Walter Reed weighs fate of Forest Glen buildings Heritage: Preservationists hope to save the landmark structures, which include a 19th-century castle, a windmill and sorority houses.

January 20, 1998|By Nicole Gill | Nicole Gill,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

SILVER SPRING - Two dozen historic buildings at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center are in such disrepair that the Pentagon is considering ripping down or selling the structures.

The Forest Glen Annex buildings, which served as a women's finishing school from the late 19th century until World War II, go largely unused and are too expensive to maintain, Army officials say.

But preservationists blame the Army for the state of the buildings, which have been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972.

"If they had done routine maintenance work, the buildings would not be in this kind of shape," said Laura S. Nelson, assistant general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit organization in Washington.

Preservationists hope the Army will sell the buildings, which include a 19th-century castle, a windmill and sorority houses nestled within more than 20 wooded acres bordering the Capital Beltway.

"It wouldn't be such a problem in figuring out a future use for them," Nelson said.

But the Army says it needs to wait on the findings of an environmental impact statement to determine the best use for the facility. The study is expected to be completed by July.

"We're really working with the community to do the right thing here," said Maj. Gen. Leslie Burger, commander of Walter Reed. "So we're going to look at all the options that come forward from the [environmental impact statement]."

Local groups say the Army has not taken its responsibilities as owners of the National Park Seminary Historic District seriously.

The Army contributed to a "demolition by neglect," said Bonnie Rosenthal, president of Save Our Seminary. The Forest Glen group is interested in the restoration of the seminary, which was a private school for young women from 1894 to 1942.

The Army said it spends $400,000 a year to maintain the property, nearly 10 percent of Walter Reed's annual maintenance budget.

"Our first priority is to the safety of the patients and the work force," said Ben Smith, a spokesman for Walter Reed.

"We do have a fire department out there on the grounds in the historic area," he said. "We do keep someone out there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."

Smith said, however, that the Army is fixing up only "the most obvious and serious deterioration" on the property.

Only part of one building is used by the Army, Smith said.

The options are costly. Complete demolition could cost $10 million, while total restoration of the "most historically significant of the buildings" could cost between $66 million and $75 million, he said.

"If sale is a viable option, we would be more than happy to entertain that," Burger said.

But local activists say the buildings can be put to use immediately through leases. Options include a hospice for women veterans, a church, and a museum and visitors' center, Rosenthal said.

"We are trying to work with the Army to say, 'Here are things you can do in the meantime,' " Rosenthal said.

"There's already a precedent," she said, pointing to Carroll House, a transitional shelter for the homeless run by Catholic Charities since 1987.

Another possibility is to open four buildings across Linden Lane nTC as housing for soldiers and their families, but no timetable has been established for such a move, Burger said.

"What's important is to get someone in those houses," he said.

Residents "want very much for the area to look attractive," Burger said.

The property was placed on the National Register of Historic Places 25 years ago for its "naive frivolity and exuberance of the age of innocence" that decry "the functionalism of our age," according to the 1972 nomination documents.

National Park Seminary was opened in 1894 by Dr. and Mrs. John A. I. Cassedy. They bought a resort hotel and converted it into a finishing school for women.

In the late 1930s, National Park was converted into a junior college until the Army bought it in 1942 under the War Powers Act and turned it to a convalescent home for soldiers. The buildings have gone largely unused in recent years.

In 1994, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Save Our Seminary filed suit charging the Army was not doing its job as owners of historic property.

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman agreed the Army had been negligent for eight years but decided that since the Army had begun to take care of the buildings, it was complying with the National Historic Preservation Act. That case is under appeal.

Pub Date: 1/20/98

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