Nebraska Avenue Complex, Mount Vernon Seminary Chapel, Washington, DC

INTRODUCTION Because of the Chapel's (Bldg. #6) architectural significance and remaining integrity, practically the whole of the original part of this building, exterior and interior should be considered a Restoration Zone; and all existing historic fabric retained and maintained. If maintained, this building will never need to be restored, because its historic materials and elements are almost 100% intact. Only the mechanical basement/horizontal chase qualifies for anything less than historic restoration and preservation. EXTERIOR The Chapel is a brick and hollow clay tile building with a Basilican plan, gabled slate roof and large arched windows in the Georgian Revival style. A pedimented Greek Revival style porch with four equally space Doric columns adorns the south (front) elevation of this otherwise simple building. The north bay steps in slightly at the sides to differentiate the chancel space from the nave. This differentiation is further indicated on the exterior by exaggerated stone quoiting at the corners of this set back, as well as at the four outside corners of the building. What appears to be the original slate roofing still covers the roof of the entire building, even the porch. A trunkated, square belfry is perched atop the south end of the building right behind the porch. The belfry and the front porch are of frame construction with Classical detailing, painted white. A dentilated wood cornice outlines the edge of the roof all the way around the building. This dentil detail is then carried around the inside edge of the porch's gable end pediment. An oval luvered opening (vent) is centered in the large flat surface of the gable end. Tall 12/12 double hung wood windows topped with a fixed lunnettes line each of the long (east and west) elevations. Dark green, arched shutters remain at both sides of all these windows. On the exterior most of the original wood paneled doors remain except where the one door was eliminated by the restroom addition at the northeast end of the building. The pair of tall, ten paneled doors with fixed, paneled transom which form the main entry to the Chapel are painted white today, but they are dark in the historic photographs. Centered in the north elevation, corresponding to the typical altar location on the interior, is a huge Palladian window with reeded mullions to simulate Classical columns and vertical wood siding as in-fill over the entire composition. Historic drawings and photographs indicate that this window originally contained clear, beveled glass in its many lights until well into its ownership by the Navy. At some date (of the documentation found so far, it is first mentioned on a 1983 drawing), the Navy installed a stained glass panel of some symbolic design and meaning on the interior of the large central portion of this window, and it remains there today. The cornerstone, which reads “A.D. 1924,” is located in the southwest corner of the building. The names and dates of donors to the construction of this chapel are etched in the bluestone flooring at the base of the porch columns; but have weathered so that they are very difficult to discern. EXTANT ARCHITECTURAL DRAWINGS Many of the original and subsequent drawings exist in the GSA offices on the NAC campus, currently in Bldg. 18. These are a great resource for understanding this building and its maintenance over the years. Until recently this chapel has been very well maintained. The original slate roofing appears never to have been replaced, only repaired periodically as needed. In 1983 measured drawings of the belfry recorded its existing condition and then it was restored back to its original condition withal all wood components. In 1984 the main wood windows were removed and the muntins replaced based on a full scale detail of the historic profile. At that time the wood frames were also replaced to match the existing; the windows reglazed using as much of the salvaged glass as possible and then reinstalled. Most importantly the exterior wood elements have been regularly repainted. This is important because wood can withstand the elements for a very long time so long as it is protected with a good paint system. INTERIOR The original interiors as designed by Wesley Bessel also remain remakably intact and unaltered except for carpeting installed over the stone floors in the aisles and the interior paint scheme. All of the historic photos from the era of the Mount Vernon Seminary for Girls show the interiors to have been a monochromatically light color; probably white or off white. Sometime after it was taken over by the U. S. Navy they introduced a pollychrome scheme. Using three colors - a light gray, a dark gray and a gold paint (not real gilding) - they highlighted selective ornamental wood elements. All other major surfaces remained off white. These colors were then repeated in subsequent re-painting jobs (1983 & 1994), the earliest record found is in the drawing from 1968 entitled "Interior Decoration of the Navy Chapel".. Because of the significance and integrity of these historic interiors a paint testing and documentation should be performed for all interior surfaces and for both sides of the main entry doors. ADDITION In 1991 a small addition at the northeast corner, to the rear of the building was built to provide accessible restrooms. Although constructed of lower quality materials (e.g. vinyl windows), this addition is visually compatible with the historic building in scale, and form; and provides modern amenities required by code. Today it also house the equipment for the chapel's fire suppression system. In 2000 all of the HVAC systems were replaced.

