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Tussle Over St. Elizabeths

(Michael Williamson - The Washington Post)

Ralston Cox, formerly a program analyst at the president's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, said that "if these buildings were anyplace else in town, people would be saying, 'My God! Look at this!' "

Thomas Luebke, head of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, said, "What to do with St. Elizabeths is one of the most significant issues that faces the District of Columbia, and yet St. Elizabeths is a sleeper of an issue." The site "is one of the visual elements that define the city's horizon . . . a symbolic power."

Pierre L'Enfant, the Parisian architect who drew up plans for the federal city in 1791, understood the power of vistas and visual composition, both natural and manmade, Luebke said. So did St. Elizabeths' legendary founder, slightly more than half a century later.

A November day in 1852: A 50-year-old Bostonian named Dorothea Dix stands with a Washington area landowner named Thomas Blagden on a wooded bluff overlooking the Anacostia River. The view from where they stand, a place that will eventually be called the Point, is unrivaled: the U.S. Capitol with its unfinished dome, the Navy Yard with its smokestacks, the bustling wharves jammed with ships offloading marble from Massachusetts. With the treasury and the U.S. patent office under construction, the federal government is in a building boom.

Dix had decided to devote her life to improving the condition of the impoverished insane, often confined "in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens; chained, naked, beaten with rods and lashed into obedience," she is quoted as saying in the biography "Voice for the Mad: The Life of Dorothea Dix." Since it was widely believed that the insane did not feel cold, they were not given clothes or blankets. Asylums charged visitors admission to stare.

Dix was an adherent of the Kirkbride theory of mental health treatment, pioneered by an influential superintendent of the private Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a Quaker, believed that people with mental disorders could be cured if allowed to withdraw from the chaos of society into a restful institution.

After objecting in vain to the tireless zealot, Blagden finally surrendered his peaceful tract for $25,000, and construction began on the center building, a red-brick fortress designed in Gothic revival style by Thomas U. Walter, who also designed the Capitol dome. "It's probably the most important hospital building in the United States, because it set a pattern for others," said James Goode, author of 2003's "Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington's Destroyed Buildings."

With slaves doing much of the work, St. Elizabeths was ready shortly before the Civil War, and it first came to prominence not as an asylum but as a hospital for injured soldiers, Union and Confederate. Suryabala Kanhouwa, director of St. Elizabeths' laboratory branch and the hospital's unofficial historian, said she believes the 10-foot walls around the property were put up to keep soldiers from escaping.

Today, a cross-shaped cemetery contains the graves of 300 of those soldiers. Kanhouwa said believes it might be the first public cemetery in the United States that interred people without regard to race.

Almost from the beginning, assassins and would-be assassins were confined at St. Elizabeths. The man who tried to shoot President Andrew Jackson, the man who did shoot President Theodore Roosevelt and, of course, the man who grievously wounded President Ronald Reagan all ended up there. (John Hinckley is a resident of the John Howard Pavilion on the east campus, across Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and separate from the federal tract.)

A number of patients came from prominent Washington families. Some built houses on the grounds, including a Victorian built in 1891 by a Mr. and Mrs. Borrows for their daughter Sarah. The Borrows house, empty and boarded up, still stands.

Roger Peele, a former director of psychiatry, recalled that when congressmen or senators had mental illnesses in their families, Winfred Overholser, superintendent from 1937 to 1962, met them at the front gate. Overholser was the superintendent who kept Ezra Pound as his private poet for a dozen years in the ward nearest his 16-room apartment in the center building.

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