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The army owns a castle in Silver Spring. Maybe you can move in next year.
Little of the lushness that inspired the Forest Glen neighborhood’s name remains along Georgia Avenue. Scrawny government-planted trees and islands of sod frame the thoroughfare’s six lanes. It is hard to make a left turn from either direction during rush hour, easy to get lost among the identical-looking houses spreading out into the Maryland hills from the main road.
But if, heading north, you do turn left down Seminary Road to enter the cinder-block maze of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center Forest Glen Annex, you’ll come upon a most distinctive sight: an immense Japanese pagoda looming over the Victorian houses surrounding the site.
The pagoda is only the most visible part of the largely boarded-up National Park Seminary. The complex, a former girls’ school named for Rock Creek National Park and built at the turn of the last century, was appropriated by the U.S. Army in 1942 under the War Powers Act. For years, it was used as a rehabilitation clinic, with medical research facilities built on adjoining Walter Reed annex land. But after the end of World War II, the seminary buildings were converted into officer housing. They remained full of life until the mid-’90s, when the last of the Army families were moved out to save on rising property-maintenance costs.
Now, preservationists want to restore the historic campus and turn the crumbling buildings into modern housing. The complex appears to fold in on itself. The dramatic façades of its buildings are turned toward the Beltway, only a few hundred feet away. A Dutch windmill, an Italian villa, and an English castle are all hidden from the main road, scattered like sets from a dozen movies on some long-forgotten studio lot. They are looking toward what used to be a glenForest Glen.
The best-known of the buildings are the old school’s eight sorority houses. These reflect a weird range of European and world architecture, from a Spanish mission to a Swiss chalet. They are oddly proportioned, toolarge enough to live in, but not quite adult-house-sized. The stone English castle, now lacking its original drawbridge, looks about the size of a studio apartment.
By Victorian standards, the collection of buildings was hardly strange: “Follies,” structures designed for the pure pleasure of style rather than function, were popular at the time. According to Fred Gervasiwho leads tours of the seminary and has lived across the street from it for the last 14 yearsseminary students chose the styles of the sorority houses from a book of plans purchased at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. They were thrilled upon their return each fall to find a new addition to the fairy-tale backdrop of their adolescence.
The Army added fences and oversized loudspeakers to the complex. Boxy red-brick stairwells were also grafted onto several buildingsconcessions to fire codes, if not to style. These Army-issued accessories now create an oddly unifying design theme linking the eclectic seminary buildings.
Somewhere in this jumble of Victorian and modern elements lies a blueprint for the seminary’s future. Preservationists want to make sure the property is protected permanently. But far from turning the buildings into museums, they want people to live here once again. “The seminary represents an important part of American suburban history,” argues Gervasi. “We have forgotten that as communities developed outside of central cities, they were not just cookie-cutter housesthey were real institutions.”
Only two seminary buildings on the former school property are still in service, both on the edge of the campus. Carroll House, a publicly funded shelter for homeless men, occupies a converted barn one block outside the main buildings, and the Walter Reed annex fire station is situated among adjacent utility buildings. After the Army pulled the last of its officers out of the seminary housing, general upkeep that had been seen to by Army families began to be neglected. There is little security surveillance of the site, a task that was once taken on by the local neighborhood association. Vandals set fire to the Odeon, a large assembly hall, in 1993, and rogue antique-seekers have recently stolen stained-glass windows from the chapel.
Some of the worst damage has resulted from deteriorating steam heating systems, installed in the sorority houses by the Army. Burst pipes caused a leak a few winters ago that left the Italian villa coated in 3 feet of ice, leading to massive structural damage. Water from burst pipes has turned the floors of the English castle to mush, causing the foundation to visibly shift.
For years, area residents have clashed with the Army over the future of the seminary. Pressure from neighborhood activists resulted in the site’s 1972 listing in the National Register of Historic Places, which halted an Army plan to raze the buildings to make way for new officer housing. But even after the Army declared that the structures were “no longer needed to support the Army’s mission,” plans to either give up or preserve the property have been stalled.
