection with the Government Hospital for the Insane had been connected with the New Hampshire Hospital for the Insane at Concord. Later he had been superintendent of the Taunton State Hospital for a number of years and resigned the position to return to Washington.

During Dr. Godding's incumbency of 22 years the institution grew rapidly. When he took charge of the hospital in 1877 he found only six buildings. During his superintendency he erected 22 buildings and various extensions and additions. The larger buildings erected were the Relief Building, the Home Building, Howard Hall for the criminal insane, the Toner Building and Infirmary, a large refectory, the Oaks Building for the epileptic insane, with its large kitchen, a power house with electrical installation, and the Allison Building. When he took charge there were 765 patients; when he died he left a population of 1967 patients. He found, in 1877, 227 employees. He left and organization of 540 employees, or a total of over 2500 patients and attendants. Besides the erection of these buildings he added over 500 acres to the hospital grounds and established a farm colony at Godding Croft. During this period of growth the appropriations for the support of the institution trebled, and at the time of his death he was annually disbursing of $500,000.

The Government Hospital for the Insane was one of the early institutions in the country to recognize the value of scientific work and one of the first to appoint a pathologist. Dr. I. W. Blackburn, who had been associated with Professor Formad of Philadelphia, was appointed special pathologist in the fiscal year 1883-4. In after his work became well known, and at the time of his death-June 18, 1911-he established for himself a national reputation among workers in his field.

The Government Hospital for the Insane was also one of the first to take up the systematic application of hydrotherapeutic measures to the treatment of the insane. The active man on the staff in this work was Dr. G. W. Foster, who had charge of the Toner infirmary. The report for 1895-6 shows that during the previous two years he had been actively engaged in using hydroterapeutic measures and had made special application of the form of treatment to general paresis. Subsequent reports made considerable mention of this treatment, describing both Dr. Foster's methods and his conclusions. During the first three years no special hydrotherapeutic apparatus was installed, the treatment consisting mostly of the application of the cold pack accompanied by cold to the head in the form of a wet towel or ice pack. During the fiscal year 1897-8 a complete hydrotherapeutic outfit was installed, the form of apparatus bearing that designed by Dr. S. Baruch, of New York City. Dr. Godding died in office on the 6th of May, 1899.

During the interval Dr. Godding's death and the appointment of his successor, Dr. A.H. Whitmer became acting superintendent. During his short period of service the school of instruction in nursing, which had begun in 1894, was reorganized and extended, and arrangements were made to give a certificate after the completion of a two years' course, with promotion and increase in pay.

Dr. Whitmer died January 18, 1900.

On October 17, 1899, Dr. A.B. Richardson was appointed superintendent as Dr. Godding's successor. He came from Ohio, where he had much experience as administrator and had recently built the Massillon State Hospital.

When Dr. Richardson took charge of the hospital his survey of the situation showed that the buildings were calculated to accommodate properly and care for a population not to exceed 1600 patients, while the population on June 30, 1900, was 2076, an excess of almost 500 beyond the capacity of the institution. The superintendent reported that in some of the male wards which were intended for 18 patients there were 43 and 44 patients, and in other wards from 16 to 18 beds were made on the floor each night along the corridors, while in the most disturbed female wards, with a normal capacity of 36 each, there were 58 to 60 patients. This condition of affairs was reported to Congress, which authorized an extension of the hospital for 1000 patients, and limited the total cost of said extension to $975,000. Arrangements were immediately made for securing plans and entering upon the work of extension. After the preliminaries were finally completed a contract was let for the construction of 12 buildings. The original contract for 12 buildings included two psychopathic reception buildings, on building each for disturbed men and women, an infirmary and six cottages. Five larger buildings were built to accommodate from 104 to 120 patients each, and the six cottages from 40 to 60 patients each. The twelfth building was the nurses' home. In addition to these buildings, a cold storage building and storehouse, a kitchen for the detached group of buildings, and a new stable were constructed, artesian wells bored for supplying the hospital with water, and a railroad switch constructed extending from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to the power house. During the following session, in 1902, Congress provided for an additional administration building, a kitchen building, and a central power, heat and lighting plant by an appropriation of $425,000, making a total appropriation for the hospital extension of $1,400,000, to which added afterwards a little of $100,000 for furnishing, etc., completing the sum of $1,500,000 expended for the accommodation of 1000 patients; for centralizing the power, heat and lighting, and for centralized administration, making a per capita cost per patient of somewhere between $1000 and $1500.

In the midst of this work and before and of the buildings of the hospital extension had been completed and occupied, Dr. Richardson, who was apparently in good health, suffered a stroke of apoplexy and died suddenly on the 27th of June, 1903.

He was succeeded by the present incumbent, Dr. William A. White, who took charge of the hospital on October 3, 1903. During the intervening three months between Dr. Richardson's death and the appointment of the new superintendent, Dr. Maurice J. Stack, first assistant physician, was in charge.

On the first of October, 1903, there were 2293 patients in the hospital, and the 15 buildings of the hospital extension were under construction, but no one of them had been finished. The work of building this large addition to the institution, reclassifying the population, occupying new buildings, shifting the center of administration and getting the new power, heat and lighting plant in operation immediately devolved upon the incoming superintendent. The first of the new buildings was placed in commission and occupied on August 12, 1904, and from that time forth various buildings were gradually occupied. The officers were changed to the new administration building and the central power plant started in operation.

