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Mental hospital now endangered landmark

St. Elizabeths' Center Building is still in use and maintained, but outlying buildings are vacant and crumbling.
St. Elizabeths' Center Building is still in use and maintained, but outlying buildings are vacant and crumbling.  


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It was a dream of social reformers in 1855: Instead of locking up the mentally ill, build a federal institution to care for them.

Those reformers built a hospital that has become a National Historic Landmark. But now, that building is in need of care itself.

St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, a sprawling 300-acre complex, may be the most famous mental hospital in America. It served as an infirmary for wounded Civil War soldiers and played a crucial role in developing modern psychotherapy techniques.

At its peak, it housed 7,000 patients -- among them Mary Todd Lincoln; President James Garfield's assassin, Charles Guiteau; and poet Ezra Pound. The brain of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was examined there, and President Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin, John Hinckley, is still treated there.

But this landmark, which at one time included a railroad, bakery, and greenhouse, is crumbling. A shrinking patient population -- about 500 today -- has left many historically significant structures vacant.

"These are wonderful buildings," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Very distinguished. It would be a shame to lose them."

The National Trust placed St. Elizabeths on its list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2002.

The Center Building, the oldest on the St. Elizabeths campus, was designed in the 1850s by Thomas Walter, architect of the U.S. Capitol dome. It has serious water damage and brick erosion.

Paint peels from the walls of one of the abandoned buildings at St. Elizabeths.
Paint peels from the walls of one of the abandoned buildings at St. Elizabeths.  

In the 1870s and 1880s, red-brick Victorian buildings, a gatehouse, a common dining hall and housing for African-American patients were added. Several of the Victorian structures need roofing or brick repairs.

With adequate funding and a comprehensive preservation plan, Moe said, the Trust can restore the property. Those who operate St. Elizabeths, which is owned jointly by the District of Columbia and the federal government, believe the areas not being used for treatment can serve other purposes.

"It would be great for a college campus," said Joy Holland, chief executive of St. Elizabeths Hospital. "I think it would be great for business, high-tech industries. I think there's enough land for a park. I think it's a multi-purpose type of campus."

Some of St. Elizabeths' most magnificent features are what make renovation difficult, like extra-high ceilings. The theory of the day, explained Craig Krause, director of psychiatry, was that bad air caused some mental disorders and that fresh air was healing.

"That's part of the way the architecture has made it very difficult to upkeep," said Krause. "Air conditioning doesn't work in these buildings very well."

Most agree it will take years and millions of dollars to save what is left of St. Elizabeths, a once-proud institution that has earned a place in American history.

-- CNN Correspondent Kathleen Koch contributed to this report.



 
 
 
 







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