January-February 2010 | Home & Garden

The Reincarnation of National Park Seminary

After decades of neglect, the onetime school for wealthy young women has been reborn.

The vestiges of a storybook village rise from a heavily wooded slope along the Rock Creek valley, not far from the Capital Beltway in Silver Spring. This is where young women once came to learn, where wounded soldiers came to heal and where preservationists battled over the fate of its buildings. As with all good fairy tales, though, this story has a happy ending. 

The historic National Park Seminary has reawakened from a Sleeping Beauty-like slumber. And its late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings—a Victorian resort hotel, a whimsical windmill, a pagoda, an English castle and more—are being converted into residences in a community that intriguingly blends the past with the present.

The Alexander Company of Madison, Wis., a specialist in historic restoration, is the rescuer in this tale. It has invested more than $150 million in renovating the historic structures throughout the 32-acre campus. The first stage of development, which opened last fall, features 219 homes, including 66 apartments, 50 condominiums and 13 single-family homes in the historic section and 90 new-construction townhomes. “For its sheer size, we have never come across anything as challenging,” says Dan Peterson, the Alexander Company’s director of public relations. National Park Seminary is known for its eclectic mix of architectural styles.

This story of reclaimed glory begins in 1887, when Washington, D.C., developer Seymour Tullock became captivated by what an early promotional brochure described as the “towering trees, rippling brooks and sunny slopes” of Rock Creek valley. Tullock purchased a large plot of land and organized the Forest Glen Improvement Company. The development group laid out the planned community of Forest Glen Park, with large, single-family lots fronting leafy avenues.

Adjacent to the subdivision, the developers erected the Forest Inn, a sumptuous resort hotel with fine dining and live entertainment. Architect Thomas F. Schneider and builder W.P. Lipscomb “were given perfect freedom” in the design, the developers proclaimed in an early advertisement. The result was an unbridled fantasy: a huge hotel rising out of the woods, a riot of turrets, towers, dormers, gables, porches, shingles and half-timbered walls. “The architecture and furnishings of the building are Queen Anne,” the developers noted, “a style which admits of such free treatment and results in such charming effects.”

After its 1887 opening, though, community sales languished as the economy faltered, and within five years a deep depression felled the Forest Inn. By 1894, the monolith was in the hands of John and Vesta Cassedy, former educators at the Norfolk College for Young Women in Virginia, who transformed the lumbering resort into a dignified educational institution. The couple named it National Park Seminary in honor of nearby Rock Creek Park in the District.

That fall, the Cassedys welcomed 48 girls to their sylvan seat of elucidation and refinement, mostly high school graduates who came for “finishing” and college preparation. “Soul training is the special feature of our school,” the Cassedys explained in an early brochure, with the inculcation of the finer arts—cultural, social, domestic—the daily objective. Course work was relieved by frequent outings to the galleries, museums and government offices in nearby Washington, providing the girls with a world-class environment “for the study of civics and science and the arts; the inspiration of history and biography; the urbane influences of a cosmopolitan city,” as a school advertisement declared.

Within two years of its opening, the Cassedys embarked on a remarkable building program to accommodate the steady rise of students, whose numbers eventually reached into the hundreds. A new gymnasium, horse stables, chapel, senior residence and science and arts building sprouted, along with a sculpturally ornate home for the Cassedys, invitingly named “Aloha.” 

Vesta Cassedy organized the student body into eight sororities, and by 1905 each had its own distinctive clubhouse, “a miniature World’s Exposition in national styles,” as an early publication noted. There was a Dutch windmill and a Swiss chalet; an American colonial complete with columns, and a stucco Spanish mission; an English garden castle with a working drawbridge, and a three-story Japanese pagoda. The clubhouses were fanciful yet refined beside the jumbled bulk of the old Forest Inn, which had become known as “the Main.” And, as a 1920 seminary publication noted, the clubhouses were all designed by a woman: Philadelphia architect Emily Elizabeth Holman.

Little is known of Holman’s early years, but by 1893 she had opened her own office on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, and by the next year had produced the first of six plan books filled with a mélange of designs, from summer residences to roadhouses. Her mail-order books fueled a lucrative business that encompassed houses “in every state of the Union except Mississippi,” according to a New York Tribune interview. Among her notable projects: “nearly every building at National Park Seminary,” the Tribune reported, including the ornate 1901 Odeon Theatre and the stout Miller Library, built to contain more than 22,000 rare books donated by the Cassedys’ friend, Dewitt Miller, a famed lecturer.

The school’s rolls burgeoned with young women surnamed Hershey, Chrysler, Heinz, Kraft and Maytag, girls whose birthrights were wealth and prestige. But headmistress Vesta Cassedy did not live long to enjoy the school’s success. She died of cancer in 1910, and her widower, John, temporarily left the school to roam the country. In New Mexico, he met Stephana Prager, a National Park graduate. The two wed in 1912. He was 65, she was 19. The scandal destroyed Cassedy’s standing in the academic community. And in 1916 he sold the school to Pittsburgh oilman Joseph Trees, who brought in Dr. James Ament, a friend and seasoned educator.

A close-up of the restored ballroom's decorative details.“Dr. Dement,” as the girls called him, became lord of the manor, sumptuously ensconced in a new President’s House, chauffeured in his 12-cyclinder Cadillac. He constructed a byzantine network of covered walkways connecting the buildings, all arches and columns with the occasional turret. The jewel of his domain was Ament Hall. An amateur architect, Ament oversaw the creation of the tall, cathedral-like gothic fantasy, with a cavernous ballroom where girls danced with girls beneath soaring arches, stained glass clerestory and oak-vaulted ceiling.

But in 1929, Ament’s kingdom spiraled downward, caught in the economic maelstrom of the Great Depression. Enrollment dipped to 30. Ament died in 1936, and his widow turned the school over to Roy Tasco Davis, a Missouri educator and former U.S. minister to Panama and Costa Rica. Davis renamed it National Park College and offered expanded, traditional education courses more befitting a junior college.

Six years later, with America fully in the fray of World War II and the number of wounded mounting, the U.S. Army took control of National Park under the War Powers Act for use as a convalescent facility. Davis was paid $855,000 for the property.