A Japanese pagoda sits perpendicular to a Swiss chalet, and they share a 32-acre historic campus with a Dutch windmill, a Spanish mission-style home, an American bungalow and an Italian villa. In all, there are 12 architecturally distinct homes placed randomly around the historic National Park Seminary in this city just outside Washington.
Nestled at the tip of Rock Creek Park, the bucolic if overgrown campus in the neighborhood of Forest Glen has been the victim of neglect and vandalism since the late 1970’s, when the Army all but abandoned the site as an annex to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. This once elegant sanctuary, established in 1887, also narrowly escaped demolition.
The first building constructed in Forest Glen was Ye Forest Inne, a fancy vacation retreat for Washingtonians, which lasted only until 1892. For the next 50 years, the campus underwent extensive building under the auspices of a girls’ finishing school, the National Park Seminary, before being annexed by the Army in 1942 for use as a convalescence center for soldiers.
After a grassroots effort lasting decades to wrest control from the Army and save the historic buildings from demise, the campus is now being transformed into a residential community by the Alexander Company of Madison, Wis., which specializes in salvaging historic structures. And here, that will be quite a job.
In addition to overseeing the single-family homes, the Alexander Company will retrofit 50 condominiums and 66 affordable apartments into the Main Building, originally the vacation resort, a shingled Queen Anne that was later stuccoed over; and 10 condos into a neo-Classical gymnasium with a Greek portico and Corinthian columns. The condos will range from $350,000 to more than $1 million, and will average $550,000. The affordable apartments have not yet been priced.
“This is the largest historic renovation project we’ve undertaken,” said David Vos, the project manager, while giving a tour of the site. “And in some ways, it’s the most unusual. The campuslike setting is very suburban, but it will take on an urban character as we renovate the historic buildings into modern condos and apartments.”
There will also be 90 town houses constructed on the campus by EYA of Bethesda. A grand ballroom building — the architectural crown jewel of the campus — will be renovated and maintained as public space. The overgrown campus will also require extensive restoration, as well as an improved pedestrian link to the Forest Glen Metro station.
In order to finance such a sweeping renovation, the Alexander Company is selling off the architecturally unusual single-family homes to bidders who will be required to restore the homes in accordance with the Maryland Historical Trust. Eleven prequalified bidders have been chosen, and Mr. Vos advised the bidders to estimate at a minimum of $600,000. Final bids are due Tuesday and awards will be made on Thursday.
“For years we’ve been watching the Army let the place deteriorate,” said Wendy Kern, whose husband, Raymond, has been renovating the Japanese pagoda into what will become a sales office before it will eventually be sold as a single-family home. The Kerns hope to buy it as an investment.
“I was amazed that the site was still very much intact,” said David Overholt, another bidder, whose background is in historic preservation and restoration carpentry. “My wife and I have gone back and forth about which one would be practical, which one is unique and wonderful,” he said. “We love all of them. The variation in architectural styles, it gives it this fantasy feeling.”
That feeling was created by John and Vesta Cassedy, the founders of the girls’ finishing school, who were greatly influenced by the 1893 World’s Fair, otherwise known as the Columbian Exposition, in Chicago. The Cassedys undertook a building construction spree, which included the internationally styled sorority houses for girls at the finishing school, who were to receive a “worldly” education in an otherwise cloistered setting.
A second construction spree was undertaken by a headmaster, James Eli Ament, who connected all the outlying structures to the Main Building with covered or enclosed walkways so the girls did not have to be exposed to the elements.
The culmination of construction was in 1927 with the grand ballroom building of Dr. Ament’s own design. At more than 65 feet, it is still the tallest and most striking structure on campus. The vaulted ceiling, dark oak buttresses and balconies are largely intact, as are classical busts that Dr. Ament brought back from Europe, which still line the upper reaches of the ballroom. Girls were allowed to practice ballroom dancing for half an hour twice a day to music projected by the huge wooden speaker from an original Victrola record player that remains intact.
Not so fortunate are sections of the Main Building, which have collapsed four floors down, leaving just a shell. One reason the Alexander Company was selected by Montgomery County, which took possession after the Army relinquished control, is that it was the only bidder that did not recommend demolishing buildings. Only one, a cottage, had to be destroyed, but many of the 27 buildings, 23 dating from 1887 to 1927, have suffered nearly ruinous damage.
As so often happens, the effort to rescue the site was spearheaded by a grass-roots community group, in this case Save Our Seminary, or SOS, which formed in 1988 and gave tours to raise awareness. Bonnie Rosenthal, one of the earliest members, who later became the executive director, is now groundskeeper for the Alexander Company.
“The first tour I took, I went to the top level of the windmill and looked out at the glen, and it was just enchanting,” Ms. Rosenthal said. “The first order of business was getting the Army out. But then it almost went to public auction, and that’s when SOS asked the county to step forward.”
In April 2004, the county turned possession over to the Alexander Company, which is overseeing what is estimated to be a $110 million investment, including $15 million in tax credits, grants and other public subsidies.
Randall Alexander, founder and chief executive of the Alexander Company, credits neighborhood advocates with not only saving the campus from certain ruin but also having the flexibility to understand that not every detail can be saved and new construction will be required to make the project economically viable.
“Community input sometimes scares off developers,” Mr. Alexander said. “But it’s a unique site — an arboretum with international architecture — in a strong market that the community really supports. It will be a challenge. There’s a lot of damage, but those are the projects we like to do.”