Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Renewal of St. Elizabeths Hospital

We could not enter the Kirkbride Building - just these glimpses through the front entry - but photographs by Ethan McElroy capture its pallid spirit. The GSA is documenting each room prior to renovation with HABS format photographs, we learned during an extremely interesting tour by DC Preservation League, with GSA and a Project Architect.

The Government Hospital for the Insane was instituted on this bucolic site in 1855 with the completion of this, the main building and stellar example of the popular Kirkbride plan designed by Thomas Walter, then architect of the Capital. Founded by mental health reformer Dorothea Dix, the hospital aimed to provide the "most human care and enlightened curative treatment of the insane of the Army, Navy and District of Columbia." In the mid-1800s the architecture of this approach called for individual rooms, dorm-style. The campus grew with the times, adding cottages and communal living quarters, eventually housing about 8,000 patients and 4,000 staff over 300 acres by 1940. Civil War soldiers treated here referred to it as St Elizabeths, the name of the area rather than the more ominous official name of the facility and the name was changed by Congress to St Elizabeths (no apostrophe) by 1916. Chipped concrete remains of tennis courts and walking paths that meandered among specimen trees with spectacular views back to the city. The rural life in view of the city and civilization was deemed ideal for convalescence. The still-bucolic campus is within the District boundaries, on the east side of the Anacostia River. One can look across the river, scan the landmarked skyline and imagine the residents of St Elizabeths convalescing here, taking walks, writing (like Ezra Pound who spent several years here - second story, second window left of main entrance), tending their gardens, and - perhaps less bucolic - submitting to treatment for their ills. The "excited" patients were segregated within the Kirkbride building, as were men and women, as were the races. A separate building on the western edge of campus housed the criminally insane.

A daughter of a wealthy family lived in this large house built for her, with her own staff, on the grounds a short walk from the main building. Streets or lanes named "Raintree" typify a healing by nature ethic of the institution.
The western edge is the site of the massive new Coast Guard headquarters, currently under construction. A bald eagle nests in the forest on the left and is known to fly down and watch the workers on occasion.

While St Elizabeths continues to operate as a much smaller mental health facility on the eastern portion of the campus, the western 176-acre campus was abandoned in 2003. The site is a National Historic Landmark District. The buildings were stabilized by GSA and are now beginning renovation to house the consolidated Department of Homeland Security, with about 14,000 employees. It's a massive undertaking in Preservation and Renewal and the process is documented HERE.

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