New Exhibit Shows History and Legacy of St. Elizabeths

Largescale model of St. Elizabeths built to showcase the hospital at a series of World's Fairs.

With more than 100 unique objects, 200 hundred photographs, documentary films, architectural fragments, and a replica of the Center Building, visitors can walk through the National Building Museum's recently opened exhibit, “Architecture of an Asylum: St. Elizabeths, 1852-2017.” It takes you back in time and place.

Outside the exhibit’s entrance is a timeline of the institution’s development that features a topographical map from 1860, site plans from 1895, and a plat map from 1940. Highlights include a map of the piggery, which in 1913 housed 600 hogs, a pew and stained glass window from the chapel, books from the circulating library, architecture fragments, medical equipment, and patient-generated artwork like a lace creation from 1917 that depicts a dove, snake, animals, and the Virgin Mary.

Other artistic works by patients struck a chord with the exhibit’s curator, Sarah Leavitt. “One of my favorite pieces is a patient painting of the first superintendent at St. Elizabeths, Dr. Nichols,” she said. “It was beautifully conserved as they removed it from the wall, though it does show signs of age, which brings the piece a real presence in our gallery. I am grateful we were able to tell a little of the patients’ stories along with the story of the built environment in which they lived.”

Leavitt and her staff started with the collection of architectural drawings that came to the Library of Congress through the American Architectural Foundation. “We went through those and chose many of them to help tell the story of how the buildings changed over time,” Leavitt explained. “We were able to use the largescale model built in 1904 and then added to in 1935 to showcase the hospital at a series of World's Fairs. It’s a really beautiful model and I think visitors are going to love it.”

Panels populating the exhibit profile famous prominent patients, including a man who failed in an assassination attempt on President Andrew Jackson and an early Hollywood starlet. Other panels describe recreation activities, entertainment, farming, and daily life. They present a full range of the experiences and treatment efforts that define the mental health legacy of St. Elizabeths.

The effort to gather materials and items was both local and national, including the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, National Museum of Health & Medicine in Silver Spring, National Archives, National Institutes of Health, and Library of Congress. “I had heard rumors for years that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History held Dorothea Dix’s desk, on which she wrote the legislation for St. Elizabeths, and which she donated to the hospital in the 1880s,” recalled Leavitt. To her surprise the original desk arrived at the museum in a packing crate and is now a focus of the exhibit.

While visiting the exhibit I ran into Catherine Buell, formerly the director of St. Elizabeths East Campus, who was visiting from Atlanta where she serves as director of the city's housing authority. “We have to collect the history and tell the story of not just the District but what St. Elizabeths meant to advances in mental health care,” Buell said.

When a city-produced promotional video for the East Campus flashed images of ribbon cuttings and events Buell had participated in, she expressed her genuine appreciation. “This is amazing. It's wonderful to see the campus and its plans for the future put so prominently on display.”

“Architecture of an Asylum: St. Elizabeths, 1852-2017” is presented in collaboration with the General Services Administration, with support from the American Institute of Architects, and runs until Jan. 18, 2018. Tickets for seniors, students, and youth are $7, adults $10. For information on group tours or other inquiries contact the National Building Museum at 202-272-2448 or visit @BuildingMuseum

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