Sunday, January 11, 2004

The National Park Seminary looks like a theme park for adults, with a miniature village inhabited by a pagoda, a windmill, a castle and the hulking remains of a 19th-century hotel.

Up close, however, it’s clear the abandoned site near the Capital Beltway is missing the theme-park tidiness of a fantasy land. Stones on the castle have crumbled, paint peels off the windmill and a sign on the boarded-up hotel warns of asbestos.

During its 114-years, the 32-acre Silver Spring site has been a resort for Washingtonians, a finishing school for girls and a convalescent home for injured soldiers. But it largely has been abandoned during the past few decades, falling victim to decay and neglect.

This year, the seminary will begin a new life. After decades of trying to find a new use for the site, a builder selected by Montgomery County will preserve the 25 historic buildings and convert them to housing.

“Something is finally happening and what is happening looks good,” said Bonnie Rosenthal, a member of the group Save Our Seminary, which worked to protect the buildings.

A Wisconsin-based developer will spend $80 million to convert the property and a nearby field into 255 units of houses, condominiums and apartments. The Alexander Co. hopes to break ground within nine months, and the first residents could move in by 2006.

“When we look at the site, we see a fabulous opportunity for housing,” said Natalie Bock, development property manager for Alexander. “This could be a nationally recognized adaptive reuse project.”

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the seminary sits on a leafy hillside next to the Walter Reed Army Hospital Annex and overlooks the Capital Beltway.

It was first developed as a hotel, opening in 1890 as a retreat for city dwellers. But it quickly failed and in 1894 was converted into a school known as the National Park Seminary.

The school built an eclectic jumble of buildings around the original hotel, including an assortment of sorority houses that reflected architecture from different parts of the world. It added a ballroom and a chapel, and dotted the grounds with sculptures.

In 1942, the Army absorbed the seminary into Walter Reed and used it to house injured World War II soldiers. It continued to use some of the buildings as office space, but by the mid-1990s, most of the buildings sat empty and boarded up.

The Army showed little interest in preserving the space, and the buildings began to crumble from water damage.

Fire destroyed a playhouse and vandals spirited away stained-glass windows and statues.

Army officials “haven’t really been the best stewards of the historical property,” said Lisa Rother, a Montgomery County planner who worked on the project. “We are working against time to stabilize these buildings.”

Under an agreement with the Army, the county will buy the seminary and then sell it to Alexander, Miss Rother said. Alexander plans to restore the site with the help of builders Eakin/Youngentob of Arlington and Baltimore-based Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse.

The developers plan to build about 90 houses in a field across the street, the sale of which will help finance the restoration of the older buildings.

The hotel probably will be converted into apartments, some of which will be designated as affordable housing. Buildings such as the gym will be made into condominiums, Miss Bock said. The sororities, including the pagoda, will be turned into single-family houses.

“The pagoda would be a funky place to live,” she said. “In every market here are some people who want to live in a unique living environment.”

Since the site is listed on the National Register, much of the work will have to be approved by the county’s historical preservation commission and the Maryland Historical Trust.

That means original windows and building materials have to be kept if possible, Miss Bock said.

In some cases, that may be difficult. Extensive water damage has collapsed some roofs and floors. Miss Bock said some buildings, such as a dormitory that used to house senior seminary students, may have to be scrapped.

Members of Save Our Seminary accept that some buildings may not be salvageable, but they are thrilled to have the restoration under way, even if it means an influx of about 300 new neighbors to their quiet community.

“We’re realistic,” Miss Rosenthal said. “This will increase the value of the whole area.”

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