72°Mostly Cloudy

St. Elizabeths Walking Tour – Very Cool

by Prince Of Petworth — April 6, 2009 at 11:00 am 23 Comments


On Saturday I went to Anacostia (about 10 minute walk from the Anacostia metro) to take a tour of St. Elizabeth’s campus sponsored by the DC Preservation League. As many know, St. Elizabeth’s is slated to become the new DHS headquarters so it’s not clear how long these tours will be available. I believe the next one is scheduled for May but you can check the DC Preservation League’s calendar here.


The campus itself is huge. There are lots of cool buildings similar to the one above all with red boarded windows. We had two very knowledgeable guides but I most enjoyed wandering the grounds. You can read about the history of St. Elizabeth’s here. For those that follow this issue, are there any supporters of turning this property into DHS headquarters or do you think it should be used for something else?

Lots of photos after the jump.






Above is the former secure part of the facility for the “criminally insane”.








Oddly there was also an exercise course:


Lots of great trees. This one reminded me of the one in Grant Circle:


  • dcdude

    For some reason, it’s spelled St. Elizabeths. No apostrophe. I forget why. In any event, I’m sympathetic with the neighborhood folks that say the DHS headquarters probably won’t add much to the neighborhood, but honestly, there were no other viable options on the table. If not for DHS, this place would have laid fallow for many more decades to come.

  • CP

    DHS will be a disaster — destroying the historic character of the campus, closing the bulk of it to the public, removing trees and green space in favor of thousands of parking spots, inviting thousands of auto commuters onto District streets, and producing little good for the surrounding neighborhoods.

    Move UDC to the site. Give students a real collegiate setting that is still open to the public. UDC doesn’t serve its body as well as it could in upper Northwest, and its facilities are an insult to anyone in search of higher education.

    If not that, let the site sit undeveloped. There is one chance to do the right thing with that great piece of property, and Norton’s push to get DHS in there has condemned it forever. A sad waste of an attractice view and an historic set of structures.

  • o2bncdg

    As I’ve said in many other blogs (St. Es, DCist, etc), there’s really no alternative except a federal facility up on that hill. As you probably saw during your walk, the view from there back to the center of DC is spectacular. But, the West campus also overlooks the Defense Intelligence Agency on Bolling AFB and the hangar for Marine 1. They’ll never let open access for development other than a secure agency. I am part of the USCG HQ staff who will be moving into the first building built. I’m rather excited about it. As stated in the blog, there are many, many cool buildings there that will be renovated, updated and used for modern purposes. Just to see the theatre alone is worth a walk through the campus. My advice – get there while you can because the money is approved (both the Stimulus bill and the budget) to start work. There will be 4-5 years of construction of the new USCG building and the place will be a mess during that time.

  • I was there too. I had the big camera.

    For everyone saying that DHS is going to cut off access to the public – it was a mental hospital before. I doubt that you could just jaunt over there with a basket and blanket for a picnic.

  • i am a huge supporter of bringing Coast Guard / DHS to St. E’s. This is a big win for the surrounding area.

    River East needs a draw. Sure, this will be a closed campus, but it will bring contractors and workers here for many years to come.

  • Nate

    Hey I own a bit of property right near there. That area needs every boost it can get. DHS will be closed off. But they spend BILLIONS with contractors. At the least, there should be a handful of contractors to follow DHS, which is good for the area.

  • dcdude

    As I understand it, DHS has taken serious steps to preserve the historical nature of most of the buildings on the campus, so I think it’s hyperbole to say that it will destroy the historic character of the site. Regardless, I don’t see how moving UDC there is any better in terms of preserving the histrorical buildings, preserving green space, etc. than DHS. Any serious redevelopment of the site would have that effect. And quite honestly, DC doesn’t have the money to move UDC there. Besides, UDC faces tremendous challenges that have nothing to do with where it is located. Even if the DC government had the $ to relocate UDC (which it doesn’t) that money would be better spent addressing other more fundamental problems facing the university.

  • I wasn’t able to get on the April tour, but it’s just as well. On the list for May, though, so I’m excited!

