About two weeks ago, I got the chance to go on a DC Preservation League tour of Saint Elizabeths West Campus. It was the second time I’d been able to go on the tour, the first time being in December of 2008. I was looking forward to seeing how things had changed in two and a half years.
But first, a note on this post: it’s going to be fairly bare bones on information. That’s because there is literally 150+ years of history in this location! Sorting through it all and writing a truly thorough post would be the length of a small book. There is a huge amount of research on the property because of the Department of Homeland Security moving onto the historic West Campus, and a lot of effort is being made to preserve as much as possible. I encourage you to dig deeper by reading the GSA’s website on the redevelopment, along with a short but detailed history of St. Es, and their extremely detailed Historic Landscape Survey. Also, we’ve talked about St. Es before, and it is worth rereading Tiffany’s article. And, of course, there’s Wikipedia.
Now, a very quick history of St. Es: it is a psychiatric hospital located on the hills of Anacostia overlooking the river. It was the first large scale and federally run psychiatric hospital in the country, found in 1855 by an act of Congress. Over the next century and a half, the hospital took up a large amount of land (over 350 acres) and housed over 7,000 patients at its peak in the 1950s. The hospital is now divided into an East and West Campus, with the West Campus being the original and most historic. However, the West Campus has also not been in use since the early 2000s, and the decay of the site gives the sight its unusual appeal to photographers.
The first thing that has changed since 2008 is there is significantly less of the campus open for the tour (which is lead by someone from the Preservation League and someone from GSA, the Federal agency in charge of the West Campus). That’s because there is active construction going on now for the DHS complex that is going into many of the buildings. There is also more fencing up, like what is pictured above. But that’s good, because the fencing is to protect the historical landscaping and trees of the campus from erratic dump truck drivers. Much of the landscaping and trees date to the late 1800s and are of historic interest in themselves.
The first building the tour comes to is the oldest, the Center Building. This is the original hospital dating back to the 1850s. The Center Building is currently being assessed for renovations as one of the main buildings for the DHS complex.
The next stop, the Civil War Cemetery, I wasn’t able to revisit this year because of the construction associated with the Coast Guard headquarters (no pictures were allowed of this; I can only assume it’s to keep our national enemies from learning the government’s secret hole digging technology *eye roll*). The cemetery over looks Interstate 295, and contains approximately 450 military burials and around another 160 civilians from the same time period.
The cemetery is quite fascinating because it contains both black and white Union soldiers, which is unusual. There are also indications that as many as seven Confederate soldiers are buried here. There are ongoing efforts to identify the men buried here, but only a few identities have been determined.
An interesting fact I found about the cemetery is that there are soldiers from two famous Civil War regiments buried here. The two regiments are the 54th Massachusetts, of the movie Glory fame and one of the first all black regiments fielded by the Union, and the 20th Maine, famous for their defense of Little Round Top on Day 2 of the Battle of Gettysburg.
The next stop is the city overlook, which is considered one of best of the city. As you can tell, it is quite impressive. From this overlook, you can clearly see such sites as the National Shrine, the National Cathedral, the Pentagon, and, more easily, the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building. There are also impressive sights of both the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, and Haines Point.
An interesting fact about the overlook is that this is where the Coast Guard originally wanted to put their new headquarters. Imagine this sight taken away from the public forever; that’s because security would never allow public access to the facility. Luckily, the Coast Guard was talked out of such a rash move, and now the overlook has been promised to remain open and accessible to the public. Only time will tell if that stays true.
The rest of the building pictures are from my 2008 tour. This is because all of the construction which has closed off much of the rest of the campus, for liability reasons. The picture above is the Administration Building, which dates to 1904. The building is currently undergoing renovations for use by Homeland Security.
Our GSA tour guide mentioned that most of the boards covering the windows have now been removed for the renovation to take place, and the building looks, in his words, amazing. Apparently much of the decay of the buildings is internal and the exteriors of the buildings have held up relatively well.
This building is Hitchcock Hall, which contains the theater.
This is the theater in Hitchcock Hall. Through its history, Saint Elizabeths experimented with many different forms of therapy for the patients in its care. For example, the theater was used for psychodrama, or a form of therapy where patients are encouraged to act out their thoughts through dramatization.
Another interior shot of Hitchcock Hall.
Another interior shot of Hitchcock Hall. You can get a sense of how the interiors appear to be structurally sound, though in a state of disrepair.
Lastly, I wanted to talk about the historic wall, which surrounds much of the West Campus. It dates from 1859 to 1869 and at one point encircled the entire campus. Now it mainly fronts Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.
The wall is being preserved for the Homeland Security complex. But it is being reinforced with pylon obstructions directly behind it. These pylons are similar to what we see and deal with on a daily basis in DC proper. There will also be a new, second wall built twenty feet behind the historic wall. I’m not thrilled to say it, but the place will become a fort in the middle of Anacostia when completed.
To see more pictures from my two tours, check out my set on Flickr.
In closing, I want to tell everyone, if you have wanted to go on a Preservation League tour of the West Campus, do it soon. On my tour last month, the GSA guide commented to me that he was surprised that they started up the tours again this spring. I took that as warning that time is running out to see the West Campus before DHS fully moves in. The next tour is June 18th; if you want to see St. Es, RSVP today. And think about joining/donating to the DC Preservation League; they do very good work, particularly with Saint Elizabeths, and they deserve your support.