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St. Elizabeths East: A Photo Tour of D.C.'s Vacant Asylum

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Washington, D.C.'s vacant psychiatric hospital, St. Elizabeths sits ignored near the Congress Heights Metro station. No one visits or inhabits this National Historic Landmark save for trash scattered around the site, mostly fast food bags and styrofoam containers. Only a few security guards surround the site, while neighbors pass by without seeming to notice the development anymore.

At one point, the federally operated hospital housed more than 8,000 patients, and in the late 19th century, the hospital even took in animals due to a lack of lodging at the not yet built National Zoo. Until its eventual closure, the development served as a source of economic stability for neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River and was an advocate for moral treatment of the mentally ill.

Today, the hospital stands silent. While not in total disrepair, it is neglected. Soon enough, it will house Southeast D.C.'s next business boom.

This year, construction is set to begin for the first phase of the redevelopment of the hospital's East campus. More than 15 acres of the land will eventually house a $55 million Washington Wizards practice facility, as well as 1,300 residential units, 206,000 square feet of retail space, and a whopping 1.8 million square feet of office space. Two hotels are also planned for the campus.

With a boom anticipated, residents are worried about eventually being priced out of their homes. Because of this, Congress Heights residents proposed a "displacement-free zone" in October 2015. This zone would enact a temporary prohibition on property tax increases for residences and small businesses.

When St. Elizabeths opened in 1855, there were only a handful of private and public mental hospitals in the U.S., but the living conditions in these facilities were more often than not inhumane. Interest in healthier conditions for those with mental illnesses eventually grew. With this interest, the most famous and influential psychiatric reformer of the nineteenth century, Dorothea Lynde Dix, was able to convince Congress to construct the hospital on a site that was used as a farm at the time.

St. Elizabeths Hospital purchased the East Campus, which is composed of four two-story red brick buildings, 14 years after its opening. Originally, the Campus housed barns, stables, henneries and piggeries. The first group of buildings for hospital facilities were constructed in 1902 with the final phase of construction complete in the early 1960s.

It wasn't until 1916 that the development became known as St. Elizabeths, thanks to legislation passed by Congress. Previously, it was officially known as the Government Hospital for the Insane. The name, St. Elizabeths, came from the name of the tract of land that the hospital is located on. It was also preferred by wounded soldiers who were treated there, who avoided admitting they lived in an asylum.

In September 2015, St. Elizabeths East Project Manager James Parks, IV gave Curbed permission to tour St. Elizabeths East Campus grounds. Below, you can take a tour of what you might find at the campus.

For an inside look into St. Elizabeth's Hospital, go to this Curbed DC article.

· Otto, Thomas. St. Elizabeths Hospital: A History. Washington, D.C.: U.S. General Services Administration, May 2013.
· St. Elizabeths East [Official Website]
· All St. Elizabeths coverage [Curbed DC]

St. Elizabeth's

1100 Alabama Avenue , Washington SE, DC