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Explore the Strange, Fairy-Tale Landscape of National Park Seminary

National Park Seminary in the 1930s. Photograph via Library of Congress.

Only a few miles from the DC border, there’s a place that looks like a Mother Goose rhyme collided with the Gilded Age. There’s a Dutch windmill, a Japanese pagoda, and a Swiss chalet. There’s a four-story opulent grand ballroom with vaulted ceilings and oak buttresses. And in the middle of a wooded glen, there’s a vine-covered English castle with a drawbridge.

The National Park Seminary at Forest Glen has undergone many identity changes over its 120 years, and its scattered architecture style reflects that. Today, it is a fascinating place to visit and an even more peculiar place to live.

The property began as a tobacco plantation before becoming a summer suburban resort community for wealthy DC residents in 1887. Called the Ye Forest Inn, the young up and coming architect T.F. Schneider designed the hotel. Several years later, he would go on to design DC’s famed Cairo building and be involved in a well-publicized murder trial. The hotel struggled and in 1894 the hotel was sold to John and Vesta Cassedy, who converted it into an all-girls finishing school. They named it National Park Seminary, after nearby Rock Creek Park.

The Cassedys’ goal was to not only give their students an education in the basics disciplines–math, sciences and history–but also help them learn about the world around them. Eight sorority houses were constructed for the girls, each designed to resemble a different country’s architecture style. Their distinctive designs made this relatively small school famous across the region.

The school attracted students from the wealthiest families of the era. According to a 2010 article in Bethesda Magazine, names like “Hershey, Chrysler, Heinz, Kraft and Maytag” filled the school’s registry. At its height in 1909, the school had 279 students and 42 faculty.

In 1910, Vesta Cassedy died of cancer. Two years later, John Cassedy married a Seminary graduate 46 years his junior. A scandal followed, and Cassedy sold the property and school in 1916 to a rich Pittsburgh oil mogul named Joseph Trees. The school continued to operate for the next 20 years with dwindling enrollment.

The fountain at DeWitt Circle and the seminary’s main building, 1930s. Photograph via Library of Congress.

The United States Army purchased the struggling school and its property in 1942. The country was at war, and the military was looking for a place where returning wounded soldiers could recuperate and relax. The Army renamed the site “The Walter Reed Army Medical Center Forest Glen Annex.”

While National Park Seminary held fond memories for students who attended school here, this wasn’t the case for many wounded veterans. The diverse European and Japanese buildings reminded patients of the war-torn settings that they had just left. At nights, PTSD flashback-induced screams would echo through the campus.

The Army owned the property for nearly 60 years. Veterans of three different wars (World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War) spent time here. Many were amputees, patients of the prosthetic lab next door.

The Army stopped using the property in 1977 but owned it until 2004. Throughout that time, it only physically knocked down a few buildings, but made interior and exterior alterations that sacrificed some of the historical integrity of the structures. In an attempt to protect the existing buildings, the seminary and the surrounding acreage was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as an historic district in 1972.

National Park Seminary in 2005. Photograph by Flickr user M R.

As the years went on, the Army neglected the seminary and even threatened to demolish the site. In response, a community groundswell led to the formation of the nonprofit organization Save Our Seminary in 1988. In 2001, the organization was able to convince the Army to sell the property to Montgomery County, which in turn sold it the Alexander Company, a specialist in developing and converting historic properties into modern facilities.

Today, these long-lost architectural treasures can be explored with tours given by Save Our Seminary. And, yes, you can live here. There are over 200 apartments, town homes and condos for rent or purchase. Six of the original sorority houses have been refurbished into livable homes, including the pagoda and Dutch windmill.

A converted walkway in 2015. Photograph by Flickr user M R.

Matt Blitz is the head of the Obscura Society D.C., the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura. He writes about discovering the world’s mysteries for Smithsonian Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and Washingtonian.

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