Today’s artifacts, a ceramic teacup and bread plate, come from the National Park Seminary (NPS), a late 19th – early 20th century girls’ school in Forest Glen. Both pieces are marked in gold with the Greek letters Chi Psi Upsilon. The bread plate is stamped on the reverse with the maker’s mark for Warwick China Co. of Wheeling, WV (1887-1951). They were donated to MCHS by Helen Gruver Kline, NPS class of 1921.
The Seminary is one of those Montgomery County places that bring just a hint of mystery to the landscape. In this case, the mystery tends to be either “What is that fancy, old-looking building you can see from the Beltway?” or “Did we really just drive past a pagoda?” The short answers are: 1) A fancy hotel/school/condo development, and 2) Yes. As for the long answers…
The first building at NPS was actually a resort hotel, Ye Forest Inne, built in 1887 to take advantage of the county’s new suburban railway. Many of these railroad hotels prospered, but the Forest Inne did not. It was purchased by Dr. and Mrs. Cassedy, experienced educators who opened the National Park Seminary, an elite girls’ preparatory school, on the site in 1894. Over the years additional dormitories, classroom buildings, and clubhouses (more on that in a bit) were built in and around the glen. The hilly, wooded landscape was dotted with picturesque bridges, romantic statuary, and elaborate architecture. Students came from across the country to take advantage of the school’s much-touted proximity to the culture and society of the Nation’s Capital.
The clubs, or sororities, at NPS were a unique feature – or, as the 1920-21 catalog phrased it, “peculiar and original with this school.” For one thing, they were not associated with national sororities; they were social clubs, with voluntary membership (no recruitment or hazing), created by the students and faculty to promote sociability, congeniality and the development of life skills. For another thing, each group’s clubhouse was built in a distinctive style. Thus a stroll through the NPS campus takes you past a Dutch windmill, a Swiss cottage, a “Spanish mission,” an English Colonial house, a bungalow, a “castle,” and, yes, a “Japanese” pagoda.
The Japanese Clubhouse pagoda was built in 1905 – in a style that veers a little more toward Chinese than Japanese, but what can you do. (Interestingly, the name was changed to the Chinese Pagoda during World War II.) It was home to the Chi Psi Upsilon club/sorority, and our teacup and plate were used here. I haven’t found a list of the club’s membership, but presumably our donor belonged to “Chi Psi U” during her years at NPS. (The 1920-21 school catalog does list Helen Russell Gruver of Washington D.C. amongst the registered students, but club affiliation is not inculded.) We have a nice assortment of catalogs, viewbooks, yearbooks, photo albums and scrapbooks in our library collections, allowing me to trace a little of the clubhouse history over time, but in the interest of brevity – or such brevity as I can muster – the images and text here come from the 1920-21 catalog/prospectus for potential and incoming students.
The broad purpose of the club system is summed up next to some of the photographs of the “artistically beautiful” houses: “The Clubs mean the sub-division of the school into small families with the mother-relation sustained in each. . . . A Student’s retreat for rest and recreation. A club girl learns how to work in organization; how to respond to the needs of community life; how to render efficient social service; how to be a companionable woman.” And finally, in case you, as a parent of a potential student, are still not convinced that it is worth the time and money to send June/Dorothy/Helen/Marian to school: “A companionable woman makes the best wife and mother.”
(Please don’t think I’m making fun of the school, its administration or its students – I’m not! The ins and outs, whys and wherefores of women’s education throughout history is fascinating to me, and I love NPS. A lot of very positive things came out of schools such as this one, and if convincing Mother and Father that an NPS education was the surest ticket to a good marriage with a diplomat’s son was the way to get things done, so be it. I do my best to remember that the work of people like the Cassedys and Mrs. Kline gave Modern Me the space, distance and opportunity to be a teeny bit sneery.)
And what happened to the school? Well, to make a long story short, the campus was bought by the US Army early in World War II, and became the Walter Reed Hospital Annex; for many years, the classrooms, dormitories and grand spaces once occupied by young women were occupied instead by convalescing soldiers. Over the years the various structures fell into disrepair, and in the late 1980s members of the surrounding community formed Save Our Seminary, a group dedicated to finding new uses for the old buildings. Happily for those of us who love a bit of architectural variety in our suburbia, the remaining dorms, classrooms, clubhouses and support structures are in the midst of a major renovation. You can – if you choose and are able – live in the Seminary. (But I’m sorry, I believe the Pagoda has already been purchased!)
For more information – since here I have blithely whipped through 100+ years of the school’s history, and have hardly done it justice – please visit the Save Our Seminary site, or this site, created a few years ago by an NPS fan.