The new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is being built on a 176 acre campus on the top of a hill, with sweeping views of downtown Washington DC. I took of tour of the construction site on Saturday.
What interest could a History Tourist have in the yet-to-be completed DHS headquarters? It’s going to be housed in restored historic buildings originally built as part of the U.S. Government Hospital for the Insane, better known in DC as St. Elizabeths.
The tour of the west campus of St. Elizabeths (there’s also an east campus, where the city run mental hospital that’s home to John Hinkley is located) started with a waiver. That got my hopes up: maybe we’d be allowed into the old and unstable buildings. That wasn’t to be. So no inside pictures. But the tour guide — a historian with the government agency overseeing the renovations of the St. Elizabeths buildings — told us where we could find pictures of the interiors online and I’ve shared a few of them here.
The black and white above is a 1905 picture of one of hospital’s dorm rooms. The picture of the patio shows the outside of that dorm as it is today.
There was some concern, when DHS acquired the property, that they’d level all of the old buildings and build fugly new government buildings. Not happening. Preservation groups lobbied intensely and Congress was convinced to require DHS to renovate and use the existing historic buildings.
In 1852, mental health care reformer Dorothea Dix convinced Congress to appropriate funds to build a mental health hospital for DC residents and for members of the Army and Navy – a new kind of facility that would provide humane care and cutting-edge treatments. Surprising, but Congress responded with $100,000 and the U.S. Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington DC was born (insert Congress jokes here). Dix knew the perfect site, on a hill on the south side of the Anacostia River. It wasn’t for sale, but whatever magic Dix worked on Congress, she also worked on the owner of the site and the Hospital for the Insane registered its first patient on January 15, 1855.
The first building on the hospital campus was the Center Building, a long, 200,000 square foot building in the Collegiate Gothic style, with staggered sections to allowed maximum light and air into rooms for the patients. The men were in the west wing and the women in the east, with the most severely ill being the furthest away from the center.
Ezra Pound, American poet and Nazi sympathizer, was committed to St. Elizabeths after being arrested for treason in 1945. Government records show that psychiatrists actually didn’t believe that he was insane, but the superintendent of St. Elizabeths was fascinated with Pound and kept him there to save him from prison. The superintendents’ office was in the center, where the large balcony is. Pound’s room was right around the corner. The picture below is one of the hallways of the Center Building.
During the Civil War, part of the hospital functioned as a non-mental hospital for wounded soldiers. To avoid giving “Hospital for the Insane” as a return address, the soldiers called it St. Elizabeths (no apostrophe), the name given to the site in a 17th century land patent. When Congress changed the name officially from the Hospital for the Insane to St. Elizabeths in 1916, they too left off the apostrophe.
There’s a cemetery on the northern edge of the campus. The plaque next to the gate says that Union and Confederate soldiers are buried there. The tour guide said that was wrong. There’s no evidence of Confederates. And the graves contain not only soldiers but civilian mental patients. Someone on our tour group had a great grand uncle buried there so while the group wasn’t allowed in the cemetery, the guide took the woman and her husband in to look for her ancestor’s grave.
After the Civil War, the trend moved away from giant hospital buildings to smaller “cottages.” The Allison building, pictured at the top of this post, was one of the cottages. The Atkins Building, on the left in the picture above, was another. The exterior of Atkins has been restored, so the brick color is different from that of the unrestored building across the street. You can also tell that it’s had its windows restored, as they’ll eventually do with all of the original windows. Of course, old windows don’t have the security features necessary for any government agency, much less DHS. So there are new windows, with security features, behind the historic ones. The small black and white picture is of the Atkins day room. At its largest in the 1940s and 50s, St. Elizabeths had over 7000 patients.
There are 62 historic buildings on West Campus. Recognize the building above? It was in the opening scene of the movie “A Few Good Men,” in which the St. Elizabeths campus played a marine base. It was really a records building. St. Elizabeths had a lot of records.
There’s the hospital, dormatories, dining hall, auditorium, morgue, fire station, chapel and staff housing. There’s also stables and barns, because they kept animals, and greenhouses to grow flowers for arrangements for the wards.
Then there was the Burroughs Cottage, above, built in 1886 for patient Sarah Borrows, the daughter of a wealthy DC family. In 1893, after the death of Sarah’s father, Sarah’s mother went to live at the cottage with her. A misspelling of the family name somewhere along the line has endured in the name of the cottage.
A sad story from the tour guide: He was reading case files from St. Elizabeths at the National Archives last week and came across one from 1960 — that he shouldn’t have been able to access because the person involved might still be alive — about a 6-year-old boy who had a lobodomy the year before.
The tours are sponsored by the DC Preservation League and the Government Services Administration. It’s free and reservations can be made by contacting the Preservation League. There’s only one tour left this year, however, and it’s already full. But they’ll start up again in the spring.
Credit for the historic pictures goes to the National Archives and Records Administration. If you’re interest in seeing more of them, they can be found on their website here.