The west campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital covers more than 176 acres on a high plateau in southeast Washington, overlooking the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. “The Point” on the campus offers a panoramic view of the capital city. Because of its bucolic setting, the site was chosen for a mental hospital by Dorothea Dix and Charles Nichols, the institution’s first superintendent. St. Elizabeths became well known nationally in the mental health field as the first large-scale government-operated insane asylum, the result of Ms. Dix’s persistent lobbying of Congress.
The west campus consists of 61 buildings, the oldest and largest of these being the Center Building, constructed in 1852 and designed by Thomas U. Walter, then architect of the U.S. Capitol’s dome. Specimen trees gathered from around the world over a century were planted to grace the grounds and enhance the curative atmosphere of the patients. The hospital, which eventually grew to 8,000 patients, was self-sustaining, with its own farm for produce, a bakery building, firehouse, theater, and graveyard. The entire campus was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990.
With legal and psychiatric changes in the care of mental patients, the west campus was eventually vacated and closed. In 2006 the Bush Administration announced that the site would be developed as the home of the new Department of Homeland Security. A master plan for the site was issued by the General Services Administration, which has jurisdiction over the campus, and there began a lengthy series of consultation meetings, required by the federal Historic Preservation Act, at which participating parties were invited to offer comments. The Committee of 100 with other local organizations have regularly participated in these consultations. The Committee seeks to retain, restore, and reuse the historic buildings while opposing massive over- development of the site not sympathetic to the historic setting, including large surface parking lots and out-of-scale new buildings.
The first development of the site, completed in 2013, was the construction of the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, a $646 million project that was sited on the down slope north of the Center Building and almost entirely out of sight from the main campus. The next project was the massive $268 million renovation of the iconic Center Building, completed in 2019 for the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security, housing the Offices of the Secretary and Deputy Secretary, among others. A $77 million addition to the Center Building is currently underway. Future development of the site is expected over many years, dependent on Congressional funding. The Committee of 100 will continue to offer its recommendations in consultation meetings as new developments are proposed.
- C100 Letter Witherell St Elizabeths West Campus Plan
- June 28, 2016, Charles Robertson
The Committee of 100 on the Federal City would like to take this opportunity to express its concurrence with comments made by several consulting parties at the June 7th and June 21st Section 106 meetings concerning the lack of landscape or walking path elements in the proposed West Addition designs.
- 2006-04-16 Takeover St Elizabeths
- April 16, 2006, Washington Post