Tussle Over St. Elizabeths

(Michael Williamson - The Washington Post)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 17, 2007

When Rob Nieweg of the National Trust for Historic Preservation toured the abandoned west campus of old St. Elizabeths Hospital a few years ago, he was eager to explore Hitchcock Hall, the theater for the nation's first federal mental institution. As Nieweg waited to get his bearings in the dingy twilight, he heard a foreboding sound -- running water.

A two-inch pipe had broken weeks, months, maybe even years earlier.

For Nieweg, the destruction symbolized the careless abandonment of a site as laden with history as any place in Washington. This is where modern advances in psychiatry were pioneered: Freudian psychoanalytic techniques, hydrotherapy, dance therapy, pet therapy, psychodrama.

Divided into two campuses -- the city owns the smaller east campus -- the west campus was also the largest chunk of unused federal land in the District. Yet it was slowly going to seed.

With its 61 stately buildings, 176 acres and panoramic views of downtown Washington and the Potomac-Anacostia confluence, the west campus has been designated one of the nation's most endangered historic sites. To some, the location is a developer's dream: spectacular views, a nearby ramp to Interstate 295, a Metro stop, an opportunity to breathe new life into Southeast.

But St. Elizabeths has turned out to be a red-brick white elephant. Restoration would be so expensive -- $3 billion -- that private developers won't touch it. So it is slated to become headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security, whose offices are scattered among more than 60 buildings. A single agency, the Coast Guard, is to move in first -- after five years of work and $330 million.

Unhappy with that vision, preservationists are asking Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and the D.C. Council to fight the plan as it goes to yet another public hearing Thursday. They don't want the historic site taken over by a high-security agency that probably would have little interaction with the surrounding community.

"The area is sorely in need of economic development," said Rebecca A. Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League. "A walled-off citadel on the site is not going to help."

The Rev. Anthony Motley, a Congress Heights resident for 55 years and president of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, said: "I'd like to see anything on the site but Homeland Security.

"It has a lot of potential for building the community, a community of residents on this side of the river," said Motely, who recalled picnics, apple picking, ballgames and horseback riding there.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), ranking member on the House subcommittee that has oversight of the west campus, defended the plan. "The only developer in the U.S. that consistently puts up money for historic properties is the federal government," she said.

The decision is an important one to preservationists because of the site's prominence, high above the monumental city.

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