Frustrated, neighborhood activists and seminary alumnae formed Save Our Seminary (SOS) in 1988, and in 1994 they filed suit against the Army in U.S. District Court, charging “demolition by neglect” of the historical site. SOS board President Peggy Gervasi (wife of board member Fred) questions the motive behind the Army’s dawdling. “They have mostly been ambivalent about losing the land. I don’t think they ever even cared about the buildings.”
Options for the seminary’s future were discussed while the parties initially attempted to settle out of court, but SOS eventually lost the suit. On its own volition, the Army agreed in 1999 to file a “report of excess” of the property to the General Services Administration (GSA), putting the rusty wheels in motion toward a sale. Because the seminary is on federal property, other government agencies have first dibs when it goes up for bids in April 2001. Only if no other agency is interested can private buyers willing to work around the constraints of the seminary’s historic designation make their bids.
Last year, historic Glen Echo Park in nearby Glen Echo, Md., received $19 million in preservation funds from federal and local governments, and it has recently undergone substantial restorations. Meanwhile, the National Park Seminary attracted only a modest $20,000 in private grants last year, to fund a new paint job for the pagoda. But the disparate fates of the two sites reveal a core difference in their functions. “Glen Echo is operated by the National Park Service, and it has a large and vocal base of supporters,” explains Fred Gervasi. “The end use of Glen Echo has always been tourist. The intent for the seminary has been and must be residential in permanent useand that is much more complicated.”
Neighborhood residents favor a plan that offers permanent protection to the seminary but preserves public access. They support a design by Eco Housing Corp., the developer of Takoma Village, a new communal housing project in Northwest D.C. Eco has drawn up plans to develop the seminary into a “pedestrian oriented, mixed-use European village,” according to company President Don Tucker. The plan resurrects the seminary’s original insular feel, opening the buildings once more to residents within a planned community that would include such quaint elements as a farmers’ market and a pub.
In keeping with the seminary’s cultural spirit, several Army-built utility buildings would be leased to artists, creating a cultural center. The Levine School of Music, which has campuses in Maryland, Virginia, and the District, has expressed interest in founding a satellite campus in this suburban artistic community. Ideally, some performance spaces ill-suited to private ownershiplike the cathedral-ceilinged Ballroom building, where several public dances have been held in recent yearswould be owned and operated by Montgomery County.
Housing options under this plan would encourage diverse neighbors. Tucker envisions turning Forest Inne, the central seminary building, into a housing complex, with individual condo units going for approximately $200,000. “The Inne is ideal for co-housing in many respects,” says Tucker. “It already has so many of the common spaces that are typical to that type of design.”
The restored sorority houses would be sold by lottery to private individuals, with strict historical covenants attached. Carroll House’s shelter would move into the Italian villa, within the central community. “The transitional housing facility has been there for years and has been a good neighbor,” says Tucker. “The neighborhood is public-minded, and they want to retain it.” An assisted-living retirement village would also be built on currently vacant adjoining land owned by the Army.
In rapidly growing Silver Spring, the seminary represents elements of both community and individuality that have all but disappeared. The unique look and history of the houses could pull in high prices from home-buyers looking for something that breaks out of the aluminum-siding mold. But the idea of a housing development whose buildings are arrayed to encourage community and interaction, say residential-conversion supporters, could be the most attractive part of this proposal. It is progressive, in a retro kind of way.
Fred Gervasi reasons that part of the appeal comes from a longing for our past. “These days, one class of people lives in one type of house in one area, and the other class lives in a different type of house in another area. We connect it all, or should I say disconnect it all, with highways. And then we build shopping centers.” Brought back to life, the seminary could be a new suburban model, he says: “Our past can show us how to do this right in the future.”
But for now, the decaying seminary plays the waiting game while preservation activists, developers, and even Walter Reed higher-ups struggle through the red tape of the GSA. “Walter Reed is not in the business of selling real estate,” explains Walter Reed spokesperson Joan Malloy. “We are in the business of providing medical care.” CP