Rebranding St. Elizabeths

After nearly 30 years, four mayors, and countless proposals, the redevelopment of the District’s historic, now-shuttered St. Elizabeths mental health institution is finally underway. But District officials have identified one last hurdle to its transformation — and it’s strictly mental.

Over the next few years, the city plans to work with developers to build an educational campus, housing, and retail on the eastern portion of the grounds. But after more than a century as a walled sanctuary for the likes of John Hinckley Jr. and the Mount Pleasant sniper, St. Elizabeths has something of an image problem.

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.

District officials have been talking about redeveloping St. Elizabeths ever since. There were skeptics from the start.: As one developer put it in 1985, “the old axiom in real estate — location, location and location — kind of describes the problem.”

Developers are less likely to say that now, in the wake of a real estate boom that has pushed development east of the Anacostia River. More recently, Gray noted, tens of millions of dollars of public money has also gone into road improvements, libraries, and health centers in nearby neighborhoods.

Brooke Pleas, 28, sends her daughter to school nearby, and said she came to St. Elizabeths Saturday because she wanted to hear more about the city’s plans.

“This side of the river is the poor side,” Pleas said. “I don’t want to say they don’t care, but that’s what it feels like.” Like many residents who spoke at planning meetings over the past year, she said she would like to see affordable housing, a recreation center, and some kind of workforce training center.

Her wishes may yet come true. Workforce training is one of several educational uses city planners say they are open to. They plan to begin to look for an anchor institution later this month, said Ethan Warsh, a city official overseeing the St. Elizabeths redevelopment.

But the end result is still a couple of years away. In the meantime, District officials want to get more people into the habit of visiting the campus. That change in psychology for residents, they say, is critical to St. Elizabeths’ long-term success.

“We get more people on campus, value is added, risk [for developers] comes down,” Warsh said.

To that end, the city plans to erect a temporary structure next year that will house community space, the farmer’s market, and other local vendors. The concept is a fancier version of the shed that went up in 2007 by Eastern Market while that facility was being restored after a fire. The city wants to “use architecture as a tool to bring people here,” Warsh explained, so it held a design competition and is now choosing among three finalists.

And so the hard sell begins. “I know some of you used GPS to get here.” Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said to the crowd. “But if you come here often enough, you won’t need it.”

 
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