When I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1962, St. Elizabeths Hospital was notorious — a rundown federal facility for the treatment of mentally ill people that was overcrowded and understaffed. Opened with idealism and hope in 1855, the hospital had ballooned from 250 patients to as many as 8,000. Its vast, rolling patch of farmland had fallen into disrepair, too, in the poorest neighborhood in the U.S. capital.
The hospital is now the subject of an exhibition at the National Building Museum; Architecture of an Asylum explores the links between architecture and mental health.
Dorothea Dix, the 19th-century reformer who fought for the hospital, would have rolled over in her grave to see what St. Elizabeths had become by the 1960s.
“She had observed the treatment of the mentally ill in jails and other kinds of alms houses [and] poor houses all over the country,” explains exhibit curator Sarah Leavitt. Dix “was really appalled by the treatment that they were getting, and she made it her life’s work to change that story.”
I’ve been working on a photo essay of Dorthea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, previously known as the “North Carolina Insane Hospital.” It’s abandoned now and as it sits on beautiful acreage the State is going to turn into a park after they bulldoze all the buildings (just one of the travesties visited upon the mentally ill in North Carolina, but that’s a sermon for another day).
Anyway, my dog Buddy has been accompanying me on some of my recent photo rounds, and every now and then he sneaks into a photo.