MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to Metro Connection. Today, we're talking about Washington and D.C., exploring the relationship between, what, the more federal side of the place, Washington and the side many see as more local and neighborhoody, you know, D.C. We'll kick off this part of the show by visiting a spot that, in a way, is bringing together both worlds on a woody, 350-acre campus in Southeast D.C. So how close are we now?
MS. REBECCA MILLER
We're just outside of the campus. We're at Malcolm X, which is an interchange up here.
It’s St. Elizabeth's hospital. And not too long ago, I drove there with Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. preservation league or DCPL.
And so this is called the Congress Heights neighborhood, which abuts the south end of the campus.
St. Elizabeth's started as a federal facility and in 1987, the government transferred control of the east campus and hospital operations to the District of Columbia. Seven years ago, the general services administration took control of the west campus which, along with a small portion of the east, will eventually house the department of homeland security.
So at this point, the place is pretty much over run with trucks, cranes, bull dozers, all sorts of construction machines.
And then, coming up on our left is gate two. We can get out here and just park. It's kind of -- we just have to avoid all the trucks.
On the now federally controlled west campus, Rebecca and I got out of the car and headed to St. Elizabeth's original main gate where she gave me some more background on this D.C. landmark.
It was founded in 1852 by Dorothea Dix. It's the government hospital for the insane. It was for recuperating soldiers and also the citizens of the District of Columbia. Dorothea Dix was a social reformer. She had originally been a teacher and she had gone to teach at an institution in Massachusetts and found that the conditions were so deplorable that she made it her mission for the rest of her life to change the way that people viewed the mentally ill.
So she came to Washington and convinced Congress to give $100,000 for them to start the government hospital for the insane. And she and Charles Nichols, who was the first superintendent, found this plot of land and decided this would be the best location for it because of its bucolic setting proximity to the city, proximity to the water, the river. Also it had water sources, it had fuel sources, it also had building materials.
All the bricks were made on campus. So it's a very interesting site. It's a very self sustaining campus.
So how is it that the U.S. department of homeland security became a part of all this? I mean, it started as a hospital for the insane.
Yes. Well, mental health facilities have really transitioned from being a federal entity to being a state and local issue. And so the need for a campus of this size was not necessary any longer. About 687 or so patients live on St. Elizabeth still, but they live on the east campus in a new hospital facility. So it wasn't necessary to have this kind of plan any longer. I mean, it's quite big.
When people talk about the 14,000 employees that are coming from this whole development, at one point, there were as many as 12,000 from staff and patients. So there were a lot of patients living on the campus here. But this has been long vacant. Everybody had moved over to the east campus essentially. And the federal government really is the only agency that could rehabilitate this.
And they spent about $27 million in stabilization work so far. There's a lot of remediation for asbestos. All the buildings on the inside, especially since a lot of the floors fell and things like that, it was really, kind of, a difficult decision as to what to use it for. And when they decided to come to St. Elizabeth's, one of their goals was to remove employees from leased office space onto something that they actually own.
So, St. Elizabeth's has been on your most endangered places list, how many times now? Three times, four times?
Three or four times over the last 15 years or so. There had been different suggestions for what could happen under the Williams administration. He had suggested that perhaps UDC could move out here. Which, I mean, it'd be fabulous. You know, it'd be one of the nicest campuses around. But the financing for that kind of thing is just -- is very difficult. I mean, this is a $3.8 billion project.
So it's money that a lot of people just don't have. And the federal government does.
If Dorothea Dix were alive today, what do you think she would think of all this?
Oh, that's a great question. I don't know that the campus will be quite the bucolic setting that she thought it was -- would be. But she was very forward thinking and I think that's what people need to understand preservation is. It's not about stopping change, it's about managing change. In our landmark laws, they are to allow people to adapt their historic resource for current use. And that's what this is doing now.
So, hopefully she would feel that way too.
Rebecca Miller is the executive director of the D.C. preservation league. DCPL leads walking tours of the St. Elizabeth's campus every third Saturday of the month. To learn more, visit our website metroconnection.org.
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