The redesigned pavilion that will grace the front yard of the east campus of the redeveloping St. Elizabeths Hospital site in Washington, D.C., will feature a gently sloping canopy to shade all who pass through. Image courtesy of Davis Brody Bond/© Christopher Shelley
The Gateway Pavilion was touted as the launching pad for the reimagining of the east campus of St. Elizabeths hospital late last year. Now that changes suggested by various review boards have been made, it may fulfill its mission.
February 19, 2013—Even on a windy winter day the bright sun reflects warmly off the three- and four-story, century-old brick buildings framing the expansive front lawn of the St. Elizabeths Hospital east campus along Martin Luther King Avenue in the Congress Heights neighborhood of D.C.. The impressive scene makes it easy to understand why the city has sought a way to take advantage of this real estate for almost 25 years.
With the hospital—the nation’s first psychiatric institution—relocated to new facilities (it moved in 2010), plans now call for the east campus to be reborn as a technology and innovation hub that could spark development in one of the city’s most depressed areas.
The neighborhood—located just a few miles from the U.S. Capitol with easy access to a metro station—already shows signs of growth: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has committed to relocating 3,700 U.S. Coast Guard employees to the west campus, across the street, and construction recently began on a new headquarters for the Federal Emergency Management
Agency just one block north of the east campus. Promises of significant new construction—including what is being called the Gateway Pavilion on the lawn—and a major overhaul of the historic east campus buildings have already drawn interest from such technology firms as Microsoft.
Designed by Davis Brody Bond LLC, and engineered by Robert Silman Associates, both of which have offices in the district, the pavilion’s signature element is a sleek, cantilevering ramp that extends from one side of the site to the other, a “prow” that leads visitors to a new outdoor amphitheater. At its highest point, the ramp becomes a canopy beneath which food and other commercial vendors will be located, encouraging interaction among the campus’s new employees as well as residents. Ground is scheduled to be broken for the $4.5-million project in March, and by the time construction is completed in August, the pavilion is expected to serve as a much-needed public hub and “launching pad” for the rest of the campus renovation.
That will be a stark contrast to the space as it stands now: gated and empty, protected by guardhouses. “We’re looking to … create a robust innovation hub with university partners, technology companies, business enterprises, nonprofits, and civic associations in a single campus,” says Catherine Buell, the executive director of the St. Elizabeths East project. “The anchor institutions and businesses we are able to attract will dictate how the [campus] takes shape.”
The campus grew into what it is today between 1900 and 1940 and was listed in the National Register of Historic places in 1979 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. With those designations comes attention from the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), a federal agency established to review the design of public projects in Washington, D.C. After renderings of the pavilion were presented in October 2012, the CFA encouraged St. Elizabeths to revise aspects of the pavilion design, resulting in a new plan revealed to the public just last week, on February 11.
“It’s not radically different,” says the CFA’s secretary Thomas Luebke. “It used to be almost a bridge element. It came up in one corner, spanned, and then came back down. Now it’s … not quite the same gesture.”
By 2015, after the city has invested a planned $58 million in infrastructure improvements, new construction around the pavilion should be swift. Consequently, views of the campus from Martin Luther King Avenue will be diminished, which made a more modest structure on the pavilion make sense. “It’s smaller but has some of the same qualities of the diagonal movement, with a tipped plane up in the air sheltering other things below,” Luebke says.
“[We looked] at the structure and the way it’s presented on the site and the way pedestrians approach it,” says Michelle Chin, the city’s department of general services project manager. “Most importantly, how it framed the views of the historic structures. We were asked to revisit that to preserve those vistas. With that we have gone back and adjusted the site.”
The pavilion will still represent a striking modern design in the center of an old-fashioned campus. But its size will be a bit smaller—cut from 20,000 sq ft to 17,000 sq ft. But that change does not affect a 3,300 sq ft enclosed space beneath the canopy, which will be especially important during colder months. And the design now makes it all but impossible for a visitor to walk the entire length of the pavilion without interacting with some of the areas set aside for famers’ market stalls and food vendors, encouraging interaction.
A second level that, in the original design, spanned much of the site now ends in an overlook. “There was this long expansive structure before; we’ve now cut it in half,” says Kirk I. Mettam, P.E., M.ASCE, the director of the Washington, D.C., office of Robert Silman Associates. “We have a fairly [visually] dynamic cantilever and we’re using some rather heavy elements, but we’re using them in a reasonably simple way.”
If the project remains on schedule, a full opening in August will correspond with the move-in date for the Coast Guard employees across the street. While the Coast Guard campus will have an on-site cafeteria, it’s equipped to serve only 300 people at once, meaning those looking for a meal during their lunch break will be motivated to head to the east campus and explore the pavilion’s offerings.
But the pavilion won’t be permanent. Once the first redevelopment zone reaches full capacity, the structure will be disassembled and moved to another area of the vast St. Elizabeths campus. If all goes well with the campus plan, the pavilion should be relocated by 2023.
“This is going to be designed and installed in a manner that will not require demolishing the entire structure and adding additional trash to landfills,” Buell says.
And that suits Robert Silman Associates just fine, Mettam says. Reusing the pavilion in different locations actually aligns the project with the principles of sustainability, he points out. “We like to get involved in artful engineering,” he says. “It’s not that it won’t last for 100 years; it’s that we’re designing it for a limited presence on this site. This is a growing trend in structural and civil engineering.”