If you’re ever driving around Forest Glen looking for the Metro and you get lost and you come upon a Swiss chalet and a Japanese pagoda, you have not entered another world, you have just discovered the National Park Seminary.
This unique site — now part of what is known as the National Park Seminary Historic District which includes hoity-toity condos that sell for as much as $1.5 mil — has undergone countless transformations over the years and is, in fact, still under construction.
Ground was broken in 1887 on the former tobacco farm-turned-resort-in-the-woods. The idea for a vacation destination in the suburbs of our nation’s capital unfortunately never took off, and the property was sold in 1894 and turned into a finishing school, where such skills as how to make a proper introduction were taught.
As was common among wealthy families at the turn of the 20th century, emerging adults were packed off on extended trips through Europe and Asia whenever possible so they could experience monumental sites such as the Parthenon and the Great Wall of China firsthand. In an attempt to save time and money for the students’ families, the school made a plan to bring Europe to Forest Glen. Hence the construction of the English castle, Japanese pagoda, Swiss chalet, Dutch windmill and Colonial House, which served as sorority houses for the students. Other notable buildings on the property include the ballroom, chapel, gymnasium and music hall.
The Greek-style Odeon Theatre built in 1901 that adjoined the music hall burned down in 1993. All that remains is a concrete slab that is expected to eventually house a parking garage for the property’s growing number of tenants.
The campus continued to grow until World War II, when the Army took over the property and used it as an extension of Walter Reed Hospital. Throughout the remainder of the century, the Army used and abused the property, tearing buildings down and altering others to suit its purposes. Many were left to deteriorate, crumbling sadly among the overgrowth. Their creepy appearance, startling anyone not familiar with the neighborhood, fueled rumors that the buildings were haunted.
In 2004, the property was sold to a developer who began to painstakingly rehab the site according to the rules set forth by its status on the National Register of Historic Places. The aged buildings were turned into dozens of condos and apartments, one by one, in phase I of the construction plan. By 2008, phases II, III and IV began to look iffy, and the remaining land was divided up and sold to individuals.
Reconstruction and rehabilitation continues at the property. Laborers coax the beauty out of the bones of each structure, slowly replacing what time and the weather has taken away. Save Our Seminary, a nonprofit formed to protect the property, offers tours of the National Park Seminary once a month starting again in March and continuing through November. The two-hour tours are $5 per person include some interior spaces.