Public Tours of Saint Elizabeths Continue
When I first began touring the federally-owned West Campus of Saint Elizabeths in the fall of 2009, activity was minimal except for a few dump trucks moving about here and there. The expected arrival of thousands of government workers was still years away.
Now, nearly four years later, specialists from electricians to landscape architects to sheet metal contractors move back and forth busily as they prepare for the transition of the first wave of thirty-seven hundred Coast Guard employees, expected to arrive in the fall.
Organized by the DC Preservation League (DCPL), the walking tours are a public service that anyone interested in the ongoing development should not hesitate to take full advantage of while they are still offered.
St. Elizabeths is a National Historic Landmark, the highest designation a historic site can receive for its significance to the nation, according to Rebecca Miller, DCPL’s executive director. “The cultural history and architectural character of this site is why it is so important for the public to access the campus. The tours have been taking place since October 2008. More than 2500 people have toured the campus with us.”
The General Services Administration (GSA) is responsible for administering all manners of project management on the West Campus. Pursuant to Section 106 of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, federal agencies must take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties. Along with the physical rehabilitation of properties to their historic character, one of the DC Preservation League’s primary advocacy points was that public access be continued once the Department of Homeland Security occupies the site.
On a recent day, a tour group of thirty-five starts out at one of the most noticeable renovations of the West Campus-- the restored exterior of the southern gate house with new slate, restored windows, and vibrant colors. The gate house can be seen on the right-hand side of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, just above Park Chester, as you head towards Congress Heights.
Next we make our way to “the Point” which overlooks the Washington Navy Yard and Capitol. Everyone pulls out their cell phone or camera to capture photographs of the panoramic city. On the ridge below, hundreds of trees have been planted and off to the right a hundred more fresh saplings await their planting. Sitting on more than 170 acres, the West Campus saw its first patient in 1855. The pastoral landscape of “the point,” which defined the 19th-century Romantic Era, will not be disrupted, according to a GSA official. No development is planned between the point and the Center Building.
The historic Center Building, envisioned as one day being the home office for the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, awaits costly rehabilitation. The Center Building, designed by Architect of the Capitol, Thomas U. Walter, with a modified Kirkbride Plan, an architectural design specific to mental asylums, will require significant work before being put back in use. The building was heated by steam. Reportedly, the city last occupied the building in the 1980s and when they left, nobody turned off the heat behind them. Over the course of many years the steam effectively corroded walls, and floors collapsed in certain areas. GSA expects to spend $27 million to fix the Center Building.
After visiting the Civil War Cemetery, which overlooks I-295 and the new Coast Guard Headquarters with 1.3 million square feet, the group moves further into the interior of the West Campus past the fire station, its clock on top of a spire, and Hitchcock Hall which opened in 1908 to host dramatic productions organized by patients. We now find ourselves under the shade of some trees looking out on the Main Building, used as a background for scenes in “A Few Good Men.” Development of the main building will occur under the third phase which, according to the GSA official on the tour, will most likely be into the next decade.
Nearing the end of the tour, we come across the renovated cafeteria, the former mess hall, which will hold up to 300 people. One of the last buildings on the tour, Atkins Hall, which was built in 1878 and will serve as the credit union, is nearly complete. With the appropriations for construction changing from year to year, Atkins Hall awaits around $70,000 to finish the job.
Tours will continue for the foreseeable future virtually unchanged with the exception of access to the Civil War cemetery, which will be inside the security perimeter fences of the Coast Guard Headquarter.
For more information on the public tours of Saint Elizabeths visit www.dcpreservation.org or call 202-783-5144.