New Life For Our Oldest Federal Psychiatric Facility : The Picture Show A new facility for St. Elizabeths Hospital has opened. The old campus will be renovated, but will the history be preserved?
NPR logo New Life For Our Oldest Federal Psychiatric Facility

New Life For Our Oldest Federal Psychiatric Facility

In Hagan Hall at St. Elizabeths Hospital, records and record players litter the floor. Orchestral chimes for music therapy accompany an acrylic painting that was punched in the gut. An upright piano, its face stripped off, languishes—some of the keys permanently depressed, as though a ghost has been holding the same awkward chord for years.

Big changes are happening at St. Elizabeths, in Washington, D.C. A new facility opened on April 22, promising new life for its patients, as reported by The Washington Post. The original west campus, which opened in 1855 as the "Government Hospital for the Insane," will be converted into headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security.

Beyond sparse records relics, and photographs, we can only guess at what daily life at the nation’s first federal mental institution was really like. But if these items disappear during renovation, so will the tangible record of former patients. Bill Willis, a GSA architect who works at St. Elizabeths, said books and records will be preserved for archives, but many clues to the campus’ past life will be discarded because of construction. There's simply no way to save everything.

Even if the broken chairs and bingo cards don’t survive, intern Dominic Ruiz Esparza and I preserved what we could, in audio and pictures.

May-Ying and Dominic produced this story for NPR's Intern Edition.

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