Architecture of an Asylum

The Rise and Fall of Design as Medicine for the Mentally Ill

Washington City Paper, April 13, 2017

It’s hard to imagine anyone dealt a worse hand than the patient identified by her doctor as “Alcoholic Woman No. 2.” Her father died in a mental hospital when she was an infant. Her mother was psychotic, “fanatically religious,” and abusive, according to a medical case study. Woman No. 2 spent most of her childhood in an orphanage. Her husband divorced her because of her drinking. She racked up 15 arrests and two suicide attempts before being committed to St. Elizabeths, the federal asylum in D.C., sometime in the mid-1900s.

This unfortunate woman was one of the many thousands of Americans to receive treatment at St. Elizabeths over its 162 years and counting as a mental hospital. These patients are ghostly presences in Architecture of an Asylum, a new exhibition at the National Building Museum.

Like the outermost figure in a Russian nesting doll, the story of this one institution holds within it a series of resonant narratives: about shifting attitudes toward mental illness; about the idea that architecture and landscape can heal the troubled; and about a part of the District that was long cut off from the rest of the city, becoming its own surprisingly complex and self-sufficient community.

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