    As for the UDC question – I could think of no better way to show kids from that area that college is a possibility than spending the necessary funds to move UDC there and turning it into a premier public school – as the “state” school for the District should be.

  • Pennywise

    Did you hear the screams of mentally insane ghosts while there? Or maybe that doesn’t happen until after DHS comes in…

  • mike mccathy

    After many years with the DC Dept. of Corrections I went to St E’s and taught the “criminally insane” at John Howard Pavilion. They were memorable years. Teaching there wasn’t as wonderful and challenging as Lorton but I do have fond memories of the patients, especially the now ailing Lew Ecker who was quite a character.

    In response to DCDUDE, the apostrophe was left off the word when a clerk was ordering stationary way back in the nineteenth century. It was a large order and—rather than returning the whole truckload—they decided to live with the error; however, I recall hearing that a decision was made to finally revert to the possessive. That was seven years ago, just before the swine in DC Gov. cut the funds for those poor souls to have access to education therapy.

  • o2bncdg

    I need to disagree with CP who says the DHS takeover will be “destroying the historic character of the campus, closing the bulk of it to the public”. He gives no empirical data to support those assertions. ALL of the truly “historical” buildings will be renovated and returned to use. Also, the public doesn’t have access NOW – only rare, guided tours. I would think that when there is a full staff on campus (workers, guards, patrols, etc.) there will be more chance for community open houses maybe. I see a bright future actually with community leaders in Anacostia working with the powers-that-be in the new DHS campus to set up community days, maybe use some of the facilities (the theatre for meetings, for example) and offer space for picnics, etc. Who knows? No one has said that DHS will lock down the campus any tighter than it already is. It will just take some people to ask and you never know what will happen!

    I also note that the original blog post said that the walk from the Metro to the campus was only about 10 minutes. I’m thinking that on Spring, Summer and Fall days a good many people will want to walk to and from work – and hopefully use local retail and restaurant venues along the way. The possibilities are really endless for restoration and development in Anacostia. I must admit that I am a long-time DC resident who hasn’t ventured over to Anacostia very much. But I have been there a few times lately, and the “downtown” area is really quite charming, and the old residential streets contain some interesting houses.

    Bottom line – what’s been a closed, dormant facility for many, many years, will not come to life – and I’m sure the workers there (both construction workers and eventual full-time DHS employees) will do their part to use Anacostia retail/restaurant facilities.

  • o2bncdg

    I meant will “now” come to life if my last paragraph. (I have to proof read better).

  • Having UDC move there would be a GREAT idea! Higher learning in Anacostia and bringing jobs to the local community. but o2bncdg is right, it’s just not logistically feasible esp. considering the site’s high security neighbors and the financial challenges UDC presently faces.

    I dont know why but the pics of the campus give me a *creepy* vibe. the trees look like something u’d see in a M. Night Shyamalan movie and you just know the buildings, given the history of the people it housed, are way haunted. there’s a frakin’ civil war cemetary there afterall!

    would NOT want to spend an overnighter there!

  • o2bncdg

    That was funny Quincy!! I’m thinking the trees are more like from a Steven Spielberg movie – and with the cemetery right there, it would be a great location for the re-make of “Poltergeist”. Can’t you just see the possibilities of those poor dead people pulling those pranks on the people at DHS? Ooops. I think I’m giving away the plot line for a great movie! (Well, at least what we used to call a “B” movie).

  • CP


    Really? Picnics?

    How long have you been here? These federal facilities don’t allow “community open houses” or “picnics” or kite-flying or any other such thing. When construction begins later this year, those without a work-related reason to be on that campus will never see it again.

    Building parking garages and terracing the hillside will wreck the historic character of the property.

    Over half the buildings on site will be removed.

    Also, with on-site dry-cleaning, fitness facilities, and a cafeteria, no significant number of people is going to patronize any businesses in surrounding neighborhoods. Like the workforce at the Pentagon, it’ll be drive-in and drive-out, with a large facility comepletely cut of from the rest of the city. And permanently off the tax rolls.

  • CP – you’re wrong.