During the last few years of Dr. Godding's life and during the short period of Dr. Richardson's superintendency the hospital had rapidly grown; when the large extension for 1000 beds had been completed and was ready for occupancy the problem of the reclassification of patients to meet the new possibilities of housing required to be solved, and it was suddenly borne in upon the management that the hospital had in some way suddenly expanded form an institution of medium size to a tremendous plant. Dr. Godding had been many years connected with the institution and knew all of its ramifications so that he had not felt keenly the need for newer administrative methods. Dr. Richardson was so completely occupied with the great problem of building that he had not time and energy to devote to a revision of administrative methods, and when therefore the new buildings were to be occupied it became apparent that the whole institution required to be placed upon new administrative basis, and that the psychological moment had arrived for undertaking this extensive work.

With the occupation of the new buildings the population was redistributed and reclassified. Tubercular patients were segregated from the others, porches and sun parlors being built for their accommodation; epileptic patients were separately housed; and the problem of classification generally was carefully worked out as best it could be under all the circumstances.

Decline began in the 1950s. Massive institutions came to be seen as a problem, not the solution and mental hospitals began to deinstitutionalize patients. The idea was that they could get personalized treatment in community-based facilities and that new psychiatric drugs would allow them near-normal lives. Many patients ended up homeless after leaving the hospital. In 1987, the federal government deeded St. Elizabeths to the District of Columbia to come up with an alternate use. But the District's mental health program was in receivership, and long-range planning was not a high priority. By 1996, the remaining 850 patients had to cope with medicine shortages, a lack of equipment and a heating system that failed so frequently patients went weeks without showers. Life at St. Elizabeths had regressed to a condition disturbingly similar to those that inspired the creation of the hospital in the first place. The last patients were moved from the west campus in 2002. All became quiet in the once-magnificent center building, the ghostly structure slowly succumbing to time and neglect. It was estimated to cost $50 million to $100 million to bring the buildings on the west campus back up to code. The District of Columbia tried several times to sell the hospital, but each time the deal fell through. With no answer in sight, the federal government took over the west campus again in 2004. The General Services Administration began nailing plywood over windows and shoring up roofs until a tenant could be found.

Homeland Security made a pitch to Congress in 2006 for the west campus. They claimed that St. Elizabeths was the only site large enough to allow the agency to consolidate.[3] On March 20, 2007 it was announced that DHS would spend approximately $4.1 billion to move its headquarters and most of its Washington-based offices to a new 4,500,000-square-foot facility on the site, beginning with the United States Coast Guard in 2010. DHS, whose operations are scattered around dozens of buildings in the Washington, D.C. area, hopes to consolidate at least 60 of its facilities at St. Elizabeths and to save $64 million per year in rental costs. DHS also hopes to improve employee morale and unity by having a central location from which to operate. The plans to locate DHS to St. Elizabeths have been met with criticism, however. Historic preservationists argue that the move will destroy dozens of historic buildings located on the campus and that other alternatives should be considered. Community activists have also expressed concern that the planned high-security facility will not be interactive with the community, and will do little to revitalize the economically depressed area. A ceremonial groundbreaking for the DHS consolidated headquarters took place at St. Elizabeths on September 9, 2009. The event was attended by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, and acting GSA Administrator Paul Prouty. In 2005, the Hospital celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding and honored members of the Armed Forces who became mentally ill while serving their country.[4]

West Campus[edit]

The western campus of St. Elizabeth's contains many historical buildings, including the original 1850s Kirkbride style center building, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. There is also a Civil War cemetery where 300 Union and Confederate soldiers who died here are buried. The Hospital complex is located on a hill in southeast Washington, overlooking the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. In 1987, the federal government transferred the hospital operations and the east hospital campus to the DC Department of Mental Health, while retaining ownership of the western campus.

East Campus[edit]

The eastern campus contains many newer buildings, built during the 20th century. This include many smaller two story pavilion style buildings and other large 5+ story buildings. The east campus is still an active medical center, owned by the DC Department of Mental Health. Construction began in 2006 on a new 450,000 square foot, state-of-the-art facility to replace the 150-year old Hospital. The new hospital incorporates the best practices in modern, in patient mental health care with an environmentally sensitive design and sustainable strategies. The new building’s therapeutic design includes bright and airy living and treatment areas, green spaces off each patient unit, and enclosed courtyards. A 28,000 square-foot green roof is likely the largest on any psychiatric facility in the country. The new hospital was completed in November of 2009.[5]

Images of St Elizabeths Hospital[edit]

Main Image Gallery: St Elizabeths Hospital


The following short documentary video was created by St. Elizabeths hospital that documents the institution's history.


The West Campus Cemetery was originally established for "friendless patients" who were to be interred "without ceremony", according to Dr. Nichols in a letter to the Secretary of the Interior. Researched records indicate the cemetery has approximately 300 military graves (of which less than 200 are marked with a headstone) and approximately 160 civilian graves (none of which are marked with a headstone). White and African American soldiers from the Union army and soldiers of the Confederacy are interspersed throughout this cemetery. The graves are located on a hill near I-295 and overlook the Potomac River and Washington, DC. Eagles and deer have been sighted there as well as wild turkey.

Links & Additional Information[edit]