Adapting Asylums: Reuse Opportunities for Glenn Dale Hospital

Covered in creeping vines and urban legends bound only by the imagination, Glenn Dale Hospital in Glenn Dale, MD has sat vacant for the last 30 years. Built in the 1930s as a premier tuberculosis treatment center for Washington, DC residents, the complex of 23 Colonial Revival style buildings on 216 acres remains unused and subject to vandals and erratic weather patterns of the Mid-Atlantic. Tuberculosis sanatoria like Glenn Dale, as well as psychiatric asylums of the same era, were designed through a moral philosophy that centered on healing through the beauty in architectural and landscape design.

Despite three decades of vacancy, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), who have owned the site since 1994, deemed the main buildings on the property structurally sound. A protective covenant in the form of House Bill 113 [1994, ch. 361, § 1], mandates that 150 acres remain owned by the M-NCPPC as public park and recreation space while the 60 acres containing the four main hospital buildings are sold, rehabilitated and developed into a Continuing Care Retirement Community. These 60 acres will only be sold to an owner who is qualified to operate such a facility, creating an extremely limiting market for the sale of the hospital site.

The Children’s Hospital, also called Building B, or the original hospital building at Glenn Dale Hospital, built 1935. Photo by Tom Kirsch,

The children and adult hospital buildings along with the two main nurses’ dormitories are the only four structures the M-NCPPC requires a buyer to rehabilitate. The other 19 structures on the remaining 150 acres of the hospital property are slated for demolition if the law remains unchanged. Although the intention of House Bill 113 is to protect and reuse this historic resource, the limitations in place are creating a progressive case of demolition by neglect. The buildings may be structurally sound at present, but time is running out and action must be taken soon. Changing the law to allow for other uses would preserve this site and also would be beneficial to the community, bringing revenue to the county and promoting local business, as well as maintaining a sense of place and quality of life valued by residents. Examples of successful projects illustrate ways this can happen.

Example of Asylum Reuse

The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is an instance of a thriving mixed-use redevelopment of a former psychiatric asylum in Michigan.  In 1885, The Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital opened as a facility following the philosophy of treatment through restful and tranquil surroundings. The hospital remained open until 1989, when it was deemed obsolete and scheduled for demolition, but a group of concerned citizens halted those plans.After a few failed attempts for reuse plans, Raymond Minervini was inspired to take action in 2001, when some of the historic buildings faced demolition by neglect. Minervini purchased the property for one dollar and the development plan for Traverse City State Hospital began.

The Village at Grand Traverse Commons

The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Photo from The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

The site is currently a campus of 25 remaining original buildings on 63 acres of the landscaped grounds originally designed by E.H. Van Deusen. The property is surrounded by 300 acres of designated open land. Construction began in 2002, with many of the site’s Italianate buildings already in use. Other buildings are currently in various stages of renovation, furthering the creation of a village type environment with a central town square, establishing a creative alternative to urban sprawl. Planned new uses for the hospital buildings, include condominiums, a medical campus, eclectic shops, eateries, an arboretum, walkways and professional services.

This project was possible through tax credits and incentives offered by the local and state governments of Michigan. Renaissance Zones are entitled to several tax abatements including local and school real estate property taxes, local personal property taxes, State of Michigan Business Tax, and State of Michigan Income tax. Any residential or commercial property within the Village at Grand Traverse Commons is nearly tax-free until 2017. Other available incentives that helped this project become a reality were Brownfield Tax Increment Financing, state and federal Historic Preservation Tax Credits, low interest loans and grants. With access to similar incentives in Maryland, a rehabilitation project is more likely to occur.

Next Steps for Glenn Dale Hospital Rehabilitation

Site plan map detailing building locations. Image by Prince George’s County Historical Society.

The National Register of Historic Places nomination for Glenn Dale Hospital was approved in November 2011, thereby making it eligible for a 20% Federal tax credit for rehabilitation costs that follow The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. Since the Glenn Dale Hospital site must legally be converted to a Continuing Care Retirement Community, the income-generating, residential function of the site is aligned with the required use of a site eligible for this tax credit. On the state level, the Maryland Sustainable Rehabilitation Communities Tax Credit Program also provides a 20% rehabilitation tax credit for certified historic structures, plus an additional 5% credit for high performance certified historic structures that are LEED Gold certified or the equivalent. Potentially, 40% to 45% tax credits could be available for this rehabilitation project.

