09 January 2009 by Published in: Battlefield preservation 1 comment

Many thanks to regular reader Todd Berkoff for sending this article from today’s edition of the Washington Post:

Planning Agency Approves Homeland Security Complex
Preservationists Fear Effect on St. Elizabeths Campus
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2009; B01

After years of battling historic preservationists, the federal government won approval yesterday to build a massive headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security on a 176-acre hilltop site east of the Anacostia River.

The $3.4 billion headquarters would be one of the largest construction projects in the Washington area since the Pentagon was built in the 1940s. Advocates say it would generate economic activity in one of the city’s poorer corners and provide a secure workplace for 14,000 Homeland Security employees scattered across the Washington area.

“This is an important step forward for Anacostia and for Washington,” said John V. Cogbill III, chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission, which voted 9 to 1 to approve the master plan for the headquarters, to be built on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital.

Historical preservationists have said the project would ruin a national landmark site with panoramic views of the District, where the first federal psychiatric institution was established in Southeast Washington in 1852. Some questioned whether a high-security facility tucked behind two layers of fencing would produce much of a payoff for the neighborhood.

“The DHS employees might as well be working on the moon for all their presence will benefit the city,” testified David Garrison, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, who said that the personnel would largely commute from the suburbs.

The dissenting vote on the master plan came from a National Park Service representative, who warned that the development could endanger the site’s historic landmark status.

If Congress provides funding, construction will begin next year and continue through 2016, according to the plan. Building the complex and renovating existing historical structures would create at least 26,000 jobs, officials said.

“The timing is optimal,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who has championed the project. “Development has dried up in the city, and this is direct government-funded work.”

Under the plan, most of the facility would be built on the vacant western campus of St. Elizabeths, property owned by the federal General Services Administration. One large building would be constructed on land leased from the District on the eastern campus, where the D.C. government is hoping to lure offices, restaurants and shops.

Residents of nearby neighborhoods have expressed mixed feelings about the complex. James Bunn, executive director of the Ward 8 Business Council, predicted that Homeland Security’s migration would serve as a long-needed catalyst for new retail and housing in the Congress Heights community.

“Those 14,000 employees will need a place to live,” he said. “And they’ll need somewhere to eat. I can already see a coffee shop or a sit-down restaurant. It’s a win-win situation for the ward.”

But Linda Jackson, executive director of the East of the River Community Development Corp., questioned whether Homeland Security employees would leave their self-contained campus along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and frequent nearby businesses.

“More study should be done on what exactly the community benefits will be,” she said. “And there’s the traffic. There will be an overwhelming influx of people using roads and the Metro.”

The plan envisions widening part of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and developing an access road on the southwestern part of the campus. Shuttle buses would run from the Metro.

St. Elizabeths Hospital was built when Dorothea Dix, the social reformer, persuaded Congress to provide $100,000 for a model psychiatric hospital in 1852. The campus is thought to exemplify the ideas of a 19th-century movement that sought to improve care for the mentally ill through therapeutic design and environment.

District officials and the National Capital Planning Commission had balked at earlier plans to set up a giant agency headquarters on the western campus of St. Elizabeths, fearing that development would overwhelm the site.

To assuage their concerns, officials moved some of the proposed headquarters facilities onto the east campus, reduced the amount of parking and shifted new buildings away from the historic core.

Under the new plan, about 11,000 employees would work in 3.8 million square feet of space on the west campus, and the remaining 3,000 would be on the east campus, where the District still runs a mental health facility. The sites would have parking for about 5,000 cars.

Fifty-two of the 62 historic structures on the grounds would be renovated and used by the agency, including the Center Building, a red-brick structure in the Gothic-revival style that was designed by Thomas U. Walter, the architect responsible for the U.S. Capitol dome.

The first building to be constructed would be the Coast Guard headquarters. In addition to offices, the site would have a barbershop, cafeteria, child-care center and gym.

Authorities have been trying for years to find an institution to take over the long-neglected St. Elizabeths. But the cost of rescuing the run-down 19th-century buildings and overhauling the infrastructure was prohibitive.

Homeland Security officials said the site is ideal for their agency. The western campus is the largest piece of unused federal land in Washington, and the new buildings would sit far enough back from the street to avoid being shattered by a car bomb.

Staff writer Paul Schwartzman contributed to this story.

The following comes from the District of Columbia’s website, and describes the important role played by St. Elizabeth’s Hospital during the Civil War:

St. Elizabeths Hospital’s Expanded Role During the Civil War

St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC, originally known as the Government Hospital for the Insane, was established through the Civil and Diplomatic Appropriation Act of 1852. Dorothea Dix, its founder and the leading mental health reformer of the 19th century, wrote the law that articulated the hospital’s mission “to provide the most humane care and enlightened curative treatment of the insane of the Army, Navy and the District of Columbia.”

SEH was built as a 250-bed hospital. Thomas U. Walters, architect of the Capitol Building, drafted the plans for Center Building. Upon Dix’s recommendation, Charles H. Nichols, MD, was appointed the first Superintendent of the hospital by President Millard Fillmore in 1852 and served until 1877. He was responsible for the construction and operation of the hospital. Center Building was built in three phases: west wing, east wing, and the center administrative section last.

The facility was soon split into three distinct hospitals shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War. On October 10, 1861, Congress authorized temporary use of the unfinished east wing as a 250-bed general hospital for sick and wounded soldiers of the Union Army. West Lodge, for “colored insane males,” was converted into a 60-bed general and quarantine hospital for sailors of the Potomac and Chesapeake Fleets, and the patients from West Lodge were relocated to another building.

In 1863, an artificial limb manufacturing shop (patented by B.W. Jewett) opened to fit amputees with prostheses. Soldiers stayed until their wounds healed and they learned to use their artificial limbs. During this period, a portion of the hospital’s farm was converted to a Cavalry Depot and encampment for a Marine Company.

During the Civil War, wounded soldiers were reluctant to write home that they were being treated at the “Government Hospital for the Insane.” They began referring to the asylum as the St. Elizabeths, the colonial name of the tract of land. Congress officially changed the hospital’s name in 1916.

President Abraham Lincoln frequently visited soldiers at the hospitals. Overcrowding was inevitable during the war. Tents were erected behind Center Building to house convalescing soldiers.

Dr. Nichols, a volunteer surgeon for the St. Elizabeths Army General Hospital, often rode out to major battlefields around the DC area to treat casualties. He was introduced as one of General McDowell’s staff at the First Battle of Bull Run. Approximately one-fourth of St. Elizabeths’ male employees divided their time between the battlefields and hospital and patients stepped in to help provide hospital services.

I just hate to see this happen. Surely, there’s another piece of ground where the Homeland Security buildings could be constructed?

Scridb filter


  1. Jim Morgan
    Sat 10th Jan 2009 at 8:35 am

    This isn’t correct: “the first federal psychiatric institution was established in Southeast Washington in 1852.”

    It wasn’t the first federal psychiatric institution. Congress was built before that.

    Jim Morgan

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