The Reincarnation of National Park Seminary

After decades of neglect, the onetime school for wealthy young women has been reborn.

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The disfigured and the disabled—and the men and women who cared for them—stayed in the seminary buildings, which had become an annex of Walter Reed General Hospital. Many patients found the architecture a horrid reminder of the European and Japanese war fronts from which they had just returned. Gradually, the buildings conformed to Army issue: Exposed woodwork was painted lime green and yellow, decorative lights replaced with fluorescent fixtures, coffered ceilings obscured by acoustic tiles. Ancient oaks succumbed to new, cinder block buildings.

Through three wars, the Forest Glen Annex, as the seminary property was called, ministered to the sick and the shattered, with padded cells and barred windows installed for severe psychiatric cases. Behind the scenes, there was Operation Whitecoat, with its experiments in biological warfare. Between 1954 and 1973, more than 2,300 servicemen nationwide were exposed to infectious agents and their reactions monitored. Publicly, the Army claimed the program was defensive rather than offensive, with the aim to develop effective vaccines.

Nevertheless, the human guinea pigs at Forest Glen were exposed to a variety of virulent diseases: yellow fever, hepatitis A, Q fever and the plague, among others. Official figures attribute no deaths to the experiments, but some soldiers still feel the lingering physical effects, according to recent interviews with survivors on National Public Radio.

With the ending of the Vietnam War, debate began over the disposition of the old seminary. A 1972 study suggested razing the aging school buildings. But that same year, the seminary and a surrounding 27 acres were placed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.

After the last patient left in 1977, the buildings tumbled into disrepair. The Army proposed the construction of a huge medical waste incinerator on the site. But a groundswell of public opposition defeated the plan and eventually resulted in the formation of Save Our Seminary (SOS), a grassroots organization formed in 1988 and dedicated to the property’s preservation.

“They’re spectacular buildings, filled with such character,” says Fred Gervasi, vice president of SOS. “…We were optimistic that we could somehow save the buildings from destruction.”

Following a 1993 fire that gutted the grand Odeon Theatre, SOS and the National Trust for Historic Preservation sued the Army, accusing it of “demolition by neglect,” Gervasi says. A judge ruled in 1996 that the Army indeed had been negligent in maintaining the property, but acknowledged attempts to protect the buildings, and therefore did not hold the Army liable for the property’s deterioration. The Army sought to bring about a compromise with local preservationists, launching countless feasibility studies on how best to use the site. “These buildings are an important part of our history,” U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, said during hearings in 1996. “It would be a tragedy if we were to lose these historic structures to neglect.”

Finally, in 2001, the Army declared the seminary buildings and 32 surrounding acres as surplus. An adjacent, 136-acre complex already holding modern buildings was retained for military use. Three years later, title to the 32-acre site—with 27 acres being within the designated historic district—was turned over to Montgomery County, which transferred ownership, for $1, to the Alexander Company, a specialist in finding new uses for old buildings.

When renovation work began in 2006, the place was in shambles. “The property was abandoned overnight when the Army left,” says Peterson, the Alexander Company spokesman. “Steam pipes were left on, bursting and flooding spaces, and roofs and ceilings were collapsing.”

An innovative reimagining of the old buildings slowly emerged from the rubble: an eclectic mix of apartments and condos neatly wrapped inside historic walls, new construction blending seamlessly with old. In the old Main alone—the core of which was the Forest Inn—more than half a million square feet needed serious renovation. SOS worked alongside the Alexander architects, ensuring that the character of the property was preserved. “Even the best of architects need a watchdog,” Gervasi says.

Original wainscoting, molding and ornate fireplaces were preserved throughout the building, while the former dormitories and classrooms were converted into apartments, with no two floor plans alike. Lobbies, corridors and community dining rooms were renovated for public use, and Ament’s opulent ballroom was restored.

“It took a lot of vision to see beyond the physical constraints of the massive and deteriorated spaces and see something beautiful,” Peterson says. Meanwhile, the Alexander Company tapped Bethesda-based home builder EYA to construct new apartments and townhomes that would take their design cues from the old buildings, with rooflines mirroring the gables of the old buildings, and columned porticoes giving the facades a classic appearance.

By its formal opening in 2009, nearly every one of the historic apartments and condos was taken, with the condos offered at $300,000-plus to $1 million. Despite the slumping real estate market, the new townhouse and courtyard homes have proven equally popular, with prices from $500,000 to more than $900,000. As for the windmill, pagoda, Spanish mission and other clubhouses, “we’re looking for private buyers committed to their preservation,” Peterson says. The prices range from $280,000 for the unrestored Dutch windmill to $450,000 for the Japanese pagoda. Meanwhile, SOS was given space in the Old Main for offices and exhibits of the seminary’s heyday, from photographs to furniture. SOS also conducts tours of the property.

A pure restoration of buildings and grounds was never the developers’ intent, and the many new townhomes suggest the ambience of modern suburbia. Still, much of the historic fabric has been preserved. An interpretive trail meandering through 13 acres of undeveloped forest will tell the seminary’s story—and allow visitors to appreciate the rich architectural tapestry of National Park Seminary. “Everyone worked hard to bring it about,” Gervasi says.

Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and now living in Olney.

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