- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 6, 2009

Nestled just inside the Capital Beltway, the 32-acre National Park Seminary in Silver Spring feels far removed from the busy traffic. The enchanting architecture of this former girls school looks plucked right out of a fairy tale.

A Japanese pagoda, a Dutch windmill, a Swiss chalet, an Italian villa, a Spanish mission hacienda and a medieval castle are among the 27 buildings scattered around the campus in a wooded dell known as Forest Glen.

For nearly three decades, these fanciful buildings sat vacant and derelict while local residents waged a battle to save the seminary. Their successful efforts have resulted in one of Maryland’s most ambitious preservation projects.

The $120 million redevelopment undertaken by the Alexander Co. of Madison, Wis., involves restoring and recycling the existing school buildings into condominiums, as well as constructing new rental apartments and town houses.

The first big chunk of the renovation, which has been plagued by construction delays, is finally nearing completion and will be unveiled to the public at an open house from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 26.

The slow-going progress has paid off in the seminary’s oldest buildings where changes stay remarkably true to the Victorian architecture. Given the benefit of tax credits, the Alexander Co. has adhered to preservation standards enforced by Montgomery County and Maryland’s State Historic Preservation Office.

From the guest parking lot, visitors are greeted by the caryatids of Aloha House, built in 1898 by the school’s founders, educators John and Vesta Cassedy, and now transformed into condominiums.

Stained-glass windows remain intact throughout the former octagonal chapel, one of the most expensive units to be sold.

Original turrets, porches and fireplace mantels still stand in many of the 50 condos carved out of the meandering Queen Anne-style structure at the heart of the project.

“The building is different from one section to another because it was added to over time,” says developer Joe Alexander, whose projects include the revitalization of Central Station in Memphis. “Every unit had to be independently designed. No two are the same. That is a huge challenge from both a design and a construction standpoint.”

The oldest portion of the rambling condominium was built in 1887 as a rustic hotel called Ye Forest Inne. Its dining room, complete with massive fireplace, now serves as a community space and fitness center for residents.

In 1893, the inn was renovated into a boarding school and expanded over the next few decades with a movie theater, a music conservatory, clubhouses and other structures.

The grandest of these spaces is a four-story ballroom added to the main building in 1927. Its disparate design of Romanesque brick arches, gothic tracery and trusses, crystal chandeliers and plaster busts has been painstakingly restored. The rooms behind its balconies have been turned into long and narrow condos with views of the surrounding woods.

At its peak before the 1929 stock market crash, the seminary was attended by 400 girls who paid tuition higher than Harvard’s. It lost enrollment during the Great Depression and in 1942 was confiscated by the U.S. Army under the War Powers Act to become a convalescent home for returning soldiers.

In the late 1970s, the school buildings were deemed inadequate for such therapy and the Army abandoned much of the property. Water damage, arson and vandalism followed to destroy much of the setting’s historic charm.

Alarmed that the buildings could be razed, a group of local residents organized to rescue the campus. In 1994, Save Our Seminary and the National Trust for Historic Preservation filed a lawsuit against the Army for its neglect of the property. They lost the case but won public support for finding a viable use for the historic landmark.

The Army declared the property as surplus in 2001 and a deal was struck by the U.S. General Services Administration and Montgomery County to sell the property to the Alexander Co. for a dollar.

By 2006 when the renovation began, the property was in serious disrepair. “Crumbling walls, collapsed floors and ceilings were just a few of the structural obstacles,” says Mr. Alexander. “There’s almost no section of the main building that didn’t need shoring because of settlement and neglect.”

Once stabilized, the buildings had to be refitted with dozens of windows matching the originals. New condos were designed around eccentric spaces such as covered bridges between buildings.

In addition to reviving the school buildings, the Alexander Co. increased the neighborhood’s density by tapping Bethesda-based home builder EYA (formerly Eakin/Youngentob Associates) to construct new rental apartments and row houses on both sides of Linden Lane. Now being built near the gym and servants’ quarters are the last of the 90 new town houses, 85 of which have already sold.

The attached homes are designed by the Lessard Group of Vienna, Va., with architectural features such as Spanish Revival-style rooflines inspired by the existing structures. They mostly blend into the complex without upstaging the playful architecture of the school.

With the centerpiece of the campus now complete, the Alexander Co. is moving on to create 38 condos inside the gymnasium, power plant, carpenter shops, servant quarters and stables.

The most dilapidated of these outbuildings is the Greek Revival gym, built in 1907. Despite its caved-in facades, the developer is planning to remodel the ruin over the next two years into 12 residences. Lofts will be built in the basketball court and sunken rooms in the swimming pool.

Still awaiting restoration are most of the smaller, world’s fair-style pavilions once used as sorority houses by the students. So far, only the 1903 mission-style clubhouse and Japanese bungalow, plus a nearby postmaster’s house, are being renovated into single-family homes by developer Palladio Properties of Bethesda. “They are real gems, and we’ve tried to preserve as much of their original architecture as possible,” says Palladio’s Phillip Smith.

As for the Japanese pagoda, Dutch windmill and Swiss chalet, they are being sold “as is” by the Alexander Co. for about $200,000 to $400,000 with renovations left up to future owners.

“We wish the work in the historic buildings could have happened faster,” says Linda Lyons, president of Save our Seminary. “But you never know what you are going to find in restoration work, and a substantial portion of the project should be finished this year. The site is coming alive again.”

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