    Firstly – when has there even been a community open house or picnic or kite flying? People – this used to be a mental hospital, not a community garden in which to frolic and play. There was never open access to the grounds – if anything, I would think that it has always been a gated community sort of place. We aren’t losing anything – just not gaining a new vantage point of the city.

    Secondly – where do you get your facts that over half the buildings on site will be removed? Non-contributing buildings are going to be removed, but certainly not more than a handful. Non-conforming buildings are those built after the campus was in use for a while – and generally consist of concrete block warehouse buildings that have no historical value whatsoever. The USCG headquarters that will replace many of the warehouses actually has a lower profile than the current buildings on site, and combined with green roofs, will actually blend in 10x better than the current white concrete block buildings.

  • JV

    As a government contractor I’m going to disagree with the sentiment that CP expresses here

    no significant number of people is going to patronize any businesses in surrounding neighborhoods.

    What he is saying is arguably true of the government employees themselves as they will probably have fitness and cafeteria facilities in the revamped St. E’s. Although I suspect that many of those individuals will be willing to venture off of the compound at times if there are ‘good eats’ in the area that outdo the standard cafeteria fare.

    The thing that CP is neglecting to consider is that government contractors are going to flock to office sites in this area now. Those govt. contractors quite likely will not have the same exclusive facilities available to them and thus will be very likely to patronize local businesses.

    The real driver of commerce will be the existing and new businesses that try to cater to the new clientele. The better the businesses perform and market themselves the better they will do. Simple, fun lunch places (five guys comes to mind) will have no problem doing well and enriching the community.

  • CP

    Calm down, guy.

    I don’t care what it USED to be used for. The point is that this land could have been used for anything; the District had one chance to pick a developer, and they picked one who’ll ensure that the public never sees it again. That’s all that matters.

    Further, tearing into the hillside to build parking garages and the Coast Guard structure will further mar the view from the opposite side of the Anacostia.

    Read the GSA documents about Phase I. You’ll see that over half of 140+ buildings will indeed be demolished. Given the environmental destruction and the removal of the possibility of future productive use of the land, the demolition of buildings is a lesser concern.

  • Pennywise

    Once it becomes DHS, getting in and out will require passing security, which is always slower than you’d like. The idea that folks will pop-out and in for lunch is wrong, they just won’t have the time. The best bet for local business is a line of bars outside the entrance, that will attract the after work drunks and lechers looking to score their interns. Overall, there will be virtually no interactions between DHS and the local community. Walter Reed is a good model, ie there will be a 100 yards of empty space between the street and buildings for blast protection, walls, guard shacks, etc.

  • DrewLove

    Something tells me there are lots of unmarked gaves on that property.

  • mediaslave

    I was there as well and took a lot of photos that I hope to post soon. It was a good time. It was very informative and a beautiful day to be there, plus lots of rusty metal and old buildings.

    As for being closed to the public I had friends who went there to watch fireworks during 4th of july so it was open to the public at least some times.

    Also I heard stories of women getting a lobotomy to treat their menopause, creepy indeed.

  • I didn’t realize you were on the tour on Saturday or I would have introduced myself. 🙂

    The tour was informative, and they were pretty open to questions of all kinds. My comments are mostly a regurgitation of what the guides to me. (One GSA rep, on DCPL rep with competing agendas.)

    1. CP is largely correct that the majority of the campus will be closed to the public. The current plans are for the Point and the Civil War-era cemetery to be open to the public on a limited basis. (i.e. the Point will be open on Memorial Day and 4th of July.)

    2. The ‘creepy’ look to the trees are because it’s basically an arboretum there. One of the superintendent’s sons brought in plantings from around the world, so you see scrubbier looking pines than are typical for the east coast. But the trees were pretty amazing there. I’ve only seen trees like that in DC at the National Arboretum.

    3. The Civil War-era cemetery was also a potter’s field, so yes, there are lots of unmarked graves there.

  • this will be a boon for River East. hands down. if UDC could have done this, they would have. and let’s all not forget that the views you can get from St. E’s are available from many other locations in Anacostia and Barry Farm and Congress Heights.

    i’m ready to be proved wrong if this somehow goes horribly, but right now I can’t wait for this to happen.


Subscribe to our mailing list