Preserving the Past

7 min read

What could a Japanese pagoda, a Swiss chalet, a Dutch windmill and an Italian villa possibly have in common? They, along with eight other architecturally distinct homes share a 32-acre campus with 116 multifamily residences in Forest Glen, Md.

What could a Japanese pagoda, a Swiss chalet, a Dutch windmill and an Italian villa possibly have in common? They, along with eight other architecturally distinct homes share a 32-acre campus with 116 multifamily residences in Forest Glen, Md.

Inspired by the international theme of the 1893 Columbian exposition in Chicago, John and Vesta Cassedy opened National Park Seminary, a private-girls’ finishing school in 1894. The Cassedys constructed a variety of sorority houses in numerous styles, which today The Alexander Company is converting into single-family homes within its historic community.

The Madison, Wis.-based development firm has fashioned a plan to create a residential community with options for various income levels. The first stage of development will feature 219 homes, including 66 historic apartments—100 percent of which have been leased—50 historic condominiums, 13 single-family homes—12 of which are historic—and 90 new-construction town homes.

The historic site encompasses 27 buildings, 23 of which date from between 1887 and 1927, that overlook a 300-ft.-wide wooded ravine. So how did such a unique architectural creation come into being?

A whimsical inspiration

Built in 1887, the first structure of the community was a resort—known as Ye Forest Inne—that closed at the end of the 1892 season. At that time, the project architect recommended the site to his friends, the Cassedys, who opened their internationally inspired school in 1894. The couple also built the Aloha House for themselves, as well as dormitories and a gymnasium for the campus.

The Aloha House continued to expand throughout the years, as a three-story addition doubled its size when the Cassedys shared their residence with the school’s juniors.

When the property was later sold to Joe Clifton Trees, he placed James Eli Ament at the school’s helm. Ament joined several of the buildings to create what is now the sprawling structure known as “Main” (featured on MHN’s October cover). He also extended the Aloha House again, adding porches and stuccoing the building to match “Main,” which it was connected to by a covered walkway that still exists today. Ament also applied white pebbledash stucco to “Main,” in an attempt to better unify the campus.

In 1942, the United States Army appropriated the campus for use as a hospital, serving as such throughout World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Though the army attempted to demolish the historic structures of the site to build more modern structures, local preservationists prevented them from doing so, and in 1978, the army vacated the majority of the grounds.

In May of 2001, the army transmitted a Report of Excess to the Federal General Service Administration, documenting that the property was in surplus to its needs. In 2003, the Administration and Montgomery County entered into an agreement for disposition of the property through a negotiated sale.

Enter the Alexander Company, which selected Bethesda, Md.-based EYA (formerly Eakin Youngentob Associates) to add newly constructed town homes to the site, thus leveraging the high cost of adaptive reuse.

“If, in a case like this, you portioned out your new construction infill and your adaptive reuse, you wouldn’t be able to take advantage of leveraging new construction for financing purposes, so you wouldn’t have a cohesive vision,” notes Joe Alexander, president of The Alexander Company. “When communities split significant and large complicated projects that separate infill from adaptive reuse, you make the challenge of both the infill and adaptive reuse all the greater.”

Maintaining—and making—history

The Alexander Company has been doing adaptive reuse projects since the early 1980s, expanding the firm to include “a home-grown expertise, both in terms of our development and finance people, and we have in-house architectural services, owners’ representation and construction management,” says Alexander. “We know we can comply with any rules and regulations that may come with historic tax credits—you have to be able to understand hidden conditions, conditions of existing structures, or you won’t be able to control your costs.”

It was precisely this experience that led to the firm being selected to adapt the Forest Glen site. “We do enough work in this area [of adaptive reuse] that when Montgomery County came to the decision to issue an RFP for a national developer, National Trust [for Historic Preservation] recommended us,” Alexander explains.

The Madison firm has “a strong belief in the urban core and its importance in terms of social issues and the history of the urban areas of the built environment,” Alexander asserts. For this reason, despite all of its complications—according to Alexander, National Park Seminary is “one of the more challenging and complicated projects in the country”—the developer decided to create a new neighborhood that would comprise both historic and new-construction multifamily and single-family homes.

“The work that has to go into the upkeep of buildings as complex and old as these are is significant,” notes Alexander. “The army thought it was inefficient for them, so they slowly phased out their use—the worst deterioration of the buildings occurred during the last 20 years.”

During its 27-year vacancy, the buildings suffered water damage, roofs caved in and vandalism took its toll on the property. Further, notes Alexander, “there were issues where the building had to be shored up, so there are some walls and floors that are not plum because there are limits on how much you can shore up buildings that are sagging.”

And, simply due to the age of the buildings, there were many difficulties associated with stacking units and running modern systems into the buildings. Unlike in new construction, “all of those things become dictated by the building and its shape and the way it was structured.” Furthermore, each of the 116 multifamily residences has a different floor plan, which, as Alexander notes, is “good for marketing but a pain for design and construction.”

The entire multifamily component of the first phase will be comprised of historic buildings, as will 12 of the 13 single-family homes. These historic homes include a Japanese pagoda, Dutch windmill, Italian villa, Swiss chalet, English castle, American bungalow, Colonial house, Spanish mission and Indian Mission, as well as a miller library, postmaster’s house and a chauffeur’s house.

In addition, the developer’s plan includes restoration and maintenance of the 13-acre wooded glen—which the company sees as an added amenity for residents who live at National Park Seminary—as well as improved pedestrian linkages to and through the site and to Forest Glen Metrorail Station.

The second phase of the project, which is slated to begin in the spring of 2010 and take between 12 and 16 months to complete, will feature 38 additional residences within what was once the campus servant’s quarters, carpenter shop, gymnasium, stables and power plant. “Based on market realities, they will probably be rentals with an eye toward conversion, whenever that makes sense,” notes Alexander.

The 90 town homes—of which approximately 70 have already been built—though new construction, were designed in various architectural styles to fit in with the context of the site, explains Alexander. Some of the homes will be created with a Spanish mission in mind, while others reflect a Tudor influence, for example. “It would have been a true shame to take the unique architecture of the historic buildings and throw up cookie-cutter homes,” Alexander asserts.

From inefficient to modern

The Alexander Company’s vision for the underutilized, but nationally recognized, site is to create a diverse—both in its architecture and its residents—walkable community.

The greatest challenge to doing adaptive reuse projects, Alexander says, is “how you come up with an economically viable use in what are inefficient buildings.” For example, the site contains a large ballroom that Alexander contends would be difficult to lease, since it has 30-ft. wide hallways that are essentially unrentable space. “The other thing is how you fit modern living spaces into a building that had a difference purpose,” Alexander adds. To that end, the developer is renovating the large ballroom for use as a community space.

“From a construction and architectural perspective, the time you take to complete these plans is significantly longer. You lose something of what makes new construction easier—but you pick something up in terms of what it offers,” Alexander notes. “You make the community that you create seamless by finding opportunities to create diversity.”

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