Beautiful Minds

Will St. Elizabeths, the most enlightened mental hospital of its time, finally recover?

By Brad Edmondson

Clock
The clock tower and construction shops?with windowpanes missing

Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Less than three miles south of the U.S. Capitol building, one of the biggest and most important mental hospitals in the country is almost deserted. St. Elizabeths Hospital, a National Historic Landmark, was once a self-contained village on 336 landscaped acres, with curving roads and 170 species of exotic trees. More than 100 historic buildings remain. Most are dormitories and cottages, but there is also a large theater, a Victorian fire station with a clock tower that doubled as a place to dry hoses, and a windowless icehouse made of fieldstone that is as big as a modern three-bedroom house. The 1852 Center Building is a Gothic fortress designed by Thomas U. Walter, who also designed the Capitol dome. Incorporating the most up-to-date architectural and medical theories of the era, the building became the template for dozens of American insane asylums, and the hospital's superintendents set the standards for mental health care in the United States for more than 100 years.

The oaks planted 150 years ago, now 100 feet tall with trunks five feet in diameter, obscure the panoramic view that persuaded philanthropist and educator Dorothea Dix to choose this site after she had lobbied Congress to build an asylum for the District of Columbia. Walk to the edge of the bluff overlooking the Anacostia River and you can see Alexandria's steeples to the west, the Washington Monument and Capitol dome defining the National Mall, and the trees of the National Arboretum to the northeast. Today, 336 acres with such a view are worth a fortune. So why aren't developers lining up to save this place?

Hitchcock Hall, the 1908 theater where St. Elizabeths patients were once entertained, is dark, and the muted sound of running water is heard backstage. A flashlight beam reveals a stream pouring from a cracked standpipe. The planks of the hardwood stage are already warped; pools have formed in the basement beneath it. Those with an eye for detail will notice small glazed tiles in the lobby floor and a gargoyle that guards the front entrance. The roof is good, and the building was heated until a few years ago.

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