House of the Week | Swiss chalet for $959K

Lee Babcock thought it would be a seven- or eight-month project restoring the Swiss chalet in Forest Glen Park. Instead, he spent more than two years preserving the unusual home.

The Swiss chalet is part of the 32-acre property known as National Park Seminary. The seminary, so named because it borders Rock Creek Park, was an exclusive finishing school for girls from 1894 to 1942. The campus included a three-story gymnasium, a performing arts hall, a horse stable and sorority houses. The eight sorority houses were inspired by the international pavilions at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and each had a theme, such as Japanese pagoda, Dutch windmill, English castle and Swiss chalet.

The chalet was built in 1899 as a meeting place for a local sorority, Zeta Eta Theta. It is believed that the students designed the house and presented the plans to the Swiss ambassador for authentication. The original design featured an interior atrium lined with a balustrade and small balconies. In the 1920s, the building was moved for campus expansion and placed on a granite foundation, which added an additional story to the home.

During World War II, the Army seized the property under the War Powers Act and used it as a rehabilitation center for soldiers through the Vietnam War. The sorority houses were used to house doctors. In the Swiss chalet, the Army boarded over the interior atrium to create more bedrooms upstairs.

The seminary fell into disrepair after the Army abandoned the property, even though Maryland designated it a historic district in 1972. In 2004, a Wisconsin-based historic renovation company, Alexander, struck a deal with the General Services Administration and Montgomery County to renovate most of the buildings on the property. Babcock was one of a handful of private developers who bought the former sorority houses.

Babcock, a commercial real estate consultant, wasn’t a stranger to historic preservation, having once owned a construction firm that did restoration. But he was unprepared for how poorly constructed the chalet was. One of the problems he found was that the entire weight of the house from the second floor up, including the roof, was resting on pieces of wood less than an inch thick.

“What surprised me most about the house was it turned out that a lot of the original structural work was substandard,” Babcock said.

After adding about 2,000 pounds of steel and nearly a forest of engineered lumber, the house is sturdier than it ever has been.

“It’s better now than it was the day it was built,” Babcock said. “There’s some satisfaction in knowing that it was not done right the first time and we fixed that problem. . . . We were able to put it all back together in a way that’s pretty unobtrusive.”

Babcock’s efforts were honored by Montgomery Preservation, a Montgomery County historic preservation organization that presents awards annually for the restoration and rehabilitation of a residential structure.

The house is on the market for $959,000. More information about the house can be found at 2805linden.com. An open house is scheduled for Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. The home will also be featured on the Save Our Seminary house tour May 4.

Listing: 2805 Linden Lane, Silver Spring

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Kathy Orton is a reporter and Web editor for the Real Estate section. She covers the Washington metropolitan area housing market.
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