historical photos

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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.”

‘Architecture Of An Asylum’ Tracks History Of U.S. Treatment Of Mental Illness

Photos: National Archives and Records Administration/National Building (3) Museum and National Library of Medicine/National Building Museum

HISTORIC PHOTOS WE MIGHT HAVEN’T YET SEEN

Niagara falls was completely frozen in 1911.

First airplane flies, 1903

The first computer, 1950.

The first picture ever taken, 1826.

Inside an Auschwitz gas chamber.

The fall of the Berlin wall, 1989.

Jan Rose Kasmir offers a flower to soldiers during the Pentagon anti-war protest, 1967.

A group of gentlemen take a selfie, 1920.

In this November 11, 1975 file photo, would-be assassin of Gerald Ford and member of the so-called Manson family Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who refused to walk to her trial, is carried by U.S. Marshal Arthur Van Court into the Sacramento federal court.