The Whimsical Ruins of the National Park Seminary


If you’re looking for something completely out of the ordinary to do, pay a visit to the National Park Seminary in Kensington, Md. Formerly designated as a summer vacation spot for Washingtonians, it was turned into a girls finishing school in 1894. After World War II, the army took over the area to use as medical and rehab facilities for returning soldiers, but limited funds caused them to eventually abandon the place. Most of the buildings in the Seminary are now in disrepair or falling to pieces, including the madcap collection of buildings inspired by global architecture.

Though there’s plenty of information and pictures to be found online about the Seminary, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Maybe all the hype about it being bizarre yet cool was just made up to attract tourists. After all, how could a Japanese pagoda, a Dutch windmill or an English castle — built by well-meaning educators who decided that a “global influence” would benefit their female charges — possibly have much sightseeing value if it was located in a middle-class neighborhood in Maryland? It doesn’t seem promising, but take time to explore the Seminary and all its ruins. Instantly, you’ll be time warped back to your teenage years. You’ve just uncovered the most awesome forbidden grounds, and can’t wait to tell your friends to go explore it with you. At least, that’s what my friends and I got excited about when WE were teenagers…

Some of the first buildings you’ll encounter are the shingle-roofed condos. These aren’t in ruins. They’ve been resurrected by a construction company (they also have plans to give the area a makeover,) with individual units available for purchase and people do live there. The facade gives the area a nice atmosphere to start your little adventure, but totally belies the head trip you’re about to experience with the ruins of the Seminary.

I didn’t take a picture of the aforementioned pagoda. It looks more like something they’d have at Disneyworld, which makes its’ presence in the relatively staid neighborhood all the more perplexing. I’m borrowing a nice image of it from the New York Times, which published an article about the Seminary in 2006. Apparently it’s been sold as a private home to someone. Imagine living in that structure. It looks as flimsy as a house of cards about to come toppling down!

Japanese inspired pagoda. Pic is by Lisa Chamberlain for the New York Times.

NPS Dorms

The vertical picture on the left is part of an old gymnasium. The pictures on the right are what looks like Spanish-inspired row houses, but I can only assume that these were dorms of some kind. When I was able to peer through the windows, all I could see was debris. And then, in the corner of one window, there was this:

Random love for Ohio State in a dilapidated building at the Seminary. How did it get there?.

We (my friend Mike and I) found the Dutch windmill, with no windmill attached. So downstream we went towards the English castle. Grass and creepers around it were so overgrown that we could barely get close. For all we know, Sleeping Beauty may have been asleep in that castle:

NPS Castle & Burnt Ruins

Our path to the castle took us under a covered walkway. Upclose, we could see that parts of it had been razed by fire. Arson, perhaps?

On our way to the castle, we spotted a family of deer grazing beside the little body of water that runs through the area. Mike tried to approach them quietly but failed – once he made the fatal mistake of locking eyes with one of them, the entire herd took off uphill. Skittish.

Also noteworthy are some of the remaining statues around the area. Many of them are lost or damaged beyond repair, but the ones still standing are as interesting as they are quirky.

NPS Statues

Pictures L-R: Statue of Native American Iroquois leader, Hiawatha; Unidentified ladies of the Seminary

Said hii to Leo & Theo at the #NationalSeminaryPark today.

I was most charmed by these two old boys, nicknamed Leo & Theo by the Seminary girls back in the day.

So, if you go, make sure to wear comfortable walking shoes. Not only is a lot of footwork involved – you’ll also be encountering some uneven terrain. An alternative is to bring your bike to the area on a nice day. You aren’t allowed into any of the abandoned buildings, so don’t try, lest you get injured climbing over decaying barricades. And take some photos – it’s not often that you’ll spend a day exploring ruins!

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