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Forest Glen Pagoda
The Japanese Pagoda is one of the best recognized of the many architectural treasures on the former campus of the National Park Seminary, an elite women’s college preparatory school and junior college that operated between 1894 and 1942 in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The Seminary offered its students advanced academic training while indoctrinating them in contemporary definitions of womanhood. Located within a dramatic natural landscape that featured a forested ravine enhanced by walking paths, ornamental bridges, fountains, and statuary, the campus also included a picturesque architectural program in a mix of styles from classical to more romantic and exotic. Among the spectacular assemblage of buildings are eight whimsical sorority houses, of which the Pagoda is one. Serving as practice houses for polite entertaining, each represents a different architectural style or building type and thus, as a group, also offers a lesson in architectural history and an introduction to foreign exploration.
The Japanese Pagoda, the most elaborate and academic of the designs, was the last to be erected, in 1905. The others include the American Bungalow (1898), Japanese Bungalow (1898–1899), Dutch Windmill (1899), Swiss Chalet (1902), Indian Mission (1903), English Castle (1904), and Colonial House (1904). Each contained assembly rooms with a stage area, property or records rooms, tea rooms, and miniature kitchen arrangements. The buildings exemplify the eclecticism that defined the era, inspired by various international exhibitions held in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Most notable were Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and Chicago’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893, both of which included international buildings in a variety of exotic and classical styles. Ushering in the Colonial Revival movement, events such as these inspired a popular revival in period architectural design. And in fact, National Park Seminary founders John and Vesta Cassedy supposedly attended the Columbian Exposition and purchased a book of featured structures that may have served as models for the Seminary’s architectural program.
According to catalogs for National Park Seminary, the Japanese Pagoda was modeled after the Shrine of Toujovo. Indicative of the pagoda form, the building sits on a raised platform with each of its three ascending stories becoming successively smaller. At each level, broad overhanging eaves turn up at the corners to reveal exposed rafters. The uppermost eave is crowned by a sloping gable roof with an ornamental crest along its ridge. This top portion is both decorative and essential to structural stability; as each base becomes smaller the posts that support it move inward, underpinned by horizontal bases braced by diagonal beams. Beginning inside the structure, these beams extend downward to support the eaves. The overhanging eaves act as a counterweight, with each eave supported by the structure above it; the gabled peak acts as the counterweight for the uppermost eave. There is a temple-like entry portal. The exterior walls are clad with vertically laid wood framed by a grid pattern of raised horizontal and vertical planks, approximating the pillar or post-and-beam construction that is a defining element of traditional Japanese construction. At the front, two stairways rise to either side of the platform, flanked by Japanese lanterns, to create a welcoming entry.
The origin of the pagoda dates to the third century BCE and was used in many Asian countries as a religious structure, particularly within Buddhism, either for worship or for enshrining religious relics. Asian designs became popular with Americans after trade with China was established in the eighteenth century. The reopening of trade with Japan in the 1850s after years of isolation, the publication of Edward Morse’s Japanese Houses and Their Surroundings in 1885, and the exhibition of Japanese houses at world fairs, all contributed to the popularity of Japanese goods and designs around the turn of the twentieth century. Exotic forms, in this case, Asian, were intended to reflect the owner’s sophistication and refinement. Pagodas were popularly used as garden follies appearing on estate gardens and upper-class suburban neighborhoods in both England and America. So while the Pagoda at National Park Seminary was arguably the most exotic building on campus, it was not a rare form of garden architecture.
The National Park Seminary, named for its proximity to “the great National Rock Creek Park,” is also important as an example of turn-of-the-century campus designs and, more specifically, pedagogical architecture and landscapes created for women. The lush landscape enhanced by classical and fanciful architectural elements, not the least the sorority houses, speak to the period interest in the therapeutic and instructional value of art, architecture, and the natural world.
There is no known designer of the Pagoda. Although historians have suggested Washington, D.C. architect Thomas Franklin Schneider, who knew John and Vesta Cassedy, designed the hotel that became the main building of the Seminary, and may have also designed some school buildings, there is no evidence for his involvement with the Pagoda. The Cassedys more likely consulted architectural pattern books and used local builders to help them to realize their designs. The only other architect known to have connections with the Seminary was Emily Elizabeth Holman, based in Philadelphia, who completed alterations and additions to the Odeon Theater and the Miller Library on the seminary campus in 1901. Holman specialized in romantic residential architecture and published seven volumes on picturesque architecture, including A Book of Bungalows (1906), Picturesque Suburban Homes (1907), and Picturesque Camps, Cabins and Shacks (1908).
National Park Seminary ceased operations in 1942 and the campus was purchased by the U.S. Army for veteran’s rehabilitation as an annex to Walter Reed Army Hospital. It was later abandoned and became the subject of a major historic preservation battle led by local citizens under the banner “Save Our Seminary (S.O.S.),” which was formed in 1988. After a protracted battle, the Seminary was purchased in 2003 by a sympathetic developer, who maintained much of the campus landscape while rehabilitating its structures as individual houses and condominiums.
McBride, Sarah Pulford Davis, “National Park Seminary: A Study of the Twentieth-Century Finishing School.” Master’s thesis, George Washington University, 1991.
National Park Seminary. National Park Seminary for Young Women. Washington, D.C.: Kensington Publishing Company, c. 1894.
Nelson, Ric. “A School for Girls,” Parts 1 and 2. The Bulletin. National Park College Alumnae Association (Winter 1990 and Summer 1991).
Ott, Cynthia. “National Park Seminary,” Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, HABS No. MD-1109, 1999.
Ott, Cynthia. “National Park Seminary, Japanese Pagoda” Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, HABS No. MD-1109, 1999.
Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.
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