Tours of St. Elizabeths West Campus

Buildout Slow in Coming

The Center Building is scheduled for completion in March 2018.

On my first tour of the West Campus of St. Elizabeths nearly a decade ago, the only movement was an occasional flyover by a flock of birds. A couple years later, dump trucks rumbled through the grounds. On a visit last month, police and bomb-sniffing dogs greeted guests, three cranes swung overhead, pallets of bricks were numerous, the zing of electric saws buzzed through a number of buildings, and the ring of hammers pelted the ears of nearly 100 interested tour-goers.

Tours began in 2008 through a partnership with the General Services Administration (GSA) to draw attention and offer access to the National Historic Landmark campus. According to Rebecca Miller, executive director of the DC Preservation League (DCPL), neither the GSA nor the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had the means to register attendees, so DCPL coordinated the tours voluntarily as part of its programmatic activities.

Fiscal and Physical State of the Campus

Since the initial proposal to consolidate DHS headquarters on the West Campus was announced in 2007, progress has been slow. Faced with cost concerns and political controversy, the plan for the 176-acre campus, containing 61 buildings of 1 million gross square feet, has undergone a series of revisions.

On a recent tour, only three buildings had been completely renovated – Gatehouse 1, the Credit Union, formerly Atkins Hall, and the Dining Hall. In 2014 the Coast Guard Headquarters overlooking Interstate 295 was completed as the first project at the new DHS St. Elizabeths campus.

The southern section of the West Campus, which contains the Administrative Building, looked to be untouched. In an updated prospectus from 2016, the enhanced consolidation plan moved the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters from the city-owned East Campus to the West Campus.

The National Capital Planning Commission will soon review the final site and building plans. In President Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget, GSA would receive a $200 million increase, but it is unclear if that would directly benefit St. Elizabeths. According to Nancy Witherell, GSA’s regional historic officer, current construction is being funded by a series of continuing resolutions. Work will continue but new work is not yet proposed.

Center Building Construction

On the most recent tour, the Center Building was an epicenter of activity. It was constructed in parts, beginning in 1852, based on the availability of federal dollars. Today it is being renovated in parts as federal funds become available. Planned as the future home for the DHS secretary, the building has been gutted to its brick shell and facades.

In late September 2014, GSA awarded a $139 million design-build contract to renovate the Center Building, marking the beginning of the next phase of DHS’s consolidation on the West Campus. The project will involve architectural, engineering, historic preservation, construction, security commissioning, and other related services necessary to construct and renovate the building.

Due to preservation law and the unique nature of the restoration work, the 20,000 panes of glass in the 1,300 windows of the Center Building will be sourced to a company in Southern Illinois, the same company that restored Gatehouse 1. Recent forecasts for renovation of the 270,000 square-foot Center Building call for completion in August 2017. According to Witherell the updated schedule is March 2018.  

Design for the I-295/Malcolm X Interchange along Shepherd Parkway to Gate 4 has begun. Discussions with the National Park Service, DC Department of Transportation, and Federal Highway Administration are ongoing.

Physician’s Memories

While walking the grounds, a student from Goucher College and a former trainee at St. Elizabeths, Dr. Michael Sitar, struck up a conversation. Dr. Sitar was stationed at Hitchcock Hall, built in 1908 as a performing arts space with the psychodrama department. “There were at least half a dozen different training programs in the hospital. They had psychiatry, psychology, psychodrama, movement therapy, dance therapy, art therapy. There was a chaplain-in-training program.”

When asked how he felt being back on campus, Dr. Sitar, who practices in Bethesda, replied, “It’s kind of weird. The bricks are still here but not the people.”

He shared his outlook on the working hospital, “We conceptualized this place as a factory. The chronic workers were the patients, the chronic supervisors were the lifer staff, and the end product was us trainees. A new batch would come in every year. We were the raw materials that came in and went out the other end.”

Future Tours?

Tours of the campus are on hiatus while GSA assesses its development timetable. The DC Preservation League will continue to advocate for regular public access to the site. The tours conducted by DCPL have allowed for access to thousands of visitors who have come from as far away as Maine, Kentucky, and South Carolina to see this important site,” explained Miller. “The site was not previously open to the public, so these tours offer an interpreted look into the history of the National Historic Landmark.” 

For more information and updates on the development of the West Campus of St. Elizabeths visit For more information on the DC Preservation League visit

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