On Saturday nights, jitterbuggers can swing in one of Washington’s oldest and most beloved ballrooms. For now, anyway.
The English Gothic ballroom at the National Park Seminary in Forest Glen, a 23-acre annex of Walter Reed Medical Center off Georgia Avenue, is like a cathedral. Its high, domed ceiling, huge oak frame, and red brick columns make it one of the most enchanting places to dancehell, to bein the D.C. area.
But it’s in danger. The Army owns the historic seminary and the surrounding property, but has done a miserable job of maintaining it. A citizens preservation group, Save Our Seminary, has been fighting for several years to get the Army to take care of the grounds, but the place keeps sliding further into disrepair.
Forest Glen was first built as a hotel retreat for escaping Washingtonians. “It was cooler out here,” notes Bonnie Rosenthal, president of Save Our Seminary, on a tour of the grounds. “Fewer bugs, less chance of malaria.” The hotel business failed in 1894, and the campus was taken over by John and Vesta Cassedy, who turned it into a finishing school for girls and erected an eccentric variety of buildingsabout two dozen in allon the campus: a Dutch windmill, an English castle, a classical Greek theater, a Spanish mission, an American bungalow, and a Japanese pagoda. Walking through the campus is like stumbling on a decaying Hollywood set for Around the World in 80 Days.
The school’s enrollment declined during the Depression, and the Army took over the place in 1942, using it as a veterans hospital until 1977. In the early ’70s, the seminary joined the National Register of Historic Places. Army officials, however, have not been moved to maintain it properlythe Army was spending $400,000 a year for upkeep, a figure they’ve raised this year to $1 million. In 1990, the Army replaced the gymnasium floor for $40,000, but a leaky roof shut down the building two years later. The theater burned down in 1993 because of a failed sprinkler system.
A full restoration of Forest Glen is estimated at $10 million. Save Our Seminary unsuccessfully sued the Army in 1994 for violating the National Historic Preservation Act, and ever since it has been trying to get the Army to let the group take part in fixing up the campus. “The new negotiations have been going pretty well,” says Rosenthal. But, she says, “It’s a burden to them. They’d just love to tear it all down.”Mark Gauvreau Judge