This story was corrected on July 30, 2013. An explanation follows.
Driving through the National Park Seminary on Linden Lane in Silver Spring can seem like country-hopping. You’ll pass a Swiss chalet, a Japanese pagoda, a Japanese bungalow, a Dutch windmill, a Colonial house, a Spanish mission-style house, a castle, and an American bungalow.
“That’s what makes this site very unique,” said Bonnie Rosenthal, the executive director of Save Our Seminary, an organization dedicated to restoring the site and educating the public about it. “It is a cultural melting pot to look at.”
Most of the eight architecturally unusual houses in the National Park Seminary are nearing the end of their renovations by private owners and developers. Three soon will be put on the real estate market. And a few still need much work.
The seminary’s 27 acres were first used as a farm and tobacco plantation, then became the site of a hotel in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1894, the hotel was transformed into the National Park Seminary, a finishing school for young women.
Tuition was quite high at the time — $1,200 a year, which translates to more than $40,000 a year today. Wealthy women from around the country attended.
The distinct single-family houses on Linden Lane once were sorority houses for the school. The girls didn’t live in the houses — they were used for gatherings and meetings.
“The philosophy of the school was not only to teach them through books, but through the world around them,” Rosenthal said. “So we believe they built the sorority houses in the international style as a way of teaching the girls about the world.”
The school owners, John and Vesta Cassedy, designed most of the houses. But one sorority chose the Swiss chalet style, with high ceilings and large windows.
“The students of that sorority researched it and found that this was a pretty traditional style,” Rosenthal said. “The plans for that sorority house were taken to the Swiss legation, what we refer to today as an embassy, in Washington for them to review the design. And then the school built it in 1899.”
In 1942, the Army seized the school under the War Powers Act. Walter Reed Army Hospital, which is near the site, needed more space to rehabilitate wounded soldiers. The seminary became part of the hospital’s Forest Glen Annex.
Doctors lived in the sorority houses. Soldiers were rehabilitated at the site through World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
By the late 1980s, the seminary buildings were in decline. The Army transferred the property to The Alexander Company, a private developer, in 2004. Renovations began in July 2006.
Rosenthal said she was happy the historic houses are being sold to homeowners.
“That’s what needs to happen,” she said. “When the developer planned for residential use, we thought that was the best plan. It was the least impact for the historical buildings. And the most natural.”
The chalet, castle and Spanish mission soon will be offered for sale, according to Rosenthal. The chalet, shown at 2805linden.com, is selling for $950,000. The other homes have not yet been placed on the market.
The chalet and pagoda currently are privately owned and renovations are being completed. Renovations on the Dutch windmill are almost complete.
The Spanish mission is undergoing interior renovations. The Colonial house, sold to a couple a few months ago, still requires major interior and exterior renovations. Renovations on the castle have not begun.
The Japanese bungalow was finished in 2010 and someone currently lives there. The American bungalow, the first sorority building built, is complete and a young family lives there.
A historic easement ensures the architecture of the buildings is preserved. Developers had to get their plans approved through the county and state before construction began.
The large buildings on the site, like the president’s house and senior dormitory, were transformed into condos or apartments. New townhouses also were built on the property by EYA, a separate developer. The townhouse development added five acres to the site, for a total of 32 acres.
Now, the Silver Spring community is a mix of single-family homes, townhouses, 42 condominiums and 66 apartments. The buildings’ large hallways and fireplaces remain.
The Alexander Company couldn’t restore the 19 main buildings and the eight sorority houses quickly, so the houses were sold to private developers, according to Rosenthal.
One of the private developers is Lee Babcock, a principal at 360 Group, a real estate company. Babcock bought the Swiss chalet and has been renovating it for two years, the average time it is taking to restore these homes, he said.
Babcock doesn’t usually buy the property he works on, but he said the chalet was different.
“It was just so compelling and such an amazing structure,” he said.
Owning the house makes it is easier to renovate because he doesn’t have to worry about a specific time frame for homeowners to move in or about messy renovations.
Babcock rebuilt the chalet’s framing and fixed the sinking roof and the hardwood floors. He added a wine cellar to the basement, with stairs leading down from the kitchen.
When the Army took over the property, it retrofitted the houses with indoor plumbing and kitchens. But it covered up distinctive parts of the houses, like putting up drywall over wooden latticework in the pagoda and placing carpet over the hardwood floors, according to Babcock.
The 2009 real estate market crash halted construction for about two years, but renovation now is continuing, according to Babcock.
Construction on the chalet should be completed in September, according to Babcock.
“We ended up upgrading appliances to match the house,” he said. “It’s going to have European high-end appliances and custom cherry cabinetry. It ended up being more of a luxury house than we had intended.”
Tours and programs are held at the National Park Seminary every month from March to November. Tour and program dates are at saveourseminary.org.
The original version misstated the tuition to attend the school.