As the Feds Take Over, St. E's Moves Further Into Shadow

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 2009

Councilman Marion Barry was late, and Mayor Adrian Fenty even later, but both arrived in time to grab a golden shovel and turn a little earth on the lush green lawn of St. Elizabeths Hospital. And with that, ground was officially broken for the $3.4 billion headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security, a vast new federal complex that will be built on the quiet hilltop with spectacular views where once stood the city's main hospital for the mentally ill.

Barry joked that most of the crowd -- filled with Coast Guard uniforms and suits from the DHS and the General Services Administration -- probably needed a GPS to find it. Which was a sly reference to what many of his Ward 8 constituents, also in the crowd, were thinking: that the federal government was finally investing, in a big way, east of the Anacostia River, in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Barry thanked Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who helped create the grab-bag department of security-related agencies after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And apropos of nothing, he reminisced about the days of the civil rights struggle, when he and the district's congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, had "to fight those mean, mean white people."

They didn't amen that one, as they did some other remarks of the morning. In general, the mood was celebratory. Norton was ecstatic and noted the critical role of $162 million in stimulus funding in moving the project forward. Lieberman hailed the largest federal project built in the region since the Pentagon. And Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the new campus, which will be home to 14,000 employees when finished in 2016, will help her fledgling agency grow into a more cohesive entity with a unified culture.

But for others around the city, and around the country, the shovels of earth might as well have fallen on a coffin lid. After years of wrangling and public hearings, after complaints and impassioned pleas from historic-preservation groups and skeptical analysis from think tanks (the Brookings Institution has cast doubt on the economic benefits to Ward 8), the fight was over. What had begun in the 1850s as one of the country's most innovative facilities for treating mental illness, and remains one of the city's largest and most sylvan sites for development, is beginning the long, slow process of rebirth as a modern, Level 5 security complex, to be surrounded by double perimeter walls and all but closed forever to the public.

Richard Moe, head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, didn't attend the event, but found it all rather sad. "We have been involved with this for at least six years, and we have constantly tried to make the case that they are trying to shoehorn too much square footage of new construction into a national landmark site," said Moe. The trust, he noted, did help reduce the amount of new building on the 176-acre site, and pressured the GSA to preserve and rehabilitate 52 of 62 historic buildings that are part of St. Elizabeths landmark designation.

But he's still worried about the amount of parking that will be built and plans for an access road that have yet to be approved. Even though a backhoe with a grappler bucket was already tearing an old concrete building to shreds near the ceremonial tent, Moe thinks the groundbreaking may be premature.

Over the past years, as plans were made public and worked their way through the approval process, there was a recurring refrain from beyond the preservation community: St. Elizabeths could be something else. There was a proposal to make the west campus (the east campus is still in use for various city purposes) into the home of a university. Or to renovate it as a mixed-use urban village with housing and retail, an anchor to a revitalized Southeast neighborhood.

Although the site had been closed to most of the public during its many decades as a mental institution, there was a powerful cultural memory of its landscape and the magnificent views from "the Point," an overlook with a sweeping vista of the city below. There was hope that a newly enlivened St. E's, as it is known, would be a local amenity, a hub that could transform the distressed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and extend the booming development of the pre-crash years into a neighborhood where Barry says there is "35 percent unemployment."

Against that, there was pragmatism. No entity but the federal government had deep enough pockets to renovate and rebuild St. E's, it was said. The longer the campus remained empty (the last outpatient treatment there ended in 2003), the more the buildings would deteriorate, perhaps past hope of revival.

On a tour of the campus last winter, GSA representatives pointed to the challenge of renovating the central building, where poet Ezra Pound was confined after cavorting with Italian Fascists during the Second World War. Much of the historic structure, a somber brick building with an imposing square tower where the hospital's superintendent and his family once lived, is subdivided into small, dark rooms, each with load-bearing walls. To open up these cells into a free-flowing, contemporary office space will require expensive structural retrofitting.

The government was also looking for a large site, in or near the District, to consolidate some 35 DHS offices around the region. St. E's made perfect sense. And now, with stimulus money burning a hole in the bureaucratic pocket, things are moving very quickly.

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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