Tussle Over St. Elizabeths
Preservationists Set Their Sights on What Could Become Department of Homeland Security Headquarters

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.

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.

With its college-style quadrangle, sumptuous gardens and expansive lawns dotted with fountains and ponds, the campus itself was considered therapeutic. Patients who could work were assigned jobs in the bakery, sewing shop, shoe shop or broom factory. Some worked in the hospital's fields, orchard and vineyard.

Buildings went up through the decades -- a nursing school, a surgical hospital and centers for the deaf and for alcoholics and drug addicts. Beauty and barber shops, a library, credit union, chapel, tennis courts and a movie theater served residents and employees. At its peak, 4,000 people worked and 7,000 patients lived there.

Scientists carried on groundbreaking research, including development of antipsychotic medications. In 1913, Carl Jung visited to study African American patients to determine whether the symbolic content of their dreams differed from that of other races. In the 1940s, Walter Freeman began to practice lobotomies as a cure for schizophrenia. His patients included John F. Kennedy's sister Rosemary Kennedy, who was lobotomized in 1941 with disastrous results.

Decline began in the 1950s. Massive institutions came to be seen as a problem, not the solution. Mental hospitals began to deinstitutionalize patients. The idea was that they could get personalized treatment in community-based facilities and that new psychiatric drugs would allow them near-normal lives.

Although the District's outpatient system had enormous shortcomings and many patients ended up homeless, St. Elizabeths was no longer a primary resource. In 1987, the federal government deeded St. Elizabeths to the District to come up with an alternate use. But the District's mental health program was in receivership, and long-range planning was not a high priority.

By 1996, the remaining 850 patients had to cope with medicine shortages, a lack of equipment and a heating system that failed so frequently patients went weeks without showers. Life at St. Elizabeths had regressed to a condition disturbingly similar to those that inspired Dix's crusade in the first place.

The last patients were moved to other facilities in 2002. All became quiet in Dix's once-magnificent city on a hill, the ghostly structures slowly succumbing to time and neglect.

As D.C. mayor, Anthony A. Williams (D) wooed developers to the Point. With construction cranes just beginning to loom over long-dormant neighborhoods southeast of the Capitol, he urged the developers to imagine the possibilities on the Anacostia side of the river -- maybe a high-tech center, perhaps a research center or a corporate headquarters. Nothing came of it.

In 2002, the Urban Land Institute recommended the University of the District of Columbia move in. Nothing came of that.

In 2003, David Garrison, a deputy director at the Brookings Institution, proposed a thriving neighborhood -- offices, condominiums, houses, assisted living.

It would take $50 million to $100 million just to bring the buildings up to code.

"Restoration involves restoring a small city," said Carter Wormeley, who manages the site for the General Services Administration. "Water, sewer, streets, curbs, gutters -- that's got to be done from scratch."

With no answer in sight, the federal government took over the west campus again three years ago. The GSA began nailing plywood over windows and shoring up roofs until a tenant could be found.

Homeland Security made its pitch to Congress in 2006. St. Elizabeths is the only site large enough to allow the agency to consolidate, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

Norton -- who had long faulted the District and the federal government for allowing St. Elizabeths, and therefore Ward 8, to deteriorate -- was pleased that the GSA had found a tenant.

But preservation organizations have concerns.

"The site may have been selected only on its availability and size but without regard to all the characteristics that make it unique and particularly valuable," said Luebke, whose Commission of Fine Arts will review the DHS plan from a design perspective.

The Preservation League's Miller said she worries that employees -- 26,000 eventually -- will drive to work, disappear behind high-security walls and drive out again at day's end without connecting with the community. "This is a huge lost opportunity," she said.

Miller was part of the contingent that met with Fenty. "We urged him to let Congress know that D.C. should keep its historic fabric, and he seemed open to that," she said.

Nieweg, the Historic Preservation attorney, pointed to architectural drawings showing construction occupying almost every square foot of open space and questioned how Homeland Security could maintain the historical integrity of the property. He said he worries that the Civil War cemetery will be closed to the public and the campus "ringed with double-security fences."

Nieweg and other preservationists are open to a government agency on the site but would prefer historically sensitive commercial development. He pointed to the parks and re-used historic structures of the Presidio in San Francisco and the homes and shops on what used to be Fort Sheridan in Chicago.

Miller offered a model closer to home: The Armed Forces Retirement Home has enlisted the GSA's help to prepare a master plan to incorporate mixed-used development while maintaining historic integrity.

Mary Cuthbert, a Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member, said she could live with Homeland Security, as long as the agency didn't isolate itself. Development that's open to the community would mean customers for struggling businesses, new residents and maybe even a supermarket and gas stations willing to take credit cards.

Sandra Seegars, an ANC member who has been a Congress Heights resident since 1969, said commercial development would be her first choice, a government agency second. Anything but housing. "It's such a beautiful site, it would be for rich people," she said.

GSA spokesman Michael McGill said that his agency has conferred with the community, and he insisted that history will be respected. Norton maintained that security for Homeland Security would be no more stringent than for any other government building. "We don't want to be precious about Homeland Security," she says. "They're just a bunch of paper pushers."

Luebke acknowledged that a high-security federal agency might be the best use for the St. Elizabeths campus, but he said the issue deserves broader public discussion and study. The District's healthy economy could offer a way out: "There may be options now that didn't exist just a few years ago," he said.

"This is an enormous decision that's being made," Luebke said. "Whatever we do now is going to change the site forever. I don't want us to make a mistake."

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