A key issue with this scale of rehabilitation is the removal of contaminants such as asbestos, lead paint, and mold. Some buildings at Glenn Dale Hospital are filled with exposed asbestos, creating a public health hazard when its fibers become airborne and can be inhaled. Asbestos in construction was a very common and accepted material during the 1930s as it strengthens cement and plastics and also serves as insulation. Removal of the substance must be done by certified professionals and can cost millions of dollars for a complex as large as Glenn Dale Hospital. Whether the buildings are reused or demolished, the asbestos must be removed before any work can be done. Maryland offers a Brownfields Revitalization Incentive Program to encourage the reuse of contaminated historic commercial resources in an effort to stop sprawl and promote smart growth. For five years after a cleanup, a site may qualify for a real property tax credit between 50% and 70%. With the negative effect asbestos has on the local environs, in addition to the underground fuel tanks, Glenn Dale Hospital qualifies as a Brownfield site.

All of these options for tax credits are avenues to delve into for financial assistance with the high costs associated with large-scale rehabilitation projects, thus potential buyers may be enticed by these incentives. In considering a positive rehabilitation and reuse example such as The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, its plan can serve as a guide for a design scheme at Glenn Dale Hospital since they are both multi-building properties with green space surrounding them.

Other notable projects that have utilized tax incentives to breathe new life into former asylum and sanatoria sites include the transformation of Western State Hospital in Staunton, VA into The Villages at Staunton and in Buffalo, NY, The Richardson-Olmsted Complex. The psychiatric institute was a collaboration between H.H. Richardson and Frederick Law Olmsted and is currently a work in progress for a mixed use facility, complete with an architectural history visitor center. These places tell a bygone story of an age when people sent their family members away to recover in bucolic settings for extended periods of time. The original intent of the harmony between architecture and landscape can still be felt and is a major part of what makes these sites so special. To lose them erases a physical part of a collective history and replacing them with new construction removes a sense of place unique to an area such as Glenn Dale, MD.

For the likelihood of the rehabilitation of Glenn Dale Hospital, the law must be changed to allow for another use besides a Continuing Care Retirement Community. A successful sale and reuse of this property is not prevented due to a weak real estate market, it is owned by a government agency not necessarily affected by the fluctuations in the marketplace. The weak market may be a detractor for investors preferring to place their funds in more solid options than an abandoned hospital site. A bigger complication arises from the lack of a demand for a retirement facility, demonstrated by the fact that no bids came from representatives of a Continuing Care Retirement Community when Glenn Dale Hospital was for sale in October 2010. With a law allowing more uses for the site, Glenn Dale Hospital can thrive as a community asset once again and be added to the successful examples of the adaptive reuse of these rare and culturally relevant sites.

Caitlin Chamberlain has her MFA in historic preservation and has been an advocate for saving Glenn Dale Hospital since 1996. She currently maintains the Facebook group Glenn Dale Hospital: This Place Matters as a means to raise awareness and advocate for a new law that allows a new reuse plan. To learn more about this subject, you can read her thesis entitled ‘From Vacant to Vibrant: Adaptive Reuse of Asylums and Sanatoriums Through the Study of Glenn Dale Hospital in Glenn Dale, MD.’

About the author: Caitlin

Caitlin has her MFA in historic preservation from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. She has been and has been an advocate for saving Glenn Dale Hospital, a vacant tuberculosis hospital, since 1996. It’s reuse was the topic of her thesis entitled ‘From Vacant to Vibrant: Adaptive Reuse of Asylums and Sanatoriums Through the Study of Glenn Dale Hospital in Glenn Dale, MD. She currently maintains the Facebook group Glenn Dale Hospital: This Place Matters as a means to raise awareness and advocate for a new law that allows a new reuse plan. Caitlin lives in Savannah and researches and advocates for rare and lesser-known historic sites.


  1. dcolman says:

    The State of Vermont is embarking on a $90+ million dollar rehabilitation of the former Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury, VT. Following extensive flooding during Tropical Storm Irene last fall, the State has decided to return to the site and rehabilitate the core historic buildings and build a sensitive addition. It will be a great example of adaptive reuse, historic preservation and sustainable design.

  2. meagan@histpres says:

    The stars seem to be aligning for the Buffalo State Asylum because of a crackerjack team of architects, preservationists, and supportive politicians working as The Richardson Center Corporation. A leader of this group is Barbara Campagna, former architect of all of the National Trust’s sites. She recently posted in her blog, True Green Cities, about the rehab of an 800-year-old former hospital in Belgium. Read her whole enlightened post here, but consider this kernel immediately, and use it as a talking point in conversation with nay-sayers:

    Do you remember when you started consistently recycling your aluminum cans and plastic bottles? It wouldn’t occur to most people to NOT recycle their cans anymore, so why can’t this mentality extend to buildings?

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