In mid-November, I attended the second St. Elizabeths West Campus walking tour hosted by the DC Preservation League (DCPL). Founded in 1852 as the Government Hospital for the Insane at the urging of social reformer Dorothea Dix and its first Superintendent, Charles H. Nichols, St. Elizabeths’ entire campus was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990, named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Eleven Most Endangered” List in 2002, and placed on the DC Inventory of Historic Sites in 2005. In 2008, DCPL named the West Campus as one of DC’s Most Endangered Places.
The East Campus, now under District control, continues to operate as a hospital, and DC recently finalized a framework plan for redeveloping the site. Meanwhile, the West Campus was essentially abandoned in 1987. In 1999, Mayor Anthony Williams suggested moving UDC to the West Campus. In hindsight, and in my opinion, this proposal would have proven beneficial to both UDC and Anacostia. After all, the Center Building was designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, the fourth Architect of the Capitol and designer of the Capitol Dome. The Main Building—its three-story columns facing a sprawling quad—was designed by the Boston firm of Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge, architects of the Stanford University campus.
Outrage over the proposal, fostered primarily by accusations of racial insensitivity, killed the idea (at least on an official level) and the land was transferred to the federal government in 2004. Shortly after, GSA began shoring up the buildings with red plywood. GSA cut off public access to “The Point”—with the best views in the city across DC and into Virginia—and a cross-shaped Civil War cemetery. They will remain inaccessible to the public if the Department of Homeland Security moves forward with its plans to build up to an additional 4.5 million square feet of office space and 1.5 million square feet of parking to serve up to 26,000 DHS employees.
DCPL and community members are pushing for “a re-use incorporating rehabilitation of historic structures and landscapes, sensitive new construction, and public access to The Point.” Will future generations of residents get to enjoy this site, its buildings and its views, or will Saint Elizabeths West turn into another giant missed opportunity for DC?