Old Home for a New Agency

Homeland Security looks to a Victorian-era insane asylum


This early-20th- century structure is among many historic buildings at St. Elizabeths.

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Once the first Government Hospital for the Insane, the western campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital today is an overgrown hillside of dilapidated brick buildings overlooking the Potomac and Anacostia rivers in Washington, D.C. It's both spooky and grand, but the scene would change if the Department of Homeland Security gets its way.

With thousands of employees spread over 50 locations in the area, the young federal agency is seeking approval to consolidate its operations in a $3 billion complex on the St. Elizabeths site, the largest chunk of federal property left in Washington. Agency officials say it is the only site large enough to accommodate its workforce—a staff that needs a "common culture."

The plan, however, is meeting with resistance from historic preservationists who think a high-security compound is a bad fit for such a notable property and from community activists who fear it is the wrong neighbor for a community badly in need of economic revitalization.

St. Elizabeths was established by leading mental-health reformer Dorothea Dix in 1855 to provide the "most humane care and enlightened curative treatment of the insane." It was also used during the Civil War to house wounded soldiers. But in 1975, underfinanced and understaffed, it lost its accreditation in part because of overcrowding and unsafe housing. Now controlled by the D.C. government, the newer eastern campus is famous for housing John Hinckley since he tried to assassinate President Reagan in 1981. Other notable guests have included President Garfield's assassin, Charles Guiteau, and the poet Ezra Pound.

The abandoned west campus, with its Gothic revival buildings, is considered one of the nation's most endangered places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The General Services Administration calls for renovating many of the old buildings, including the 152-year-old Center Building designed by the architect of the U.S. Capitol dome.

But preservationists worry that the plan, which calls for removing up to 25 buildings, would crowd out the historic structures with new construction and parking lots. "They need to radically rethink the density," says Robert Nieweg of the National Trust.

Community activists argue that planned security fences would cut off the Anacostia neighborhood. But GSA Administrator Lurita Doan points to just the opposite effect. By situating the headquarters in this historic part of the nation's capital, "we are also bringing much-needed economic development east of the Anacostia River." A final plan is expected in January.