The Gymnasium at National Park Seminary: 12 Upscale Residential Units

"[...] You will see why this charming, unique place must be preserved. It is a historic treasure worth saving."
—Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, speaking about National Park Seminary.

The National Park Seminary

Historical Narrative | The Gymansium | Photos: Reviving the Gymnasium

The Gymnasium in 1925 following the addition of the façade and glass-covered walkway (which was later removed). Photo courtesy of SOS.

Historical Narrative

Since before the settlement of the colonies, the site now known as the National Park Seminary has maintained its wooded contours and glen, and sits atop what is today the northernmost point of the original 10 mile square that is the District of Columbia. Likely to have been traversed by untold numbers of Mid-Atlantic Native Americans before being settled by Europeans, these grounds have gone from wild woodland to farmland, to resort, to becoming a college, a military installation, then following
and finally, its current use.

The land was purchased by Daniel Carroll In the mid-1700’s. His son, Daniel Carroll II, a member of the Continental Congress, and also a signer of both the Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution inherited the land some years later. Daniel Carroll II’s younger brother, Archbishop John Carroll would establish Georgetown University. From woodland glen the grounds were turned into tobacco fields and over the years adapted for various uses including a military convalescent facility. Now as then, the site offers itself as a serene enclave.

Forest Glen map from 1978 showing rail lines. Photo courtesy of SOS.

The original boundaries of the National Park Seminary were established and developed in 1887 as a resort hotel designed by architect T. F. Schneider and originally known as Ye Forest Inne. With its 400-foot elevation above the city, the Inne was developed to serve as a respite for Washington residents during the hot and, no doubt, mosquito infested summers due to the largely ladened swamp land the capital city is built upon. Unfortunately, the Inne as an original concept failed, and was purchased by John and Vesta Cassedy in 1894 to establish the women’s finishing school, which they called the National Park Seminary. At that time “seminary” simply referred to what we would consider a woman’s-only college rather than a religious learning institution.

Ye Forest Inne. Photo courtesy of SOS.

The Cassedy’s curriculum emphasized art, culture, and physical activity. A walking requirement of 100 miles per student during each school year led to the need for a gymnasium facility as well. In addition, influenced by their visit to the 1893 World Expo in Chicago, the Cassedys improved the grounds with an eclectic mix of 20 structures which include a Japanese pagoda, a Dutch windmill, a stuccoed “castle,” and a Swiss chalet. These juxtaposed architectural styles employed elaborate details in landscaping along with sculptures, paintings, and stained glass in the interest of creating a diverse and artistic (if at times busy and somewhat incongruent) setting.

The esoteric mix of architecture at NPS as developed by the Cassedys. Photo courtesy of SOS.

In 1916 the Seminary was sold to Dr. James E. Ament, who oversaw expansion of the existing buildings along with construction of new ones. He also installed a covered walkway system throughout the campus. Ament Hall was built in 1927 to provide residential units around the grand ballroom with its soaring ceilings and that is to this day available for use by residents of the National Park Seminary Master Association.

As one of many special amenities, the restored ballroom in Ament Hall can be rented out by NPS residents for special occasions. Photo courtesy of SOS.

 

By 1936, presumably as a result of the Great Depression, enrollment waned and ownership of the Seminary changed hands again, this time to Dr. Roy Tasco Davis who rebranded it the National Park College. Davis altered the curriculum to reflect a more modern and business focused curriculum to prepare students for the working world of the day. The College continued thusly until the United States entered WWII and Dr. Davis was compelled to sell the property to the Department of the Army under the War Powers Act.

The Army annexed the former Seminary to the Walter Reed Army Hospital which provided wounded veterans a place to convalesce and rehabilitate after World War II, the Korean, and Vietnam Wars. Eventually, with the absence of recovering veterans, the facilities were used for medical research, administrative functions, and military housing, though simultaneously allowed to fall into disrepair. Left to the elements to waste and decay, some Seminary structures began to be torn down or further altered from their historic splendor, When the Army considered razing and rebuilding the entire site, the Maryland Historic Trust intervened and subsequently the Seminary was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 1972 was designated the National Park Seminary Historic District.

NPS students emulate the camp life of WWI soldiers in front of the Gymnasium. Photo courtesy of SOS.

Due to the efforts of the group Save Our Seminary and its supporters, the Army, unable to redevelop the property for its needs because of the historic preservation designation, in 2001 deemed the property and an adjacent parcel as surplus, clearing the way for the property to be sold. A partnership between Montgomery County, local residential developer EYA, and the Madison, Wisconsin-based Alexander Company took control of the site in 2004. Since that time, and under a permanent preservation easement, several of the existing historic structures have been restored and adapted to residential uses along with the addition of architecturally congruent townhomes on otherwise unused land. The result is the creation of a secluded yet vibrant, historically and aesthetically unique setting that can be enjoyed by both residents and the public well into the future.

Original construction date placard.

The Gymnasium at the National Park Seminary (NPS)

The old gymnasium before 1907.The existing Gymnasium building at the NPS was constructed in 1907, presumably to replace a previous structure which proved inadequate for the growing needs of the Seminary’s student body.

The new Gymnasium as constructed in 1907. Photos courtesy of SOS.
Low aerial rendering of The Gymnasium at the modern National Park Seminary. The muscular front columns were added in the 1920s.

The original structure was augmented with the addition of a grand portico in the 1920s including six fluted two-story front columns and two to the rear, all with ornate Corinthian capitals, creating a Greek façade. Additionally the structure was wrapped in large windows with half rounds lights topping the second-story fenestration, and floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding the entire solarium space at the back of the second story addition. Inside, the lower level contained exercise equipment areas, a bowling alley, and a swimming pool.

On the second level, the gymnasium floor was an open space used for basketball with a suspended running track and observation deck to watch the contests below.

The pool and bowling alley originally within the Gymnasium. The exposed, intricate tilework of the original pool is preserved to detail the sunken living room in Poseidon. Photos courtesy of SOS.

With the Gymnasium’s current rehabilitation, these spaces have been adapted into four one-bedroom, seven two-bedroom, and single three-bedroom homes. The condominium homes incorporate and expose as much of the original interiors as the new use will permit. Original columns remain on the lower level with exposed roof trusses on the upper level, and mosaic tile work found beneath the coping of the former swimming pool which now forms the sunken living room of Poseidon, the three-bedroom home.

Early interior renovation work in The Gymnasium.

Reviving the Gymnasium

Restoring the grand, historic building to its full original magnificence has taken great care and diligence on the part of Washington Landmark Construction and Development, the builder. The full-scale revival of The Gymnasium at NPS progresses with painstaking care. The building has had meticulous environmental improvements with modern-day structural reinforcements that artfully blends into the original building's plan along with deliberate handwork to preserve its historic graces, while thoughtful interior design characterizes the resurgence of an elegant building for modern use. The Gymnasium Condos at NPS continue to preserve the abundant natural light and aesthetic from the building’s original plan. Hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances and soaring ceilings gives each unit an elegant ambiance.

The well-built Gymnasium retained the graces of the Cassedys' era. Preserving these historic and beautiful stylizations while ensuring excellent environmental protection returned the Gymnasium to its original glory while improving the safety of the grounds.
Rounds of careful, by-hand restoration safely returned the Corinthian columns of the Gymnasium's grand entryway to their original splendor.
Preserving the abundant natural light and aesthetic of the soaring ceilings requires diligence on a number of fronts. Painstaking interior design has modernized the space while preserving its comfortable, beautiful, and historic qualities. Strong, modern building materials marry into the original structure of the building.