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Community News

Architecture of an Asylum: St. Elizabeths 1852-2017

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By Matthew B. Gilmore*

Probably the most universally known image of an insane asylum in popular culture comes from the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Few Washingtonians would have reason to be familiar with the District’s own asylum — the first and only run by the federal government. But everyone should take advantage of the new exhibition at the National Building Museum — “Architecture of an Asylum: St Elizabeths 1852-2017” — to explore the history of this unfamiliar Washington site, being currently transformed. The hospital functions have been moved to the east campus, and the west campus, including the original asylum building, will be part of the Department of Homeland Security headquarters.

Government Hospital for the Insane, Washington, D.C. Topographical plan of the grounds.

Government Hospital for the Insane, Washington, D.C. Topographical plan of the grounds.

For its beginning years St. Elizabeths was the “Government Hospital for the Insane”; the name was finally changed only in 1916. It was built on the St. Elizabeths tract near Uniontown and Civil War soldiers recuperating picked up on that name. Its first and most famous building is the red-brick Center Building, built per the Kirkbride plan. Dorothea Dix had promoted humane treatment of the mentally ill but Thomas S. Kirkbride developed an additional architectural aspect to that treatment.

St. Elizabeths is just one of around 80 Kirkbride asylums built across the country. These are recognizable by an expansive, multi-wing plan. Often collegiate gothic in style, the architecture emphasized light and fresh air, something all to lacking in crowded, dirty late-19th century cities. Part of the Kirkbride plan was locating the asylum on a spacious, high ground, for the curative properties of the landscape. According to Kirkbride, “The building should be in a healthful, pleasant, and fertile district of the country; the land chosen should be of good quality and easily tilled; the surrounding scenery should be varied and attractive.”

The exhibit does an excellent job of placing the architectural theory, design, and history in context. There’s a wealth of information on the Kirkbride asylum plan and on other theories of treatment. Wrapped around all of it is a framework of the origins and history of St. Elizabeths itself.

There’s the architecture, information on some famous patients, and even the surprising fact that there were private patients at the asylum. The exhibit showcases a number of varied architectural tidbits from St. Elizabeths Center Building and others. A striking feature of the exhibit is the 1904 model created for the St. Louis World’s Fair (though dimly lit for preservation purposes). And an unusual aspect of the asylum is illustrated — it was, in effect, a city unto itself with a workforce far beyond those involved directly in patient care.

There are interesting stories one could follow up upon, such as Lucy A. Fitts who “came to Washington to marry the late Charles Sumner. Will not believe he’s dead. . . .” She was released back to Massachusetts where she died a few years later. [1]

A few concepts or elements which one might have been explored, however, are not. One, for example, is simply the concept of “asylum” as a place of safety. One image displayed is a complex diagram of illustrating a patient diagnosis; she’d been through horrible treatment by both parents, and in institutions. This patient truly needed a place of refuge from a horrible life. Another question missing is curative success. Not everyone consigned to St. Elizabeths stayed. Some were released to other institutions, while others may have been cured. Was the Kirkbride architectural cure successful?

The Center Building. Photograph, 2016. Plans to retain as much of the interior of the Center Building as possible were hampered by the discovery of original building materials and a structural system that were in far worse condition than expected. © Colin Winterbottom,

The Center Building. Photograph, 2016. Plans to retain as much of the interior of the Center Building as possible were hampered by the discovery of original building materials and a structural system that were in far worse condition than expected. © Colin Winterbottom,

On view through January 15, 2018. The National Building Museum, housed in the historic, late 19th century Pension Building located on the north side of Judiciary Square between 4th and 5th Streets, NW (directly across from the F Street Red Line Metro exit), is America’s leading cultural institution dedicated to advancing the quality of the built environment by educating people about its impact on their lives. Through its exhibitions, educational programs, online content, and publications, the museum has become a vital forum for the exchange of ideas and information about the world we build for ourselves. For information, call (202) 272-2448, follow on Twitter @Building Museum, or visit



[1] Report and correspondence relating to the release from the Government Hospital for the Insane of certain persons admitted thereto upon the order of the authorities of the District of Columbia. (1875).

Events Related to the Exhibit

Tue., M 9 (6:30-8pm), at the museum: panel discussion — “Restoring and Reusing Kirkbride’s Mental Health Hospitals”;

Tue., Jun. 13 (6:30-830pm), at the museum: Film and TalkAsylum, a film that takes a detailed look at the history of St. Elizabeths hospital.

Additional Resources

Frances M. McMillen & James S. Kane, “Institutional Memory,” Records of St. Elizabeths Hospital at the National Archives.

Records of St. Elizabeths Hospital. (Record Group 418).

Ethan McElroy, “Kirkbride Buildings.”

Thomas Otto, “St. Elizabeths Hospital: A  History.”

*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.






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