The Chapel (Bldg. #6) has been declared a contributing structure within a National Register eligible Historic District, encompassing two distinct periods of significance, the first from 1916 to 1942 as the Mount Vernon Seminary for Girls and then from 1943 to 1952 as the Naval Communications Center; this property is significant according to National Register Criteria A and C.

Criterion A - Associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad pattern of our history:
Association with Education: As the first non-sectarian private school for women in Washington DC, Mount Vernon Seminary was a leader in promoting the education of women in the community and went on to see many of its graduates take leadership jobs in other institutions of higher education for women across the Eastern Seaboard.

Association with the WWII effort: After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U. S. Government exercised its powers of eminent domain and took over the Mount Vernon Seminary property for the Naval Cryptanalysis mission which contributed to US and Allies success in WWII. The U.S. Navy moved its Communications and Security Section to 3801 Nebraska Avenue in February of 1943; which became known as the Naval Communication Annex. During the ensuing years of World War II this facility was largely staffed by women originally recruited through the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES) who worked in the cryptanalysis offices and labs. Here they worked to break the coded messages of enemy forces in Japan and Germany.

Criterion C – Design/Construction – if they embody a distinctive characteristic of a type or period, or represent the work of a master; or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction.
The Campus Plan and layout; and most major buildings (from both periods of significance) were designed by architect Wesley Bessell in a coherent Georgian Revival Style. Bessell was interested in buildings for education as is evidenced from his design of both the original (at Nebraska Ave.) and the subsequent (on Foxhall Rd. after the original campus was commandeered by the US Government for the War effort) Mount Vernon Seminary campuses as well as several other of his works such as the Kensington School in Connecticut.

In several articles or pamphlets written either by or about him, it is clear that Bessell had strong opinions about the necessity of designing educational buildings which both worked well for their purpose and exhibited the grace and Classical presence appropriate to the function they served. Bessell was very interested in the concept of campus layout where educational buildings related to one another both by proximity and by their adherence to a coherent stylistic vocabulary carried out in dignified materials, details and proportions.

In addition to its contribution to the integrity of the National Register eligible Historic District, the Chapel has been found eligible for individual listing on its own architectural merits. It is an excellent example of Georgian Revival architecture with a Greek Revival front porch. The building has a very high level of integrity, because with the exception of the small restroom addition at the back side of the building, it is remarkably unchanged from its original design; and we know that because the original drawings are in GSA's possession (and have been added to the image library of this BPP. In addition to its exterior stylistic integrity, the interior has very high integrity with all of the original first floor elements still extant and in good condition. Original interior elements include the marble flooring, the original light fixture and original curved wood stairways up to the balcony in the Narthex (vestibule). Significant architectural elements in the nave include the stone flooring in the aisles (now covered with carpet), enclosed box pews, original light fixtures and wood detailing. Historic elements in the chancel include ornamental wood detailing, a raised pulpit with baldaccino, choir risers, organ pipes and original light fixtures. The original plans indicated boxed pews in the balcony as well, but if they ever did exist they are gone now and only risers at the floor level remain. The wood paneled balcony rail is still extant and in good condition.

Description Architect
1924 1925 original construction of structure Wesley Sherwood Bessell
1968 1968 Interior Decoration of Navy Chapel
1981 1981 Paint all Exterior Wd. Elements & repair Portico Col. bases
1983 1983 Belfry documented & restored and chapel interiors repainted & recarpeted
1984 1984 Window sash & frames rehabilitated (new muntins and frames to match )
1989 1989 New ext. HC Handrails, new paint at exterior wood & Portico
1991 1991 New Restroom Addition & HC ramps at East Elevation
1993 1993 Exterior elements painted, col. bases repaired; slate roof repaired
1994 1994 Paint chapel interior & exterior (interior colors documented)
2000 2000 Entire HVAC system replaced
Last Reviewed: 2021-08-25