In 1940, the year before the United States entered World War II, Helen Chewning Fitzpatrick entered National Park College in the Forest Glen area of Silver Spring. Girls danced around a maypole in matching lavender-and-pink frocks each spring. On Monday evenings, they donned floor-length dresses for dinner. They held teas in their sorority houses, a virtual United Nations of unusual architecture: a Dutch windmill, a Swiss chalet, a Japanese pagoda.
Fitzpatrick, president of the Chi Psi Upsilon sorority housed in the pagoda, would call meetings to order with a gong. The sorority members gathered under the watchful eye of a Buddha statue in rooms with bamboo-covered walls and teak furniture.
"I thought the place was just the bee's knees. The whole school was so intriguing and beautiful," said Fitzgerald, who is now 76 and lives in Roanoke.
But in 1942, the tea parties abruptly stopped when the Army took over the school as an annex to the Walter Reed Army hospital in Northwest Washington to use as a facility for convalescing soldiers. The pagoda, with its three tiers of upswept eaves, was transformed into officers' quarters.
In the half century since that time, the Army has had a decreasing need for the 26-acre former hotel and school, on Linden Lane, just inside the Capital Beltway, about a mile from the District line. The stuccoed structures have begun to crumble. Roofs have collapsed and pipes burst, flooding abandoned buildings. The Army removed all staff from the facility several years ago because "it's a fire hazard," Walter Reed spokesman Ben Smith said.
In an effort to stem some of the damage, a local preservation group, Save Our Seminary (SOS), has begun restoration work on the pagoda, built in 1905 and the former school's most visible structure. The pagoda has been unoccupied for the last decade.
The group hopes to eventually raise enough money to restore other buildings. The group will lease the pagoda from the Army and use it as a resource center for the site, which is a federally registered historic district.
Each Saturday, volunteers work to return the pagoda, painted white by the Army, to its original palette of red, black and green. Bamboo again will cover the soffits and panels between the windows, and the roof will be re-covered in a painted canvas similar to the original one.
SOS has collected $40,000 in personal donations and foundation grants for the restoration and plans to complete the exterior restoration of the pagoda by July 11, Montgomery County History Day.
"There's so much history here, and if we lose too much of the place, we lose the story that holds everything together in this community," said Sue Fedor, 35, who lives in a century-old house across the street from the pagoda and is assisting in the painting.
Fedor has helped organize swing dances in the ballroom of the former school to help raise money for SOS's restoration efforts.
At the same time the group is starting to restore the facility, the Army has begun the complex process of selling the property. First, an environmental assessment of the property will be conducted, which will examine such potential hazards as underground storage tanks and chemicals that may have leached into the soil. The study also will evaluate wetlands and other environmental factors, along with the historic status of the more than a dozen buildings on the campus.
Then, the General Services Administration will act as a real estate broker to market the property. Federal agencies will have the first crack at buying the property. If there are no takers, it will be offered to private organizations for purchase as a shelter for the homeless and then to state and local governments, and finally, the public. The property is expected to go on the market in early 2001.
"I don't have the slightest idea what it will sell for," said Ernest Cooper, a real estate specialist with GSA, who is overseeing the sale. "I don't honestly know how we'll come up with a price."
"It's not going to be an easy sell," said Bonnie Rosenthal, executive director of SOS. "I expect it will end up with a private owner, rather than the government."
Despite the extensive restoration work needed, Rosenthal said she believes the property can offer the community a multitude of options, from using the chapel as a facility for church services and weddings to transforming the main building into housing for senior citizens.
Although new owners theoretically could demolish the buildings if they found them too damaged to repair, Rosenthal said her group hopes to prevent that from happening.
"What we're doing is showing that it can be saved and put to use, and therefore it can't be torn down," she said.
Rosenthal sees SOS's efforts as part of a continuum to save the facility. A hotel that opened there in 1887 called Ye Forest Inne--the name still can be seen in the stained glass at the main entrance--quickly went bankrupt and was converted to a casino, which did equally poorly.
In 1894, the property became the National Park Seminary, a finishing school for young women. During that era, the eclectic assortment of buildings, including the pagoda, was constructed.
"This was a way of teaching the girls through their built environment about the world," Rosenthal said.
But during the depression, the school foundered and then became National Park College, a two-year junior college for women in 1937. Just as the new school was getting on its feet, the Army took it over in 1942.
Nan Lowe, the granddaughter of the school's last president, Ray Tasco Davis, remembers her grandfather ruefully recounting the final days of the school.
"He was pretty proud of the school and showed it off to a well-placed colonel," Lowe said. "The colonel went back to a general and said, 'I know a great place for soldiers recovering from the war.' And just three weeks before school was to start that year, the Army announced it was taking the property over."
Lowe grew up across the street from the pagoda, in the house where Sue Fedor now lives. As he grew older, her grandfather moved in with her family.
"My grandfather could look over at the school directly from his window. But it was hard to watch what was happening to it. It got to the point, we just didn't talk about it anymore," she recalled.
According to Walter Reed's Smith, the Army spends $400,000 a year maintaining the property. But, he said, given the age and condition of the buildings, even that amount can't keep the deterioration at bay.
Fitzpatrick, who after graduating from college became the first female reporter at the Roanoke Times and World News, last visited the former school 10 years ago.
"I was really unhappy and felt the Army had really let it go," she said. "The campus had been like another world, and I just fell in love with it. That's why I'm delighted they're starting to restore it."
For further information about Save Our Seminary, call Rosenthal at 301-495-9079 or access the Web site at www.operant.com/SOS.
CAPTION: The pagoda, built in 1905, is on the former campus of National Park Seminary.