News
10.05.2009
Mental State
D.C. psychiatric hospital to become homeland security headquarters
Perkins + Will has designed a new headquarter for the Coast Guard, the first piece of a new Department of Homeland Security complex at the former St. Elizabeths hospital.
Courtesy GSA

In September, the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) held a ceremonial groundbreaking to celebrate the creation of a DHS headquarters on the 172-acre west campus of St. Elizabeths—a National Historic Landmark and the first federally operated hospital for the insane.

The groundbreaking also commemorated the awarding of a $435 million design-build contract to HOK and Clark Design Build for the first phase of construction on the site of a new 1.18 million-square-foot Coast Guard headquarters designed by Perkins + Will. The overall project, which will include 6.2 million square feet of historic preservation and adaptive reuse as well as new building, has been a cause of concern for preservationists who feel that Homeland Security’s particular needs will destroy the landmark.

Sited on a bluff in Anacostia overlooking central D.C., St. Elizabeths was established by Congress in 1852. Though it once housed as many as 7,000 patients, including inmates such as Ezra Pound and John Hinckley, Jr., the facility’s relevancy diminished along with the decline in popularity of large mental institutions. By 2002, the hospital had moved its remaining residents to its smaller east campus, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the site with its extensive ornamental landscape on its list of 11 most endangered places.

The Center Building (1852) at St. Elizabeths, designed by Architect of the Capitol Thomas U. Walter.
Courtesy National Photo Company Collection

In 2004 the GSA took control of the west campus, invested $15 million for emergency repairs to save the historic buildings from demolition due to neglect, and began looking for an appropriate tenant. Homeland Security, then looking for a location to house 14,000 workers currently spread throughout 33 offices in the area, seemed to fit the bill. Not only did the site, the largest federally owned tract of land in D.C., promise enough space for its vast operations, but the campus already provided the 100-foot setbacks required by post-9/11 mandates for high-security agencies.

“We couldn’t find any other federal need for St. Elizabeths,” explained Les Shepherd, head architect of the GSA. He also pointed out that no private developer would touch the site because of the massive scale of its revitalization needs, which could cost as much as $3 billion, combined with the constraints of working within an historic landmark.

But not everyone feels that DHS and St. Elizabeths are a perfect match, and in spite of a three-year review process that has seen many adjustments to appease preservationists, concerns persist. “They started with 6.2 million square feet and they’re still at that number,” said Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League. “Our position is that the mass of development is going to destroy the landmark,” she continued. “DHS should find another location for consolidation.”

Nell Ziehl, program officer for the trust, seconded that opinion. “We were happy that the GSA wanted to take over the site, but DHS is incompatible. They’re going to cordon it off. We think it should be accessible for all Americans,” she said.

After years of decay, St. Elizabeths was recently rescued by the GSA, and now it awaits its new tenants.
Courtesy GSA

While all of the existing buildings are required to go through the National Historic Preservation Act Section 106 process, which requires federal agencies to take into account the effects of their activities on historic properties, the new Coast Guard headquarters, scheduled for occupancy by 2013, is particularly troubling to preservationists.

In its current design, the facility’s ten floors step down the slope of the bluff overlooking the Anacostia River. Though many alterations have been made to sink it further into the hillside, break up the mass with courtyards, cover it with green roofs, and otherwise disguise it with green screens, the massive building and its parking garage will undeniably make a visual impact on the landscape.

“The site was always part of the green backdrop of D.C. as conceived in the McMillan plan,” Ziehl said, referring to the ambitious urban development plan of 1901. “The Coast Guard building will disrupt the monumental setting of the center of the city.”

The Commission of Fine Arts approved the Coast Guard headquarters and DHS consolidation in 2008, but the project has yet to clear every hurdle that stands between it and the commencement of construction. To handle the expected increase in traffic, the GSA wants to add a new access road off of Interstate 295, a passage that will take it through National Park Service land.

“The Parks Service has prevented them from seizing the parkland,” said Ziehl. “We understand that DHS and GSA and the Federal Highway Administration and Parks have all been having meetings to work out a compromise, but the National Planning Commission has made it clear: The project cannot move forward unless the access road issue is resolved.”

A version of this article appeared in AN 10.07.2009.

Aaron Seward