Vacant, ramshackle dormitories and crumbling school buildings intermingle with brand new luxury condominiums, offering vagrants and investors the unique opportunity to get cozy as neighbors, all within earshot of the Beltway. But then, Forest Glen has been a bit of a potluck, pragmatic proposition since its inception in 1887.
Forest Glen began life in as an inn catering to wealthy guests to the nation’s capital, whose effective border was nearly a dozen miles away at the time. But since it predated the beltway and suburban sprawl by a generation or so, that didn’t go anywhere, and the inn underwent the first in a series of reinventions, becoming an all-girls finishing school known as the Forest Glen Seminary. The Depression and shifting social norms meant that by the end of the 1930s, the school’s heyday had long passed. During World War II, the property was confiscated by the U.S. Army and used as a retreat for wounded soldiers. It fell completely into disuse and disrepair in the last quarter of the twentieth century until the Army divested itself of the property in the early 2000s. Developers were eager to realize the real estate potential of the land, but a group of local enthusiasts has done their best to maintain the historical integrity of site.
The result is a peculiar tension between the old and the new, the desiccated and the debutant, the waning and waxing money of America. The ghosts of a dead elite, who flaunted their status by enrolling their daughters at Forest Glen, skulk amongst the blessed yuppies who can secure a loan large enough to huff the vapors of prestige off of the leftovers of that old money investment. When money could build something special and not just mass produce the illusion of it.
Walking the remains on a spring day, I found myself pondering deeper questions than the developers of this “historic housing opportunity” probably ever intended. What price (both monetary and philosophical) are we willing to pay to conserve and renovate historic buildings? Where is the tipping point between authentic nineteenth century construction and something that may as well be a new building? Which bucket of paint or replacement floorboard tips the scale? Is it the modern cable hook-ups that make it too twenty first century, or is it the sign out in front, there to declare for those unwashed and uninitiated visitors that they are indeed looking at something “historic?”
For the record, the actual ad copy for National Park Seminary Condominiums reads:
NEW PRICING: Condominiums from the low $400s
PRIME LOCATION: Inside the Beltway, 1 mile from Forest Glen Metro
HIGH-END FINISHES: Hardwood floors, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances
HISTORIC FEATURES (per plan): Decorative fireplaces, wainscoting, crown molding
ABUNDANT GREENSPACE: On 13-acre glen, adjacent to Rock Creek Park
Units still available.
This is a great site that bears repeat visits. I’ve been three times and found something new each time – another statue in the woods, another cracked window to peep in, a snake to crawl across the palm of my hand while scaling one of these crumbling rock walls, or another explorer with a kernel of truth to share. Check it out while it’s still halfway weird.
DCinruins: A Guide to Urban Exploration in Washington, DC published by Insignificant Press.