Textbook Success

A vigilant grassroots effort helped save a forgotten school in Maryland

From Preservation | September/October 2010

Bonnie Rosenthal moved to Silver Spring, Md., in 1988 and was exploring the area called Forest Glen when she found herself at the base of a pagoda. The little tower had clearly seen better days, but its three-tiered roof was intact, as were four stone lanterns flanking the front entrance. “What is this place?” Rosenthal wondered as she looked around. The dreamscape before her included a turreted stucco lodge, a courtyard fountain, colonnaded temples with caryatids, an ivy-­covered castle with a bridge and crenellated tower—and was that a windmill over there?

Rosenthal had stumbled upon the old National Park Seminary, an elite school for girls founded in the 1890s that was later taken over by the U.S. Army. Within months, Rosenthal was back, joining a tour organized by a grassroots group called Save Our Seminary (SOS), and essentially, she never left. Rosenthal went on to become the group’s executive director and led the effort to wrest control of the property from the Army, which had all but abandoned the once-elegant buildings.

You could say that the Forest Glen section of Silver Spring is a real estate dream 120 years in the making.

The main building of the old school here was constructed in 1887 as Ye Forest Inne, the flagship of a speculative venture to turn the surrounding woods into home sites. After that short-lived enterprise failed, educators John and Vesta Cassedy rented (and later purchased) the property and converted it into the National Park Seminary, which opened in 1894.

A catalog touted the new school for women as “an educational institution, not a college preparatory or ‘finishing’ school,” that gave its students the “freedom to develop the whole being by whatever courses, whatever means, are most effective.”

John, who had a passion for architecture, embarked on a 16-year building spree, including the construction of a vast Colonial Revival gym. (The fitness-obsessed Cassedys required students to walk 100 miles each school year.) Cassedy also built the couple’s own two-story cottage (which they called “Aloha”), a chapel, and a library, all in the Shingle Style. Next came the Odeon—a Neoclassical theater with a huge semicircular Ionic portico—and a Colonial Revival gatehouse.

But it is the whimsical follies dotting the campus that give visitors that trip-down-the-rabbit-hole feeling. The Cassedys had bought a book of international architectural plans at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, and it inspired a collection of quirky structures built as sorority houses: the Japanese Pagoda, American Bungalow, Colonial House, English Garden Castle, Dutch Windmill (its blades, alas, did not turn), Japanese Bungalow, Spanish Mission, and Swiss Chalet. Roughly a decade before selling the school in 1916, they added the Italian Villa dormitory.

The next owner, James Eli Ament, also loved architecture, and as pre-Depression enrollment swelled to 400 students, he made extensive additions. Ament had a penchant for bridges, pergolas, and enclosed walkways—fulfilled most dramatically with the Court of the Maidens, an arcade featuring 10 concrete caryatids. He also built the stately President’s House and decked out the gym with a massive Greek portico. Ament’s masterpiece was the 65-foot-high vaulted Ballroom—a rhapsody of Gothic beams, leaded-glass clerestory windows, arcaded brickwork, and French-spindled balustrades on two tiers of curved balconies.

Then, in 1942, the federal government annexed the 30-building property as a rehab center for injured soldiers, to be managed by nearby Walter Reed General Hospital. Ornate furnishings—including 400 Chippendale-style dining chairs and numerous clocks, rugs, and Tiffany-style lamps—were auctioned off. Two large and valuable bronzes, a 400-year-old Japanese lantern and a German sculpture, both gifts to the school, were donated as scrap for the war effort—”to be returned to their respective countries in the form of Yankee armament,” according to the SOS’ history of the site.

Converting the fanciful structures to wartime use meant painting over mahogany ceilings, ripping out carved wood staircases, and replacing plush carpeting with linoleum. The Ballroom became the recreation center and the gym a movie theater, and all the sorority cottages except the English Garden Castle were turned into officer housing. Despite the idyllic setting and morale-boosting concerts by the Army Band—housed in the Odeon—some soldiers found the architecture to be an unpleasant reminder of the countries where they’d been injured. So the Japanese Pagoda was renamed the Chinese Pagoda.

Walter Reed ran the operation through the Vietnam War but floated plans to raze the buildings. Public outcry led by the Maryland Historical Trust resulted in the designation of the property as a National Register Historic District in 1972.

By 1979 the Army had moved most patients off campus. But as buildings emptied out, decay set in. Aside from cutting the grass, says Rosenthal, the Army “simply walked away.” SOS complained to Walter Reed, but the hospital took increasingly less interest in the faded campus. After Bonnie Rosenthal arrived in Silver Spring, she and other volunteers sometimes had to do their own repairs.

Security was also an issue, with statues, stained-glass windows, and chandeliers disappearing. One day, Rosenthal heard that a hydraulic lift had been brought into the Ballroom to transfer its chandeliers to a general’s office; a quick call to the Maryland Historical Trust quashed that move.

In 1993, the Odeon burned down. The cause was arson, but as a result of the fire, SOS and the National Trust for Historic Preservation sued the U.S. Army for demolition by neglect, because it had disabled the fire protection system and failed to secure the buildings against intruders. The court ruled that between 1984 and 1992, the Army had been in violation of the National Historic Preservation Act, but that no remedy was available from the court to enforce the Army’s stewardship. Nevertheless, mediation talks convened during the lawsuit were fruitful, and by 2000, the Army agreed to relinquish the site. “They wanted to get rid of it,” Rosenthal says, “but it was like they didn’t know how.”

In 2004, the federal government handed the property over to the county, which chose the Wisconsin-based Alexander Co. to redevelop it as housing. The company has now converted 13 of the seminary’s historic buildings into 50 condominiums, 66 rental apartments, and 13 single-family houses. In addition, local builder EYA has constructed 90 adjacent townhouses in sympathetic styles. The total number of units: 280. “A lot of people thought this place was a goner, but such a serene, mysterious enclave was too unique to lose,” says Joe Alexander,  president of the Alexander Co.”Though to pull it off, you need ambition and imagination.”

And endurance. As the price tag swelled from $90 million to $110 million, the developers had to deal with asbestos, PCBs, lead paint, and invasive plants and animals, as well as a bewildering array of water pipes and an obsolete sewage system.

Alexander sold the sorority houses to bidders required to restore them as single-family homes, but financing fell through on several of them—the Colonial, Swiss Chalet, and American Bungalow among them—during the recent banking crisis. They are currently back on the market. The future of the Castle and the Italian Villa, the latter building near collapse and lacking basic utilities, is uncertain. But the company is moving forward, tackling the badly deteriorated Gymnasium. Both Alexander and EYA are counting on nearly $21 million in federal and local grants and tax credits in return for preserving the complex and providing affordable housing.

SOS continues to act as watchdog and will retain an office on site. And the Ballroom will house archival  photos, scrapbooks, yearbooks, even a chain from the long-gone Castle drawbridge. Some items were found on eBay, but most came from alumnae and their families, as well as army staffers, former patients, and veterans once stationed here. The Ballroom will also serve as the social hub once more, a place for community dances and dinners. There is even hope that if an “auditorium orthophonic” Victrola can be found for the room, music could yet again play through the original speaker, a sleeping giant still tucked into a second-floor alcove that—despite all the indignities heaped upon this secluded idyll—appears to have survived in perfect working order.