WASHINGTON // It seems an unlikely match: a US government department dedicated to preserving the country’s national security metres away from the home of the man who attempted to assassinate one of the country’s presidents.
But the US Department of Homeland Security believes that St Elizabeths Hospital, one of the country’s first public psychiatric hospitals, is the only suitable site for its new headquarters.
The 120-hectare complex has had a notable record of tenants, including Ezra Pound, who was deemed unfit to face charges of treason after living in and siding with Italy during the Second World War.
It also housed Richard Lawrence, who in 1835 tried to shoot Andrew Jackson, in what is considered to be the first assassination attempt of a US president.
Today, the vastly scaled-down psychiatric facilities are limited to the site’s east campus, where John Hinckley Jr, 53, has lived since he was found not guilty by reason of insanity after attempting to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981. The DHS, which plans to concentrate its development primarily on the site’s west campus, was created in the wake of September 11 to protect the country from terrorist attacks on its own soil and to respond to natural disasters. By consolidating tens of different government organisations, the department quickly became one of the largest US government agencies, but its various elements’ headquarters have remained spread throughout the city.
“You want your agency headquarters to be on a single campus,” said Larry Orluskie, a DHS spokesman, explaining that communication within the department would have been more fluid if the agency was not so sprawled in 2005, when it responded to Hurricane Katrina and the broken levies in New Orleans.
Federal rules require the DHS headquarters to be surrounded by a 100-foot “setback”, which is a type of security buffer zone, and planners argue that no other unused property within the city perimeters is big enough and has the right features for the project, which aims to put at least 14,000 DHS employees on the site. “St Elizabeths gives us the prime opportunity to build what we need in the area that we need it,” said Mr Orluskie. “That’s the best place and actually the only place to house the kind of structure we need.”
The multibillion-dollar plan has wound its way through almost all regulatory hurdles.
Now the US Congress must decide – probably within the next few weeks – whether to fully fund the project. If it does, planners hope to break ground this summer on construction that involves replacing all infrastructure and equipping the property for a modern and highly secure complex while maintaining historical features.
National and local preservation groups strongly oppose the project. While they understand the site’s appeal, they say the project is so large and self-contained it could destroy the National Historic Landmark – a designation that would have to be reconsidered once the project is underway.
“What is being proposed will put onto this campus a level of activity that will make it difficult for the national historical property and the view and all of the things that are special about St Elizabeths to have meaning any more,” said David Garrison, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a policy think tank.
Government officials say the property will limit public entry, but Mr Garrison believes the community should have more access to the landmark and the views of the city. “The idea that it will be locked away just seems like a huge loss for the city.”
One a government entity, the National Park Service also opposes the plan as it stands, but Janet Napolitano, the new secretary of Homeland Security, has been to the site several times and has seen the plans. “I think we have her complete support,” Mr Orluskie said.
St Elizabeths began operations in 1855 with the goal of humanely treating mentally ill patients. The largest of its 62 buildings – which will house the DHS secretary – was designed by Thomas U Walter, who also created the US Capitol dome. During the Civil War, St Elizabeths’ facilities were opened up to wounded soldiers from both south and north, and some of the dead were buried in a cemetery on the premises that planners aim to keep open to the public. Then, over more than 150 years, thousands of patients were treated at the hospital.
“It’s an incredibly significant site in part because of its architecture but also because of its association with the history of mental health in America,” said Nell Ziehl, a programme officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an advocacy group. Government planners and DHS say their aim is to preserve the former glory of St Elizabeths.
“Whenever possible, the federal government should occupy and reuse historic sites,” said Michael McGill, a spokesman for the US General Services Administration, which will oversee the project if it goes through. “The history of St Elizabeths is fascinating.”