Downsizing for a different era:

St. Elizabeths, the District's public psychiatric hospital, has a new home. Once spread over more than 100 buildings and more than 300 acres in Southeast Washington, the hospital is moving virtually all of its operations into a newly constructed $161 million building this week. It is the first new building on the campus in about a half a century and it marks a new chapter in the rich history of the hospital.

Historic Moments


Civil and Diplomatic Appropriation Act establishes Government Hospital for the Insane, later known as St. Elizabeths, to serve members of the armed forces and residents of the District of Columbia.


Hospital opens; one of the earliest patients was Richard Lawrence, who had tried to assassinate President Andrew Jackson.


Name is formally changed to St. Elizabeths for the colonial land grant on which the hospital was built. Wounded soldiers treated there during the Civil War had adopted the St. Elizabeths name so they would not have to tell family that they were in the Government Hospital for the Insane.


Patient population reaches 7,450, which is likely an all-time high. ("St. Elizabeths Declared Free Of D.C. Control")


Federal government says members of the military will no longer be eligible for care at St. Elizabeths. ("St. Elizabeths")

The poet Ezra Pound, who had been accused of treason, pleaded insanity and ended up at St. Elizabeths, where he remained until 1958. ("Ezra Pound")


As part of a investigation into conditions at St. Elizabeths, a Washington Post reporter poses as a patient and is admitted to the hospital, where she spends five days. ("5 Days Inside St. Elizabeths: Anguish, Boredom, Despair")


Class action suit is filed by a group of St. Elizabeths patients claiming they were not receiving suitable care in the least restrictive setting as required under federal law. The named plaintiff was William Dixon and the suit, known today as Dixon v. Fenty, is still alive. ("Suit Seeking Shifts Of Mental Patients")

August 1977

U.S. Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Jospeh A. Califano Jr. orders critical improvements to St. Elizabeths. ("Califano Orders Quick Upgrading Of St. Elizabeth's")

October 1980

Official announce that more than 100 Cuban refugees with mental or emotional who arrived in the U.S. as part of the Mariel boatlift will be brought to St. Elizabeths for treatment. ("St. Elizabeths To Get Cubans For Treatment") Cuban inmates later riot. ("100 Cubans Rampage at St. Elizabeths," "87 Cuban Refugees Are Removed After Takeover at St. E's")

June 22, 1982

John W. Hinckley Jr. is flown to St. Elizabeths Hospital where a federal judge had ordered him committed after a jury found Hinckley was legally insane when he shot President Reagan and three others in March 1981. ("Hinckley Flown to St. Elizabeths Hospital Private Room, Therapy Await Him")

October 1, 1987

Federal government transfers St. Elizabeths to control of the District. ("St. E's Patients Share the Dream; 132-year-old Hospital Transferred to District")

April 1988

Less than a year after the District's takeover of the hospital, some of the city's top mental officials warn that staff shortages are crippling care at St. Elizabeths. ("D.C. Doctors Sound Alarm on Mental Health Services")

September 1997

A receiver is appointed by federal court to run the District's mental health agency, including St. Elizabeths. ("Nelson Appointed to Serve as D.C. Mental Health Receiver")

April 2001

Court approves plan for reforming mental health agency, including construction of a new hospital. ("Receivership to End on Mental Health," "Consultant Becomes D.C. Mental Health Boss")

May 2002

Court terminates receivership and appoints monitor to track compliance with court-approved plan. ("City Reclaims Mental Health System")

October 2002

District unveils plans for the new hospital, which was estimated at the time to cost $75 million. It ultimately cost $161 million. ("City Unveils Designs for Scaled-Down St. Elizabeths")

December 19, 2006

Ground is broken on the new hospital.

May 14, 2007

After a two-year probe of St. Elizabeths by federal civil rights attorneys, the District reaches an agreement with the Justice Department to improve conditions at the hospital. ("U.S., D.C. Reach Deal on St. E's")

September 9, 2009

Ground broken on new headquarters for U.S. Department of Homeland Security to be located on vacated west campus of St. Elizabeths.

April 2010

Scheduled opening of new hospital building.

SOURCES: Staff reports; CREDIT: Map by Nathaniel V. Kelso; Graphic by Henri E Cauvin, Sisi Wei, Meg Smith and Madonna Lebling - The Washington Post, April 19, 2010.
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