St Elizabeths Hospital
|St Elizabeths Hospital|
|Building Style||Kirkbride Plan|
|Architect(s)||Thomas U. Walter; Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge|
|Architecture Style||Gothic Revival, Gothic|
|Peak Patient Population||7,000|
|Alternate Names||Governor Hospital for the Insane|
United States Government Hospital for the Insane
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. 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. It was the first and only federal mental facility with a national scope.
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. 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.
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.
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.
Images of St Elizabeths Hospital
Main Image Gallery: St Elizabeths Hospital
Links & Additional Information
- St Elizabeths @ Kirkbride Buildings.com
- St Elizabeths @ Wikipedia
- DC Department of Mental Health
- A Detailed History of the Hospital
- A Washington Post Article on the Hospital
- National Historic Landmark Entry
- Photos of the Kirkbride Building (from 2007)
- Historic Medical Sites in the Washington, DC Area
- A Website Dedicated to the Historic West Campus
- Photos of the Construction of the new Hospital (2006-2009)