Like the scullery maid who becomes a princess, or the stablehand who becomes a prince, the Castle at Forest Glen didn’t begin life as a castle. It started out as a pair of commercial buildings, erected at the tail end of the 19th century next to the B & O Railroad tracks not far from Kensington.
“It was two big buildings, and the little house next door had the post office,” said Kathleen Thompson, who with her husband, Jerry, would later own the funky structure at Forest Glen Road and Capitol View Avenue in Silver Spring, Md.
“What they did was drive their carriages between the two buildings,” Kathleen said. “Then it changed to being one building, since we didn’t use horses and carriages any more.”
The Castle is the latest stop on Answer Man’s tour of area buildings that look plucked from a distant place and time: Europe of the Middle Ages. This particular castle — not to be confused with the derelict castle and other fanciful structures of the National Park Seminary just across the Beltway that Answer Man wrote about last week — has a particularly rich history.
That history has not been trouble-free. In 1922, a fire destroyed nearly half the building, which at the time housed a general store called the Forest Glen Trading Co. It was apparently after the blaze that the building was rebuilt with stone battlements and impressive turrets.
“Before that, it was a plain, stupid building,” Thompson said. “It’s pretty strange. Somebody had a sense of humor — or I’m not sure what.”
Occasionally when people — men, usually — heard Kathleen and Jerry owned the Castle, they would mention a notorious bit of the building’s history.
“Mostly in bars when they were feeling a little free,” she said.
Starting some time in the 1940s — after the National Park Seminary had been taken over by the U.S. Army for use by recuperating soldiers — the Castle came to be known for the prostitutes who rented rooms on the second floor. This reputation continued into the 1960s.
Joe Voith of the District said around 1960 his father was among men who worked on a door-to-door census of area Catholics, organized by the Archdiocese of Washington.
At a meeting to divvy up neighborhoods, Joe’s dad was assigned the part of Forest Glen around the Castle. He stood up in the meeting to ask a question: “There’s a small hotel by the railroad tracks. Should I take the survey there?”
The chairman responded, “A small hotel, eh?” The room erupted with laughter.
Wrote Joe: “Apparently the ill repute of the place hadn’t yet reached my dad.”
Andrea Sherman of Chevy Chase, Md., remembers being driven past the Castle as a youngster, before the Beltway was built. Later, driving her own children through the neighborhood, she hesitated when pointing out the crenelated landmark.
“The only name I knew for that edifice was the one my mother had always used: the Hungarian Whorehouse,” Andrea wrote. “By then old enough to suddenly realize the nickname was decidedly derogatory, I was perplexed as to why anyone would call it that (aside from the fact it was alliterative). My mother simply allowed that’s what she was told.”
Why that particular adjective? Around 1961 a restaurant opened on the ground floor. It was originally called Corvin’s Hungarian Castle. “Corvin” referred to a famous movie theater in Budapest, outside of which a pitched battle had been fought during the ill-fated 1956 revolt against the Soviets.
“The restaurant had a bad reputation in the [Forest Glen] neighborhood,” said Les Megyeri, a retired District lawyer who, like others who frequented the Castle back then, had immigrated to the United States from Hungary after the failed uprising. (“We lost, so we had to leave,” he said.)
No wonder neighbors in then-rural Forest Glen were dismayed. There was prostitution occurring in rental apartments upstairs and there was carousing in the restaurant downstairs.
“He created a Hungarian atmosphere, with a lot of drinking,” Les said of the restaurant’s owner. “The police kept raiding us.”
Though still an undergraduate and not yet a lawyer, Les was on at least one occasion pressed into service to bail out the owner.
“He figured I was the most sober in the group,” he said.
A fire in 1965 seems to have shuttered the restaurant. Today, the Castle’s tenants are more respectable, if not as much fun.
In last week’s column, Answer Man wrote that National Park College — the business school that arose when the National Park Seminary girls academy closed — failed before being taken over by the Army. Not so, said Nan Lowe of White Oak, Md., former board member of Save Our Seminary.
Roy Tasco Davis, who ran the college, increased enrollment and gained accreditation for the school, Nan said. “The only reason he was no longer the owner after 1942 is that the Army confiscated the property under the War Powers Act,” she wrote. “There was no desire nor any plans to not continue running.”
Nan’s source? Davis himself. She is his granddaughter, and was able to speak with him and read his diaries.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.