The campus of Saint Elizabeths Hospital is sited pleasantly atop a wooded ridge in the Anacostia Hills. It is a National Historic Landmark whose story and impact on mental health treatment in the United States can be read in the historic buildings and landscapes that cover its 350 acres.
Prior to the 1840s, when Dorothea Lynde Dix first began advocating for better housing conditions for people suffering from mental illness, mental illness treatment and care was at best haphazard and at worst inhumane. Dix brought her message of reform to Washington, convincing Congress in 1852 to provide $100,000 for the purpose of establishing the first federal mental health hospital for armed forces veterans and District of Columbia residents. Originally named the U.S. Government Hospital for the Insane, the mission of the hospital was to provide the most humane care and enlightened curative treatment for patients.
Saint Elizabeths is a living example of how public attitudes and policy shape the built environment and how the built environment can shape public attitudes and policy.
Both the federal government-controlled West Campus and the District of Columbia-controlled East Campus are slated for significant redevelopment over the next decade. The West Campus and a small portion of the East Campus are now the headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security and offices for the US Coast Guard. Part of the East Campus remains in use as a hospital. The remainder of the East Campus will be redeveloped with a mix of public and private uses.
Development is altering portions of the National Historic Landmark campus, but also preserves and adaptively reuses many buildings and landscapes that make Saint Elizabeths an important part of American history.