How I spent my Saturday . . . at St. Elizabeths

(I know it sounds like a 3rd grade essay but it did feel a bit like a school tour.)

Last Saturday, I was fortunate enough to join a tour of St Elizabeths eastern campus sponsored by the DC Preservation League and guided by a GSA employee. No I was not checking in as some may think. GSA, as a public service, gives tours of the facility as part of their mission to preserve our national heritage.

For those who don’t know, St. Elizabeths (Note: Due to a congressional typo no apostrophe was included in the name.)was a beautiful 300 acre farm purchased by the federal government in 1852 to serve as a national facility for the mentally ill. It was thanks to 19th century crusader Dorothy Dix, who guilted congress into buying and and the owner of the property into selling.  Many might know one of the current residents of the western campus which is DC run, John Hinkley Jr.

In 2000 the Feds turned over the Western Campus to DC along with the remaining patients. It kept the Eastern Campus but was unsure what to do. Fast forward to 2003, the new Department of Homeland Security, made up of 22 agencies and bureaus,needed a modern safe campus to consolidate operations. St Elizabeths was approved as the perfect place for building 6.5 million square feet of office space. The Coast Guard headquarters will be the first residents this fall when they moved into their LEED certified building which deceptively melds into the hillside and is camouflaged by a green roof.

So are they going to start building the rest of the 5.5 million SF? No actually, they are going to be using the amazing buildings of the original hospital. The original, rather gloomy, building housed the hospital administrator and his former suite will hold the new DHS Secretary. The original building has staggered wings thanks to a period philosophy that insisted patients needed fresh air and views.

To the front of the original building is one of the most amazing views of Washington. From Alexandria to Takoma Park the whole city unfolds in front of you. It is truly amazing that this view was ignored for so long. The ‘point’ about 200 yards from the front of the hospital sits all by itself like a huge field where you can sit all by yourself.

Behind the main building are many of the 80 buildings that went after it, It has cafeterias, gyms, theaters and an incredible quad with turn of the century belle arts structures that frame it. This is the most amazing sight of the campus, a man made space dedicated to space between the many facilities needed to support the 7000 patients and more staff that the hospital held at its peak in the 1950s. It would make the most incredible university campus if anyone every could steal it away from the feds but I fear repairing all the buildings is beyond the budget of any school.

Thankfully, the Feds do have the budget. They are spending BILLIONS to restore the original structures equipped for the modern office worker. Thanks to the security needs of the agencies in DHS, the windows are being restored with blast proof glass, the walls are being reinforced against car bombing and all the buildings will need to be 100 feet from any road. My only comment would be that this amazing new facility will be behind barbed wire and tours will only be allowed if pre-approved. Security needs means that the public will not be let on the campus unless they signup and get approval. The amazing view and incredible buildings will be for the enjoyment for DHS employees only. I suggest that we all get to know a DHS employee and offer to buy lunch if they invite you on campus.

If you get the chance, you should sign up! http://www.dcpreservation.org/event/st-elizabeths-walking-tour-2-2-2/

 

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