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St. Elizabeths Hospital
U.S. National Register of Historic Places
U.S. National Historic Landmark
The Center Building at St. Elizabeths in 2006
Location: 1100 Alabama Avenue SE
Washington, D.C.[1]
Area: 176 acres (71 ha)
Built/Founded: 1852
Architect: Thomas U. Walter; Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge
Architectural style(s): Italianate Revival, Italian Gothic Revival
Added to NRHP: 1979-04-26[2]
Designated NHL: 1990-12-14[3]
NRHP Reference#: 79003101
File:Center building at Saint Elizabeths, National Photo Company, circa 1909-1932.jpg

The Center Building at St. Elizabeths, one of the oldest on the campus, as it appeared in the early 20th Century.

St. Elizabeths [sic] Hospital is a psychiatric hospital operated by the District of Columbia Department of Mental Health. It was the first large-scale, federally-run psychiatric hospital in the United States. Housing several thousand patients at its peak, St. Elizabeths had a fully functioning medical-surgical unit and offered accredited internships and psychiatric residencies. It has since fallen into disrepair and the grounds are mostly abandoned, although the east campus is still operational and recently opened a new facility.[4]

The Department of Homeland Security announced in March 2007 plans to relocate its headquarters, along with most of its Washington, D.C.-area facilities, to the abandoned federally-owned western campus of St. Elizabeths, beginning in 2010.[5]


The hospital was founded by Congress in 1852, largely as the result of the efforts of Dorothea Dix, a pioneering advocate for people living with mental illnesses. It opened in 1855 as the Government Hospital for the Insane, and rose to prominence during the Civil War as it was converted temporarily into a hospital for wounded soldiers.[6] In 1916, its name was officially changed to St. Elizabeths, the colonial-era name for the tract of land on which the hospital was built. The hospital had been casually known by this name since the time of the Civil War, when—in their letters home to loved ones—patients of army hospitals temporarily located on the grounds were reluctant to refer to the institution by its full title.[1]

File:Main Building at Saint Elizabeths, Washington D.C., August 23, 2006.jpg

The Main Building on the western campus at St. Elizabeths.

At its peak, the St. Elizabeths campus housed 8,000 patients and employed 4,000 people.[6] Beginning in the 1950s, however, large institutions such as St. Elizabeths were being criticized for hindering the treatment of patients. Community-based healthcare, which included local outpatient facilities and drug therapy, was seen as a more effective means of allowing patients to live near-normal lives. The patient population of St. Elizabeths steadily declined.

By 1996, only 850 patients remained at the hospital, and years of neglect had become apparent; equipment and medicine shortages occurred frequently, and the heating system was broken for weeks at a time. By 2002, all remaining patients on the federal western campus were transferred to other facilities.[6] Although it continues to operate, it does so on a far smaller scale than it once did. As of January 31, 2009, the current patient census was 404 in-patients.[7] Approximately one-half of St. Elizabeths patients are civilly committed, the remaining patients are forensic in-patients.[8] Forensic patients are those who are adjudicated to be criminally insane or incompetent to stand trial. A new state-of-the-art civil and forensic hospital is being built on the East Campus by the District of Columbia Department of Mental Health and will open in 2010, housing approximately 297 total patients.

In 2007 the U.S. Department of Justice and the District of Columbia reached a settlement over allegations that the the civil rights of patients housed at St. Elizabeths were violated by the District.[9] As of April 16, 2008, St. Elizabeths is in "substantial noncompliance" with the terms of the Settlement Agreement.[10]


Well-known patients of St. Elizabeths include would-be presidential assassins Richard Lawrence and John Hinckley, Jr., successful assassin Charles J. Guiteau (until his execution), as well as Mary Fuller, Ezra Pound, and William Chester Minor.[6] St. Elizabeths is believed to have treated over 125,000 patients, though an exact number is not known due to poor recordkeeping.[11] Additionally, thousands of patients are believed to be buried in unmarked graves across the campus, but, again, records for the individuals buried in the graves have been lost. The incinerator on site also brings up a few questions as to what may have happened to the bodies. The General Services Administration, current owner of the property, considered using ground penetrating radar to attempt to locate unmarked graves but has yet to do so. More than 15,000 known autopsies were performed at St. Elizabeths between 1884 and 1982, and a collection of over 1,400 brains preserved in formaldehyde, 5,000 photographs of brains, and 100,000 slides of brain tissue was maintained by the hospital until it was transferred to a museum in 1986.[11] In addition to the mental health patients buried on the campus, several hundred American Civil War soldiers are interred at St. Elizabeths as well.

