(Eric Taylor)

St. Elizabeths, a historic former psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C., added a showpiece last fall—the Gateway DC pavilion, offering spaces for a farmers market, a café, and community meetings on the entrance plaza of the hospital’s shuttered east campus. More than 1,200 visitors attended its two-day opening last year to hear live music, eat food provided at food trucks, and enjoy a pie-eating contest. More recently, Gateway DC has been the site of a large snow slide that drew upwards of 3,000 visitors.


Local vendors sell products ranging from hot sauce to kettle corn. (Eric Taylor)

“The pavilion is a food and entertainment venue—a way of getting people to use the campus, which is now open to the public for the first time,” says Catherine Buell, executive director of St. Elizabeths East, the organization responsible for operating the building.

More than a community amenity, the 400-foot-long (120 m) structure serves as a signboard broadcasting the future promise of the entire St. Elizabeths east campus as a mixed-use development. In 2012, the city unveiled a master plan for offices, mixed-income housing, retail space, hotels, civic and education space, and even urban farming on the 183-acre (74 ha) parcel.

That blueprint followed the federal government’s decision to turn the hospital’s west campus into the headquarters for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Both developments aim to improve the economy of the surrounding Capitol Heights neighborhood, an impoverished area east of the Anacostia River, through jobs and commerce.


More than 1,200 visitors attended its two-day opening last year to hear live music, eat food provided at food trucks, and enjoy a pie-eating contest. (Eric Taylor)

The Gateway Pavilion, the result of a 2012 design competition held among District firms, is the first element of the east campus plan to be built. Architect Davis Brody Bond teamed with local structural engineer Robert Silman Associates and contractor Kadcon Corporation to design and construct the structure in about six months.

“Their scheme was unique, innovative, and different,” says Buell. “It stood out from the others in the competition.” The angular pavilion, with its long, tilted roof—a stark contrast with the stately brick hospital buildings—reflects the city’s growing interest in contemporary, environmentally friendly design, she says. Among its ecofriendly features are a bioswale and a 10,000-gallon (38,000 liter) underground cistern for collecting rainwater and meeting irrigation needs.

“The biggest benefit of this project is the amount of civic space it adds to the community,” says design architect Rob Anderson of Davis Brody Bond. “We expanded the existing park by turning the roofscape into another park with lawns, benches, and places for viewing the historic buildings of the campus.” At the pavilion’s southern end, the steel-supported concrete roof slants down to meet the ground so visitors can ascend its sloping expanse from the sidewalk.

To fortify the structure, Anderson and his team clad the sides of the 27,000-square-foot (2,500 sq m) roof in high-performance, fiberglass-reinforced concrete. “It is as strong as some steel in compression,” Anderson says of the material. Though sharp-edged, the steel-and-concrete pavilion has maple plywood soffits, Douglas fir siding, and pine walls to offer woodsy charm.

The northern portion of the building is open on the sides, with the jutting roof forming a canopy over wooden market stalls designed by the architects. At the southern end, a glass-fronted meeting room and a café occupy 5,400 square feet (500 sq m) of enclosed spaces on either side of a staircase leading to the roof. The decision to weatherize the building so it could be used year-round increased the cost from about $4.5 million to $8.3 million, says Buell.

Since opening last fall, the building has attracted fitness classes and community groups to its enclosed spaces. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, food trucks pull up to the side of the building to serve breakfast and lunch. Sunday food markets are held monthly under the 25-foot-high (7.6 m) canopy, and winter festivals are being planned to include an ice slide. “The intent is for these events to occur regularly and to continuously build a customer base at the pavilion over time,” says Buell.

During weekdays, most of the customers come from the new U.S. Coast Guard headquarters on the St. Elizabeths west campus. A tunnel under Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, the street dividing the hospital’s east and west grounds, connects the headquarters to the pavilion.

Buell says the structure is temporary—“intended to stay in its current location for at least 15 to 20 years,” she notes—and designed to be taken apart and reused to activate other portions of the campus. According the east campus master plan, the structure will eventually be replaced by two office buildings.