When we thought mental illness could be cured with architecture

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The U.S. government was so proud of St. Elizabeths, it had a model made and trotted it around to exhibitions
The U.S. government was so proud of St. Elizabeths, it had a model made and trotted it around to exhibitions / © NBM
The U.S. government was so proud of St. Elizabeths, it had a model made and trotted it around to exhibitions
The U.S. government was so proud of St. Elizabeths, it had a model made and trotted it around to exhibitions / © NBM

When the Government Hospital for the Insane opened in Anacostia in 1855, the asylum’s supervising physician, Charles Nichols, predicted that 50 percent of the mentally ill people treated there would make a full recovery. What made him so confident? The building. He’d designed it in accordance with the most cutting-edge theories of the day, which called for sunny, well-ventilated asylums in the countryside.

“They idealistically thought the right kind of building in the right kind of place could cure people,” says Sarah Leavitt, curator of “Architecture of an Asylum: St. Elizabeths, 1852-2017,” an exhibit opening at the National Building Museum on Saturday. “It turns out that’s not true. You can’t fix brain chemistry with architecture.”

The exhibit traces evolving theories about mental health care through the changing architecture of the asylum, which was renamed St. Elizabeths in 1916 and grew to include upward of 100 buildings, about 75 of which now stand empty on a bluff overlooking the Anacostia River. The exhibit includes furniture from the asylum, historical photos and architectural plans, and a huge scale model of the campus that was made to showcase the then state-of-the-art facility at the 1904 World’s Fair.

“St. Elizabeths is part of a bigger story about the infrastructures that America built to take care of mental health patients in the mid- to late 19th century, when we led the world in building such structures,” Leavitt says, “and the story of how, over the last 50 years, we’ve abandoned or destroyed it all.”

The first federal mental hospital, St. Elizabeths was built to treat D.C. residents and members of the Army and Navy. The original building, which still stands, consists of a central tower flanked by two long corridors that zigzag back in order to provide ventilation and light. Patients lived in simply furnished rooms and were often taken outside for recreation or to work on the on-campus farm. […]

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