Contributions to medicine[]

File:St. Elizabeths Hospital, woman - Washington, D.C..jpg

An elderly patient at St. Elizabeths, ca. 1917

Several important therapeutic techniques were pioneered at St. Elizabeths, and it served as a model for later institutions.[6] Carl Jung, for example, studied African-American patients at St. Elizabeths to examine the concept of race in mental health. Walter Freeman, onetime laboratory director, was inspired by St. Elizabeths to pioneer the transorbital lobotomy [12]. During American involvement in World War II, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, predecessor to the CIA) used facilities and staff at St. Elizabeths hospital to test "truth serums". OSS unsuccessfully tested a mescaline and scopolamine cocktail as a truth drug on two volunteers at St. Elizabeths Hospital. Separate tests of THC as a truth serum were equally unsuccessful.[13]

Facilities and grounds[]

The campus of St. Elizabeths sits on bluffs overlooking the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers in the southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. It is divided by Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue between the 118-acre (48 ha) east campus (owned by the D.C. Government) and the 182-acre (74 ha) west campus (owned by the Federal Government).[1] It has many important buildings, foremost among them the Center Building, designed according to the principles of the Kirkbride Plan by Thomas U. Walter (1804-1887), who is perhaps better known as the primary architect of the expansion of the U.S. Capitol that was begun in 1851.[6]

Much of St. Elizabeths' campus has now fallen into disuse and is in serious disrepair. It has been named one of the nation's 11 Most Endangered Places in 2002 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.[14] Access to many areas of the campus, including the abandoned western campus (which houses the Center Building) is restricted.[15]

Revitalization plans for western campus[]

File:Skyline of Washington, seen from Saint Elizabeths, August 23, 2006.jpg

The view of the Washington, D.C. skyline from St. Elizabeths.

After several decades in decline, the large campus could not be maintained. In 1987, hospital functions on the eastern campus were transferred from the United States Department of Health and Human Services to the District of Columbia government, with the federal government retaining ownership of the western campus.[15] Several commercial redevelopment opportunities were proposed by the D.C. government and consultants, including relocating the University of the District of Columbia to the campus or developing office and retail space. However, the tremendous cost of bringing the facilities up to code (estimated at $50–$100 million) kept developers away.[6]

With little interest in developing the site privately, the Federal Government stepped in. Control of the western campus—home of the oldest building on the campus, the Center Building—was transferred to the General Services Administration in 2004.[6] The GSA improved security around the campus, shored up roofs, and covered the windows with plywood in an attempt to preserve the campus until a tenant could be found.

After three years of searching for an occupant, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced on March 20, 2007 that it would spend approximately US$4.1 billion to move its headquarters and most of its Washington-based offices to a new Template:Convert/ft2 facility on the site, beginning with the United States Coast Guard in 2010.[16] DHS, whose operations are scattered around dozens of buildings in the Washington, D.C. area, hopes to consolidate at least 60 of its facilities at St. Elizabeths and to save $64 million per year in rental costs. DHS also hopes to improve employee morale and unity by having a central location from which to operate.[16]

The plans to locate DHS to St. Elizabeths have been met with criticism, however. Historic preservationists argue that the move will destroy dozens of historic buildings located on the campus and that other alternatives should be considered.[6][14] Community activists have also expressed concern that the planned high-security facility will not interact with the surrounding community and do little to revitalize the economically depressed area.[6]

A ceremonial groundbreaking for the DHS consolidated headquarters took place at St. Elizabeths on September 9, 2009. The event was attended by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, and acting GSA Administrator Paul Prouty.[17]

In media[]

  • Part of the campus was featured as the outside of the Judge Advocate General's building in the movie A Few Good Men.[18]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 District of Columbia Department of Mental Health. "About St. Elizabeths Hospital".,a,3,q,516064.asp. Retrieved 2007-08-20. 
  2. "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23. 
  3. "St. Elizabeths Hospital". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-07-02. 
  5. Sheridan, Mary Beth (2009-01-09). Planning Agency Approves Homeland Security Complex: Preservationists Fear Effect on St. Elizabeths Campus. Washington Post, p B1, 9 January 2009. Retrieved on 2009-03-04 from
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 6.9 Holley, Joe (17 June 2007). "Tussle Over St. Elizabeths". The Washington Post. pp. C01. Retrieved 2007-08-20. 
  7. See Dist. of Columbia Dept. of Mental Health, Dec. 31, 2008 Trend Analysis, available at Retrieved on 2009-03-04.
  8. See id. Retrieved on 2009-03-04.
  9. See Settlement Agreement, available at,A,3,Q,639789.asp Retrieved on 2009-03-04.
  10. See U.S. Dept. of Justice, Letter Re Baseline Report (April 16, 2008) available at Retrieved on 2009-03-04.
  11. 11.0 11.1 O'Meara, Kelly Patricia (6 August 2001). "Forgotten Dead of St. Elizabeths". Insight on the News. Retrieved 2007-08-20. 
  13. Erowid War Vault : Timeline
  14. 14.0 14.1 National Trust for Historic Preservation (2007). "List of America's most endangered historic places - St. Elizabeths". Retrieved 2007-08-20. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 National Institutes of Health. "Historic Medical Sites in the Washington, D.C. Area - St. Elizabeths Hospital". Retrieved 2007-08-20. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 Losey, Stephen (17 March 2007). "Homeland Security plans move to hospital compound". Federal Times. Retrieved 2007-08-20. 
  18. "Filming locations for A Few Good Men". The Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2008-05-10. 


  • Streatfeild, D. Brainwash. St. Martin's Press. 2007.

External links[]

[[Image:Template:Portal/Images/Default |x28px]] District of Columbia portal

Coordinates: 38°50′57″N 76°59′23″W / 38.8492°N 76.9896°W / 38.8492; -76.9896

fr:St. Elizabeths Hospital pt:St. Elizabeths Hospital ru:Госпиталь святой Елизаветы