D.C. celebrates building opening at St. Elizabeths

Mayor Adrian Fenty joins other officials at the opening of a new building at St. Elizabeths, the psychiatric facility in Southeast Washington.
Mayor Adrian Fenty joins other officials at the opening of a new building at St. Elizabeths, the psychiatric facility in Southeast Washington. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
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By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010

St. Elizabeths entered its new home Thursday, with the official opening of a $161 million hospital building that the District hopes will carry the city's historic psychiatric institution into a new era.

During the ribbon-cutting, city leaders said the building signaled the District's commitment to creating a modern mental health system and to putting to rest the troubles that have dogged the hospital for many years.

"This is a great day for D.C.," Attorney General Peter Nickles told the crowd of hundreds gathered at the building for the ceremony.

It was Nickles who, as a private lawyer, helped bring a 1974 federal class-action suit over conditions at St. Elizabeths, and it is Nickles, who as the top legal adviser to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has pushed for an end to the 36-year-old case, saying the city's mental health system has made great strides and no longer requires court supervision.

The judge in the case, Thomas F. Hogan, and his appointed monitor, Dennis R. Jones, have expressed optimism that the class action may be nearing its end, and both were spotlighted at the ribbon-cutting.

From tranquil courtyards outside patient living areas to functional heating and cooling systems, the building off Alabama Avenue in Southeast Washington is intended to make the hospital a more welcoming place for the people who are there for treatment.

"We don't want it to be anybody's home," Patrick J. Canavan, the hospital's chief executive, said at the ceremony, "but while you stay here, we want it to be very comfortable and we want it to support your healing. "

The problems at St. Elizabeths go beyond the condition of aging buildings. A few years ago, the Justice Department documented widespread civil rights violations at the hospital, and in its most recent follow-up report, in December, the agency said the hospital was not making adequate progress in complying with the terms of the 2007 settlement agreement.

When Justice Department investigators return to the hospital next month for a periodic review, it will be their first visit to the new facility, and their findings could be critical to the court case and to the future of the department's involvement with St. Elizabeths.

On Thursday, the focus was on the nearly 300 patients who will be moving into the building in the coming weeks. "This will just be a way station," Stephen T. Baron, the director of mental health, told the crowd. "This will not be people's home. This will be a place to recover and return to the community."

It is a very different role than the one the hospital knew for much of its history. Opened in 1855, St. Elizabeths was founded in an era when the seriously mentally ill were far less likely to return home. Instead, they were brought to idyllic settings like the one the activist Dorothea Dix staked out for what was originally called the Government Hospital for the Insane.

Set above the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, the hospital that would come to be called St. Elizabeths was created to care for members of the armed forces and District residents. Through four wars, starting with the Civil War, the hospital grew into a complex of more than 100 buildings on more than 300 acres. It would become a pioneer in psychiatric care and research, and at its peak, in 1945, it housed 7,450 patients.

But the federal government's decision in 1946 to stop sending servicemen there was the first in a wave of changes that would transform the hospital over the second half of the 20th century. Deinstitutionalization came next, as states began emptying their asylums and moving to treat the mentally ill in the community. And then in 1987, after years of negotiation, the federal government turned over St. Elizabeths to the District government. Although the transfer was a victory for home rule, the troubles of the hospital deepened under local control as the District struggled to cover the enormous costs of maintaining the complex.

By the 1990s, plans were taking shape for a new hospital and ground finally was broken in December 2006.

"This was a promise made and deferred, but at long last it is here," said Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Health Committee.

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