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Published: October 25, 2016
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National Building Museum to present Architecture of an Asylum

New exhibition to trace life of St. Elizabeths Hospital, and the importance of building design in mental health care

Old and New Center Building, St Elizabeths
Left: The Center Building at St. Elizabeths housed both offices for hospital administrators and wards for patients. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, 1900. Right: Following an extensive renovation by the General Services Administration, the Center Building will be repurposed as offices for the Department of Homeland Security. Courtesy of the U.S. General Services Administration.

—The National Building Museum announces an exhibition titled Architecture of an Asylum: St. Elizabeths, 1852-2017. The multi-disciplinary exhibition traces St. Elizabeths’ evolution over time, reflecting shifting theories about how to care for the mentally ill, as well as the later reconfiguration of the campus as a federal workplace and mixed-use urban development. It is slated to open at the Museum on March 25, 2017.

Established by Congress in 1855 as the Government Hospital for the Insane, St. Elizabeths is widely considered a pioneering psychiatric facility. The hospital is a prime example of the “Kirkbride Plan” for mental health hospitals, almost 100 of which were built throughout the nation in the second half of the nineteenth century. These asylums, promoted by social reformers such as Dorothea Dix as part of a movement for Moral Treatment, promised to help patients with a specialized architecture and landscape. St. Elizabeths, along with other hospitals, experienced rapid expansion in its first century, hitting a peak of almost 8,000 patients by the 1960s. As elsewhere, de-institutionalization in the second half of the 20th century emptied out the historic buildings. Today, a small hospital operated by the District remains at the site.

Recent efforts to redevelop the St. Elizabeths site, a National Historic Landmark, have created new opportunities to access and understand its rich architectural legacy, as well as its potential to revitalize one of Washington, D.C.’s most underserved areas in Ward 8. The exhibition will tell the story of how the sprawling campus of nineteenth and twentieth century structures is transitioning to a new role as the site for the U.S. Coast Guard headquarters and a planned Department of Homeland Security facility on the federally operated West Campus. On the District of Columbia-controlled East Campus, officials have begun planning for new residential and community structures such as a modern sports and entertainment complex.

An important collection of architectural drawings held by the Library of Congress will anchor the exhibition. Drawings include Thomas U. Walter’s plans for the institution’s first structure, the 1855 Center Building, as well as plans for later residential “cottages,” farm structures, and an auditorium. A spectacular 1904 model created for the St. Louis World’s Fair is a dramatic centerpiece for the exhibition.

Supplementing drawings and models will be a wide variety of objects, from an electroshock machine to a patient-made cat sculpture with a thumbtack ear, introducing visitors to the people who lived and worked at the institution. The exhibition will include architectural fragments from the recent renovations at the hospital complex, such as doors and paintings carefully cut out from the plaster walls prior to rehabilitation. Displayed together for the first time will be objects and photographs from museums and archives throughout Washington, D.C. The National Building Museum’s exhibition on Saint Elizabeths will present a remarkable story about American healthcare, architectural history, and promising adaptive reuse.

For more information or to be added to the press preview invitation list, please RSVP to Emma Filar at efilar@nbm.org or 202.272.2448, ext. 3458.

The National Building Museum 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. Public inquiries: 202.272.2448 or visit www.nbm.org. Connect with us on Twitter: @BuildingMuseum and Facebook.

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