Getting people to treat St. Elizabeths more like Gallery Place is going to take some doing. To that end, Mayor Vincent C. Gray and a coterie of city officials gathered Saturday on the former hospital’s grounds to kick off a multi-year effort to tweak public perceptions of the storied insane asylum.
Saturday marked the start of a “Season of Discovery,” three summer weekend events meant to reintroduce the 183-acre site to local residents whose exposure to the place is typically limited to glimpses of patients on smoke breaks seen through gates, or the occasional sighting of Hinckley on a cat food run.
To lure residents inside the red brick walls that stretch along Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, there were face painters, performance artists, muralists, balloon animals, a disc jockey and a farmer’s market.
“To me, St. Elizabeths is no longer this entire campus. It’s one hospital,” Gray (D) said in his remarks, referring to the smaller inpatient facility that opened on the grounds in 2010. “It’s time to be rebranded as a community center for the District of Columbia and especially for the people of Ward 8.”
The mayor spoke before an audience with a heavy contingent of ANC commissioners, agency heads, their handlers and volunteers. By the end of the four-hour event, more than 400 people had stopped by.
Many, such as Joy Haynes and Ellie Walton, have had a longtime fascination with St. Elizabeths. In 2010, Haynes and Walton made a film with footage from patient video diaries. They screened it last year at the new hospital, which houses about 300 patients, some of whom have privileges to roam the campus. Haynes and Walton said they came hoping to run into one of their diarists, but didn’t spot him.
Constance Moore, 67, of Temple Hills, said she always wanted to come back after visiting a relative who had been a patient there.
“I always loved these buildings,” she said, taking in the cluster of fenced-off red brick buildings, with red-tiled roofs and weathered sun porches, that date back to the early 1900s.
The sprawling campus grew from from a single building in 1855 to cover more than 300 acres spanning both sides of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. By the 1940s, it housed more than 7,000 patients, including the poet Ezra Pound, who was treated there after pleading insanity to avoid prosecution for his wartime support of the fascist government in Italy.
The federal government ceded control of the eastern half of the grounds to the District in the late 1980s. The city took over hospital operations in 1987.