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A Walking Tour of St. Elizabeths Hospital

In May, I  took a walking tour of the western campus of St. Elizabeths (there is no apostrophe) hospital in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The tour was hosted by the D.C. Preservation League. The hospital is situated high above the city, providing the panoramic view you see pictured below. Dorothea Dix, an advocate for the mentally ill and  personal friend of President Fillmore, lobbied Congress for an appropriation to provide a mental health hospital for members of the armed forces and residents of the District of Columbia. Dix and Fillmore personally scouted sites around the city before settling on what was then a piece of farmland that was chosen for its tranquil setting. The hospital commenced operations in 1855 under the name ” The U.S. Government Hospital for the Insane.”

St. Elizabeths Center Building. This building once housed Ezra Pound and Richard Lawrence.

St. Elizabeths Center Building. This building once housed Ezra Pound and Richard Lawrence.

During the Civil War, the hospital hosted wounded soldiers who were  reluctant to tell their loved ones that they were writing from “The U.S. Government Hospital for the Insane.” Instead, they referred to the hospital as “St. Elizabeths,” the colonial-era name for this tract of land.  The hospital’s name was officially changed to St. Elizabeths in 1916. The hospital treated several famous patients over the course of its operations, including Richard Lawrence, the attempted assassin of Andrew Jackson, and the poet Ezra Pound. The western campus is under consideration as the new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.). Our knowledgeable tour guide, a General Services Administration employee, provided insight into the painstaking efforts necessary to preserve the integrity of this historic site while making the site suitable and secure for the needs of the D.H.S. The eastern campus is owned by the District of Columbia and still operates as a psychiatric hospital in a modern structure.

A view of Washington, D.C. from St. Elizabeths

A view of Washington, D.C. from St. Elizabeths

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