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Philip Kennicott on Homeland Security's Takeover of St. Elizabeths Campus

A view of Washington from an elevated section of the old St. Elizabeths Hospital campus, which will house U.S. security operations.
A view of Washington from an elevated section of the old St. Elizabeths Hospital campus, which will house U.S. security operations. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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Last winter, on the slopes below the Point, a herd of deer, too many to be counted, was grazing, a remnant of the porous boundary between the city and the natural world that made the site so attractive to the founders of St. E's in the 1850s. The campus was empty, its curving streets -- which once invited patients to wander among the trees and grass -- quiet. On Wednesday they were full of the usual talismans of the new security society: black Chevy Tahoes with tinted windows, large vans with no markings, men with earpieces and short cropped hair.

Even the promises of public access were beginning to morph slowly into the bland language of the bureaucratic wormhole. During the approval process, there had been talk of public access not just to the Point, but to a theater on the campus and an old Civil War cemetery. There was the sense that Hitchcock Hall, which still has the solid bones of a lovely public theater in it, might someday host community gatherings, public lectures, concerts and films. All with DHS approval, of course.

Norton spoke Wednesday as if that were all still true. She hailed a new day, "the first time in memory that residents and visitors will be able to visit the Point, the most panoramic view of the city."

But GSA officials were already muddying up that clear vision. "GSA has been working very closely with DHS and the community to ensure that the operational and security needs of DHS are maintained while allowing public access to the St. Elizabeths campus," read a GSA statement, released after officials were pressed on comments that seemed to contradict Norton's sanguine view of wider public access.

The most reasonable view of the plan for St. E's is a mix of resignation, sadness, skepticism and anger. Resignation, because the pragmatists are probably right, especially in the current economy. Sadness, because the advocates for a better use are certainly right: This will be a fortress with forbidding walls, occupied by commuters who drive in and out and very likely never leave the compound during the work day. Skepticism because it's impossible to know how seriously anyone pursued other options for the site.

And anger because early design drawings for the first big new building on the campus, a Coast Guard facility -- 1.18 million square feet of bland boxiness that looks as if it was found on a World War II-era drafting board -- are so desultory. It is supposed to be energy efficient, and it will stretch down the side of a hill on the edge of the campus, thus preserving some of the historic feel of the old landscape. But the design, by Will + Perkins, is ugly.

The best response to the project is vigilance. To be blunt, the promises of public access are probably hollow, perhaps even disingenuous. Even if they were made sincerely, all it will take is for someone in the bureaucracy to utter the magic words "national security" to deny access to the campus, at first on an occasional basis, and eventually forever. Within a few years, no one will even remember the Point, and St. E's will sit high and impregnable on its hill, bristling with security and black cars and open to nobody but its employees.

Even the promise to rehabilitate the 52 historic structures must be watched very closely. Can we believe it? What will happen if it turns out to be even more expensive than anticipated to return them to life? Security has become the trump card that transcends all other values. We need to spend our money on more important things . . . .

St. E's reached the point of Wednesday's groundbreaking relatively quickly for a project of this size, and the process revealed the usual fault lines between idealists and the get-'er-done crowd, between preservationists and local community leaders hungry for economic revitalization. Marion Barry probably didn't mean to raise the specter of race, but perhaps that was involved too, in the usual subterranean fashion that it operates in Washington politics.

This is where an architectural obituary ends with a bland statement of "it remains to be seen . . . " But St. E's deserves better than that. So here's a test, to be taken 10 or 15 years from now.

Does anyone walk outside its gates to eat lunch? Have property values risen near the site? Do the same people live there? Did GSA in fact save and repair all 52 buildings as planned? Has there ever been an open performance in the old theater? Is the Civil War cemetery on anyone's tourist map? Do people gather at sunset on the Point and watch the light fade over the city? If you say "Ezra Pound" to anyone leaving the central building, is there a glimmer of recognition?

Or have all the intangibles of cultural landscape been lost?

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