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Historic Places in Need of Attention - 2002-06-21

As President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Richard Moe helps save historic buildings and neighborhoods across the United States. The National Trust brings attention to historic places that suffer from neglect, insufficient funds and uncontrolled development.

In an effort to raise awareness and rally public support the National Trust produces an annual list of the most endangered historic places in the United States. Among "America's 11 Most Endangered Places" in 2002 are sacred American Indian burial sites and archeological remains in the Missouri River Valley damaged by reservoir and dam projects, an historic wooden sailing fleet on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland plagued by lack of funding for restoration and maintenance, and hundreds of historic bridges across the state of Indiana threatened by demolition.

Richard Moe told reporters that historic landmarks are what make American communities distinctive. "These places really tell America's story. And, losing them would be unthinkable and saving them is not someone else's job," he said. "Unless all of us become aware of the importance of our heritage and take action to preserve it, America's past will not have a future. That's the real message of the "11 Most Endangered Places" list.

Also on the 2002 National Trust list is the oldest large-scale government-run mental hospital in the United States.

Most people in Washington know about St. Elizabeths, but few have ever visited the mental institution. They would be surprised if they did. The grounds 150 grassy hectares overlooking the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers are dotted with low red brick buildings, giving it the appearance of a college campus. Built in the mid-1850s, the hospital was an infirmary for soldiers in the American Civil War and later played a critical role in the development of modern psychotherapy techniques.

Martha Kinsley is Director of the District of Columbia Department of Mental Health, the local agency in Washington that manages the hospital. She says St. Elizabeths became an asylum to keep mental patients safe and away from society.

"What happened with state psychiatric hospitals all over the country is that they became their own community," she explained. "There was a farm here. We had a dairy, the gardens. It was a self-sustaining community like many small villages that we find in rural areas of America."

But, the buildings are crumbling and few resources have been budgeted for repairs, especially since the trend toward mainstreaming caused the patient population to fall to 500 patients today, down from 6,000 in the 1950s.

"The challenge of running this hospital and 365 acres is that we have a smaller population and we only need to be in two or three buildings. But the buildings were not built to be self-contained," she said. "We have a separate laboratory building. The pharmacy is in a separate building. Food service is in a separate building. Security and maintenance is in a separate building. So it is extraordinarily inefficient. We spend more on non-patient care than we do on real patient care simply because we are in a physical plant that was built over 150 years ago."

The hospital was built in two separate campuses, but over the past year all patients have been moved to the East Campus in an effort to consolidate patient care. This has left the West Campus with dozens of empty buildings in various stages of disrepair. The Center Building, the oldest on campus, was built in 1855. Its architect Thomas Walter also designed the dome of the U.S. Capital. It has been boarded up and vacant for forty years.

Kinsley: "I think that we ought to do is think very carefully how we go into this building."
Holland: "We will take you to those areas that we think are safer than others."

Joy Holland is Chief Executive Officer for St. Elizabeths. She passes out hard hats for protection and directs a group of reporters into the Center Building for a look around. "What you're seeing here basically, is an area where the paint has been peeling for years," she says. "It is notorious overhead that if you stayed in the area pieces would literally fall on your head. The lighting overhead, except for the emergency lights that we have up there, you can not feel safe if you were under them because they might very well give way. All the doors are not necessarily on their hinges and some have been boarded up with plywood so that you can not go into those rooms at all."

Washington DC Mental Health Director Martha Kinsley says the West Campus with the Center Building as its hub now is both a liability and an opportunity.

Kinsley: "We're very concerned about the future of the west campus because one, we're responsible for the upkeep here and, that's very hard to do and run a modern hospital at the same time, but two, this is a very valuable land in the middle of the city that could be yielding very important revenues for our city, so that we're not so reliant on the taxpayer."
Skirble: What would you like to see happen to the West Campus?"
Kinsley: In the middle of this West Campus we have two very wonderful buildings which would be wonderful for arts. One is an old-fashioned dance hall and one is a theater. Both could be restored and become signature pieces for this community and for this city. And from there we could have lots of green space for citizens to use."

St. Elizabeths Chief Executive Officer Joy Holland sees beyond the dust and crumbling brick in the Central Building to something better.

Holland: "This is a great opportunity to do something to a building that is knee deep in our culture."
Skirble: "What do you see as the greatest challenge to effecting that vision?"
Holland: "Awareness, I think public awareness. People coming in, taking a look and being creative."

Joy Holland says work on a master revitalization plan to determine the best use of the property has already begun. City managers are calling on Congress for money to restore the buildings. They want to develop new educational, cultural and financial institutions that can benefit both the neighborhood and the city at large.