Historic tax credit's fate could alter site's future

Revitalization: Supporters of a 19th-century Montgomery County seminary say lawmakers can help them transform the campus into a vibrant neighborhood.

General Assembly

March 02, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

SILVER SPRING - The roof of the English castle has caved in, the blue paint of the Dutch windmill is flaking and two of the marble horses in the Italian fountain are headless on the deserted campus where the daughters of Washington's elite once strolled.

The pagoda is in better shape, however, and there's hope it could become someone's home. The villa could become condominiums.

Still splendid in ruins, the fanciful buildings of the Seminary at Forest Glen, a former girls finishing school, could have a bright future as housing, preservationists believe. Whether that dream is realized may hinge on the decisions of the Maryland General Assembly.

Lawmakers are now weighing the future of a historic preservation tax credit that has helped spur revitalization projects in Baltimore, Frederick and other areas across Maryland. Supporters of restoring the Seminary at Forest Glen are backing the governor's bill to extend the tax credit through 2010.

But they are also hoping to persuade lawmakers to grant the 19th-century Montgomery County landmark an exception to the proposed $3 million limit on the amount of credits that can be used for any one commercial project.

Without both actions, they say, funding for the county's plans to transform the campus into a vibrant neighborhood would be jeopardized. They fear that if the work doesn't start soon, some of the 25 buildings slated for renovation may deteriorate too much to be salvaged.

"The funding of a project like this is precarious enough that without the historic tax credit, the project is at risk," said Frederick A. Gervasi, president of Save Our Seminary at Forest Glen. The 26-acre campus, whose main building served as a casino in the 1890s, is one of the nation's most ambitious historic preservation projects.

Gervasi was one of many witnesses who came to Annapolis recently to argue for an extension of the tax credit, which has been questioned by some lawmakers because of its drain on state revenues.

The credit has helped finance many restoration projects since its introduction in 1996, but few could match the colorful history of the Forest Glen campus.

"This is kind of a well-kept secret, even in Montgomery County. It's tucked away," said Bonnie Rosenthal, executive director of Save Our Seminary.

The main building was constructed in 1887 as a rustic hotel-resort called Ye Forest Inne.

Intended as a refuge from Washington's sweltering summers, it struggled to attract a clientele. For a few years in the 1890s, it operated as a gambling hall before closing its doors in 1893.

The next year, the hotel's owners leased the hotel and surrounding estate to John and Vesta Cassedy, who reopened it as the National Park Seminary - a girls finishing school rather than a religious institution.

For nearly 50 years, the school provided instruction to girls from affluent families . In 1896, John Cassedy began construction of a series of international-style campus buildings. Many of them - including the pagoda, the castle, the windmill, the Swiss chalet and the Spanish mission - were sorority houses.

From the 1890s through the 1920s, the school's owners added buildings, including a chapel, a gymnasium and a ballroom. They connected the buildings with a series of walkways and covered porches, one of which became known as the Court of the Maidens, where 10 art nouveau Greek beauties still gamely prop up the dilapidated roof.

In 1942, the campus was requisitioned by the military and merged into the adjoining Walter Reed Army Hospital as a convalescent center for injured World War II GIs, many of them amputees. The complex, which has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972, continued in medical use into the Vietnam War era but closed in 1978.

Since then, the campus has deteriorated under Army ownership. Local advocates staved off plans to tear down the seminary buildings, but they weren't able to stop what they call the Army's "demolition by neglect."

After more than a decade of wrangling, the Army agreed to transfer the property to Montgomery County this year. The county has lined up the Alexander Co. of Madison, Wis., a specialist in historic preservation, as developer. Alexander has hired Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse of Baltimore to do construction on the 25 historic buildings slated for rehabilitation.

Plans call for the main lodge to be redeveloped as about 85 rental apartments, most of them classified as "affordable" housing. Other buildings will be redeveloped as about 70 condominiums, and the eight sorority houses - including the castle and pagoda - are expected to be transformed into single-family homes. The grand ballroom is to become a community center.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan called the seminary a "great historic treasure."

"From what I've been told, people all over the country have been looking at this project as a national model," he said.

Duncan said he believes the $80 million project would be Montgomery's biggest use of the historic tax credit - use of which has so far skewed heavily toward Baltimore. Officials at Save Our Seminary say the project would be eligible for $4.4 million in tax credits if the proposed cap is waived.

The legislator who might have the most to say about whether the credit legislation will be approved is Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Hixson, a Democrat who represents a Montgomery County district not far from the seminary, said the proposed restoration is "wonderful." But she has concerns about the overall tax credit program because the governor has proposed a limit of $30 million statewide, but allocated only $15 million in his budget.

She is also concerned about proposals that would jump the seminary over other projects.

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