Forgotten, But Not Lost
Twenty years ago, the U.S. Army abandoned a former Maryland school. Neglected for decades, the campus may finally get a new owner this summer—with the help of its neighbors.
By Christian Moen | Online Only | Apr. 5, 2002
UPDATE, February 2010: Several seminary buildings have been restored or are in the process of restoration, and new houses have been built near the campus. Save America's Treasures awarded a $295,000 grant to restore the ballroom in 2006.
Scattered around a wooded, 30-acre campus in Montgomery County, Md., 33 architecturally eclectic buildings fit together as if assembled by the designers of a miniature-golf course. A Gothic castle, a windmill, a pagoda, and other structures that have withstood several incarnations as educational institutions over the first half of the 20th century today sit empty. The Forest Glen Annex of Walter Reed Medical Center is silent except for the distant rush of cars on the Capital Beltway.
Originally built as a seminary, or finishing school for women, the U.S. Army has owned this piece of land and everything on it for 60 years, but for half that time its ownership was in name in only. The toll from years of neglect is clear: Wood has rotted, statues are broken or missing, and stucco has buckled under its own weight, slowly pulling window frames with it.
Spurred on by a preservation organization called Save Our Seminary, residents have spent almost two decades outraged at the Army’s oversight of Forest Glen. Talk of transferring ownership of the National Register-listed property has floated around for years, but the Army didn’t take steps in that direction until two years ago.
In the fall of 2000, the Army officially "excessed" Forest Glen, declaring it surplus property and handing it over to the Government Services Administration (GSA), which acts as the real-estate agent for federal buildings. Before any federal property can be put on the open market, however, GSA must first contact federal agencies, state and county governments, and homeless services, offering each a chance to take over.
So far, no agency has been willing to take on the costly renovations that would be a necessary part of the deal. The property is now being offered for public-benefit use, such as education, GSA’s last stage before putting it on the open market. This time there may be some takers.
"About a dozen schools had expressed interest before they saw it," says Bonnie Rosenthal, the executive director of Save Our Seminary. "Then the number dropped to four once they saw it."
Since its founding in 1988, Rosenthal's organization has patrolled the property and reported damage and theft to the Army. But reporting damage is not the same as repairing it, and while the Army decided what to do with the property, the deterioration and repair costs escalated.
After a fire in 1993 claimed the school’s theater, Save Our Seminary and the National Trust for Historic Preservation took the Army to court in an attempt to end the neglect. The court ruled in 1996 that although the seminary was in bad shape, the Army was doing the best it could to maintain it.
Based on a 1995 study, any reuse of the property would have a negative return because of steep restoration costs. A followup study determined that it would cost $9.8 million to stabilize just the buildings that are in the worst shape.
The four organizations that are still interested in buying the seminary, according to Rosenthal, are Takoma Academy, St. Albans School, the French International School, and an organization called Forest Glen Commonwealth. GSA will put it for sale on the open market this summer.
"Takoma Academy is probably the most capable and likely candidate," says Rosenthal says. "They have the greatest need, and they have the funding." Also, she notes, they are the only organization that is interested in the entire property.
In 1887, an inn became the first building on the site, but the resort’s distance from Washington—too far for a quick trip and not far enough to be worth a train ride—made it fail.
The National Park Seminary, a school that prepared the daughters of America’s wealthiest families for a life of privilege, opened in 1894. Its strength lay in its rural setting and increasingly exotic architecture. The school’s founders used different building styles to stimulate young ladies’ imaginations and show them an abridged version of the world. Through the years, other directors added their own flourishes to the grounds.
When the Army took over in 1942, the campus was known as National Park College, a successful junior college. Invoking the War Powers Act, the Army bought the college for $800,000, auctioned off everything it didn’t need, and used the rural campus as a peaceful setting for veterans to recover from the horrors of war. The Forest Glen Annex of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center soon became the nation’s leading prosthesis lab, serving much the same purpose through the Vietnam War. Soon after, the Army built a new campus on Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C., and kept only a skeleton crew at Forest Glen.
Rosenthal says that her organization prefers a private developer with a plan for a mix of residential and commercial uses because they fear the impact that 1,500 students might have on the neighborhood. "Imagine cars coming and going twice a day," she says, although she concedes that Save Our Seminary must be flexible. Worse than traffic, though, is the possibility that no school receives federal endorsement and no private developer wants the property.
"What happens if there is no interest at all?" Rosenthal asks. "Then the GSA will have to reconsider what to do with it. Return it to the Army? Parcel it up? If it reaches that point, it will be beyond the point of restoration."
After so many years of struggling to save the place, she says, the group also wants the public to have access to facilities such as the gym, the ballroom, and the chapel.
As early as June, Rosenthal and all the members of Save Our Seminary, and anyone else who has wandered dreamily among the Greek revival temple’s caryatids, may finally know what the future holds for the Italian villa, the pagoda, and the rest of the buildings that have been left to fend for themselves. Whether Forest Glen returns to its origins as a place of education or becomes a place to live and shop, one thing is for sure: After two decades, they are closer than ever to saving the seminary.
Christian Moen is an associate editor of Smithsonian magazine.
Guided walking tours of the seminary take place at 1 p.m. every fourth Saturday from March to November. No reservations are required. For more information, contact Save Our Seminary at (301) 495-9079.
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