SILVER SPRING, Md. -- With its decaying Japanese pagoda, crumbling English castle and the remains of a resort hotel, National Park Seminary looked like an enchanted forest -- and one in desperate need of a happy fairy-tale ending.
But thanks to a $150 million redevelopment project and local preservation efforts, the seminary and its offbeat, 19th-century structures are being preserved as both a residential complex and public historic attraction just off the Capital Beltway.
The new development includes 66 apartments and about 150 condos, townhouses and single-family homes -- some built within the large, unique structures. Single-family homes are being built into the castle, pagoda, bungalow or Dutch windmill. Condos can be found in the Queen Anne-style hotel or the buildings around it, such as a former chapel that still has stained-glass windows, or the "Aloha House," a large stucco estate home with brick arches and maiden statues. The townhouses are new construction -- but with English Tudor and Dutch Flemish designs.
"It's kind of like a fantasy land," said Dan Peterson, a spokesman for the Alexander Company, a Wisconsin-based developer that specializes in restoring old sites for modern use. "There's nothing like it in the country."
The historic property was first owned by a British colonel during the 17th century. It was sold to several prominent people, including the first mayor of Washington, D.C., Robert Brent, who ran a tobacco plantation there from the late 1700s to the early 1800s.
During the post-Civil War land boom, developer Seymour Tullock purchased the property in hopes of building a summer hotel resort.
The designer, T.F. Schneider, added the hotel to the center of the property and the resort, Ye Forest Inne, opened in 1887. But the hotel went bust as the real-estate bubble subsided and summer vacationers snubbed Washington's heat and opted for cooler spots. Schneider attempted to save Tullock's venture by converting the hotel into a casino, but to no avail.
In 1894, Tullock sold the property to John and Vesta Cassedy, educators who turned the place into a girls' finishing school. The couple dreamed up the pagoda and castle. Throughout the life of the school, they added buildings in the shape of a Spanish mission, Aloha house, Swiss chalet, the windmill and the bungalow. At the time, these unique additions were used as the school's sorority clubhouses.
"It was such a beautiful setting," said Pattie Phelps Woodbury, 88, who once attended sorority meetings in the bungalow.
"We'd go down into the glen and have cookouts. I loved the grounds."
Woodbury, who lives in Little Compton, R.I., says she was upset to learn that the U.S. Army, which purchased the property in 1942, had converted the bungalow to military housing. She visited the property during its Army days, and she found some of its beauty had faded.
The Army used the site as an annex to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which needed room to house wounded World War II soldiers. It used the clubhouses for officers' quarters and operated a clinic in the four-story Gothic ballroom that was added in the 1920s. When the Army began to vacate the grounds for more practical facilities in 1981, the site was plagued by vandalism and neglect.
"When I first saw it, the Army still had people on site working and still living in some of the houses," said Bonnie Rosenthal, a Silver Spring resident and a founding member of Save Our Seminary. The organization's 300 members worked to save the property's unique buildings from ruin.
"It was sad-looking, not well-taken care of, but there was a magic about the site you could see and feel," Rosenthal said.
The group began contacting Army officials in the late '80s, notifying them of problems like broken pipes and building break-ins.
But it wasn't until 2001 that the General Services Administration stepped in to start the process of selling the property. Three years later, the deed was transferred to Montgomery County, which sold it for $1 to the Alexander Company in October 2004. The developer agreed to invest in preserving the site, which had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
Although the company put apartments and condos in the rooms of the former hotel, it says it managed to maintain most of the interior elements, such as the original wainscoting, arched doorways and fireplaces. David Vos, a planning manager with the Alexander Company, says the lobbies, corridors, dining room and ballroom have been preserved to create an effect of authenticity.
"When you walk through the common spaces, it's going to feel much as it did when it was a girls' school," Vos said.
Peterson said the project has been no easy task.
"In some of the buildings the walls were caving in, the ceiling was falling down," he said. "There were broken water pipes and wild animals, like opossums and snakes."
Peterson says the first phase should be completed in March, followed by a second phase that includes restoring walking trails, and blazing a path to Rock Creek Park, lined with signs and pictures telling the story of the seminary. The ballroom in the hotel will be used as community space for meetings. And Save Our Seminary will have an on-site office to house archives of the seminary's history.
Save Our Seminary says it's pleased with the developer's work, with the small exception of a section of lawn in front of the hotel that will be paved for parking, Rosenthal said.
In Cassedy's former residence, the Aloha house behind the hotel, Sigurd Neubauer and his wife Hannah live in their condo. Neubauer says the site's potential to mirror its original state convinced them to move there in May.
"There aren't many places in this country that are from the turn of the century," Neubauer, a media analyst. "One of the interesting things is there are cookie-cutter houses and industrial sites on my way home. And I think that when National Park Seminary becomes what it was, it'll become a flagship of unique beauty to the broader Washington community."