Driving through the National Park Seminary area, one can see a variety of housing styles: a Swiss chalet, a Japanese pagoda, a Japanese bungalow, a Dutch windmill, a colonial house, a Spanish mission-style residence, an American bungalow — and even a castle.
“That’s what makes this site very unique,” said Bonnie Rosenthal, the executive director of Save Our Seminary, an organization dedicated to restoring the Silver Spring area and educating the public about it. “It is a cultural melting pot to look at.”
Most of the eight architecturally unusual houses in the National Park Seminary are nearing the end of their renovations by private owners and developers. Three soon will be put on the real estate market. And a few still need much work.
The seminary’s 27 acres in the Linden Lane area were first used as a farm and tobacco plantation, then became the site of a hotel in the mid-19th century. In 1894, the hotel was transformed into the National Park Seminary, a finishing school for young women.
Tuition was high — $1,200 a year. Wealthy women from across the country attended.
The distinct single-family houses on Linden Lane once were sorority houses for the school. The girls didn’t live in the houses; they were used for gatherings.
“The philosophy of the school was not only to teach them through books, but through the world around them,” Rosenthal said. “So we believe they built the sorority houses in the international style as a way of teaching the girls about the world.”
The school’s owners, John and Vesta Cassedy, designed most of the houses. But one sorority chose the Swiss chalet style, with high ceilings and large windows.
“The students of that sorority researched it and found that this was a pretty traditional style,” Rosenthal said. “The plans for that sorority house were taken to the Swiss legation — what we refer to today as an embassy — in Washington for them to review the design. And then the school built it in 1899.”
In 1942, the Army seized the school under the War Powers Act. Walter Reed Army Hospital, which was near the site, needed more space to rehabilitate wounded soldiers. The seminary became part of the hospital’s Forest Glen annex.
Doctors lived in the former sorority houses. Soldiers were rehabilitated at the site through World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
By the late 1980s, the seminary buildings were in decline. The Army transferred the property to the Alexander Co., a private developer, in 2004. Renovations began in July 2006.
Rosenthal said she is happy the historic houses are being sold to homeowners.
“That’s what needs to happen,” she said. “When the developer planned for residential use, we thought that was the best plan. It was the least impact for the historical buildings. And the most natural.”
The castle and Spanish mission will soon be offered for sale, Rosenthal said. The chalet is already listed, for $950,000.
The chalet and pagoda are privately owned, and renovations are being completed. Renovations on the Dutch windmill are almost complete.
The Spanish mission is undergoing interior renovations. The colonial house, sold to a couple recently, requires major interior and exterior renovations. Updates on the castle have not begun. The Japanese bungalow was finished in 2010, and someone lives there. The work on the American bungalow, the first sorority building built, has been completed. A family now lives there.
A historic easement ensures that the architecture of the buildings will be preserved. Developers had to get their plans approved through the county and state before construction began.
The large buildings, such as the president’s house and senior dormitory, were transformed into condos or apartments. New townhouses were built on the property by EYA, a developer. The townhouse development added five acres to the site, for a total of 32 acres.
The community is a mix of single-family homes, townhouses, 42 condominiums and 66 apartments. The buildings’ large hallways and fireplaces remain.
The Alexander Co. couldn’t restore the 19 main buildings and the eight sorority houses quickly, so the houses were sold to private developers, Rosenthal said.
One of the private developers is Lee Babcock, a principal at 360 Group, a real estate company. Babcock bought the Swiss chalet earlier and has been renovating it for two years, the average time it is taking to restore the homes, he said.
Babcock doesn’t usually buy the property he works on, but, he said, the chalet was different.
“It was just so compelling and such an amazing structure,” he said.
Owning the house makes it easier to renovate because he doesn’t have to worry about when the homeowners will move in or about a mess.
Babcock rebuilt the chalet’s framing and fixed the sinking roof and the hardwood floors. He added a wine cellar to the basement.
When the Army took over the property, it retrofitted the houses with indoor plumbing and kitchens. But it covered up distinctive parts, such as putting drywall over wooden latticework in the pagoda, Babcock said.
The 2009 real estate market crash halted construction for about two years, but renovation has resumed, he said. Work on the chalet should end next month.
“We ended up upgrading appliances to match the house,” he said. “It’s going to have European high-end appliances and custom cherry cabinetry,” he said. “It ended up being more of a luxury house than we had intended.”
Tours and programs are held at the National Park Seminary each month from March to November. Tour and program dates are at www.saveourseminary.org.