Interesting federal projects a-doing in DC

I just got back from a quick trip to the Vernacular Architecture Forum annual meeting in Washington DC (when I left MS it was kind of coolish; I returned to full-fledged summer). This year’s meeting included an optional all-day tour led by the Government Services Administration (GSA), the “realtor” for the federal government and the successor agency to the Office of the Supervising Architect, which designed many of the post offices and federal buildings around the nation from the 1880s through the 1930s.

Our tour took us inside several of the federal buildings that the GSA manages, including Victor Lundy’s uber-Modernist Tax Court, the ginormous St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane, and the recently discovered Clara Barton Missing Soldiers office.

St. Elizabeth’s is an interesting case of adaptive re-use and gives some food for thought for preservationists. Established in 1852 in the Anacostia area of DC as the first federal hospital for the insane, the campus grew and grew and grew to include a huge east and west campus until the closure of the west campus in 2002. This campus still sits vacant, spawning hundreds of photos on Flickr (photographers love abandoned buildings), but work has begun on a major conversion of the campus into the new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security.

And don’t snicker out loud about the irony of re-using an insane asylum for DHS–you know they’re listening and they won’t like it.

In many ways, the campus is a great fit for the famously security conscious agency that contains over a hundred previously independent agencies. For one, it’s huge–have I said that before?–and it already has a cafeteria, gymnasium, auditorium, offices, chapel, etc. In addition, it’s already walled and set apart as a separate place, bounded by the Anacostia River as it rounds the bend into the Potomac–a beautiful view. But in other ways that are important to preservationists, the fit it a “challenge,” as the GSA folks put it. All that security involves major intrusions into the existing historic buildings (the campus comprises its original 1850s building, similar in plan to our own contemporary Mississippi Insane Asylum in Jackson along with major building programs from the later 19th and early 20th centuries), and a number of large new buildings will also be required, including the massive Coast Guard headquarters that will terrace down the hillside to the river.

Several existing buildings will be demolished, mostly secondary structures such as greenhouses, but also a few larger buildings constructed later in the history of the hospital. All the buildings that remain after these relatively minor demolitions will be restored on the exterior, but only a few large public spaces on the interiors will be restored–the small patient rooms in the main building, for instance, will be gutted, presumably in favor of a more open office plan.

I was surprised as we toured the main building to see that big chunks of roofing and flooring structure had been re-built as part of the GSA’s mothballing effort to stabilize the building. As is often the case, the campus had not been maintained adequately leading up to its abandonment, and sections of the roof had already collapsed in the few years it’s been vacant.

All in all, while withholding judgment to see the end result, I think the GSA is doing the best job it can to meet the needs of the DHS while also re-using a large, difficult but historic campus that otherwise might sit vacant until it just fell down. According to the GSA folks, the 1850s building, the auditorium, and the point overlooking the river to DC will be open to the public in the same way that the White House is open: by making an appointment and going through security. That’s not ideal, but as they pointed out, the campus wasn’t open to the public when it was a hospital for the criminally insane either–thus the brick wall that encircles the place.

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Categories: Cool Old Places, Demolition/Abandonment, Historic Preservation, Renovation Projects

9 replies

  1. I am green with envy. The Vernacular Architecture Forum annual meetings are the absolute BEST – especially the tours!


    • Absolutely–not cheap, especially this year in DC, but always worth the trip to see places you otherwise wouldn’t be able to, along with gobs of informative descriptive and research material.


  2. I was wondering what would happen to the “Lettered Buildings.” They appear solid enough- do you suppose many of them will survive? As you say, the project is enormous and ” have been surprised at their willingness to include as much of the historic campus as they have. I’m jealous that you got to see the place!


    • As far as I know, the lettered buildings around that circle, except for the mid-20th century ones (I’m a little fuzzy here since we were rushed by the time) will remain. Certainly the ones in these pictures, that line of buildings, will remain. I’ve been dying to see the campus in person–have seen beautiful images on Flickr and elsewhere–so it was a real treat!


  3. Is the main structure at St. Elizabeth’s at least visible from the street? I have always wanted to see it but do not know about the safety of the neighborhood or whether it is worth making the trip over there. It also looks like the Metro stops nearby.


    • I think it is visible from the street, but it’s a side view and the gates are heavily guarded so I’m not sure they would even let you that close to see. The Metro station is a few blocks away. The GSA folks mentioned that there will be shuttle buses making the loop for employees when the campus opens (they expect the campus will house 14,000 employees, which will be a huge footprint that hopefully will spill over in a good way to the surrounding neighborhood). From my viewpoint (admittedly limited since we whisked through on the bus), the neighborhood looked down on its luck but certainly doable if you kept your eyes open.

      Looks like your best bet might be the tour offered by the DC Preservation League. Next one is June 19:


  4. Reminds me of the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry in northeast Philly, PA which was almost completely torn down in 2006. It had a horribly notorious past, but was a fascinating campus with several periods of buildings. One small group of buildings does survive from probably the second period of building, but it is across a street from the main campus.

    Sounds like you had a great time, E.! What a neat thing to do!


    • It was great fun and a learning experience as well to see what the GSA’s approach is to these kinds of historic places. As Belinda noted, the VAF does great tours–that’s what their meetings revolve around–so if you ever have a chance to attend, jump at it!



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