History of St. Elizabeths

Image of Castle

St. Elizabeths Hospital was organized by Congress in 1855 as the Government Hospital for the Insane but is known as St. Elizabeths after the name of the land on which the hospital was constructed. Noted social reformer Dorothea Lynde Dix, a devoted advocate for the mentally ill, and Dr. Charles Henry Nichols, a physician who specialized in the treatment of mental illness, convinced Congress to purchase the original 189 acres to establish and fund the hospital. St. Elizabeths was instrumental in developing standards of care for state hospital systems in the United States. By the early 20th century, St. Elizabeths had grown to more than 350 acres located on both the west and east sides of Nichols Avenue (now known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE.).

Image of Old Castle

St. Elizabeths Campus is a prominent example of the mid-19th century reform movement, which believed in moral treatment for the care of the mentally ill through the therapeutic blending of architecture with the natural environment. The St. Elizabeths site is located on a plateau along the Anacostia hills surrounding the core of Washington, DC. High above the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, St. Elizabeths offers panoramic views and unique vantage points toward Alexandria, Baileys Crossroads, Ronald Reagan National Airport, Rosslyn, the National Cathedral, the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol dome, the Armed Forces Retirement Home, and the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

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When St. Elizabeths was designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL), there were 70 buildings located on the 176-acre West Campus, 62 of which were identified as contributing to the NHL. Of those 62 buildings, 52 will be reused in the development of the site. Eight of those approved for demolition are greenhouses in significant disrepair that cannot be adaptively reused. One of the oldest buildings on campus, the Center Building, was designed by Dr. Nichols and Thomas U. Walter (Architect of the Capitol) in a modified Kirkbride Plan (architectural design specific to mental asylums). The Gothic Revival style structure is truly native to the West Campus. The clay for the bricks was dug from the grounds of St Elizabeths and fired in ovens on site. Presently, building conditions are being studied to determine their physical condition, evaluate architectural integrity, identify significant spaces, and determine the potential for reuse. Since approval of the Final Master Plan in January 2009, seven buildings have been demolished in preparation for the construction of a new U.S. Coast Guard headquarters.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and its predecessors controlled and operated the hospital from its founding in 1855 until 1987 when the East Campus and hospital operations were transferred to the District of Columbia (per the Saint Elizabeths Hospital and District of Columbia Mental Health Services Act of 1984). St. Elizabeths continues to operate as an inpatient mental hospital on the southern portion of the East Campus. Portions of the West Campus were used for outpatient services until 2003 when it closed operations (outpatient care continued on the East Campus). In January 2001, HHS determined that it no longer had a need for the West Campus and declared the property “excess to its needs.” The GSA took control of the West Campus in December 2004 and has since stabilized the vacant buildings.

Full History of St. Elizabeths (PDF - 16MB)