Nebraska Avenue Complex, Mount Vernon Seminary Main Building, Washington, DC

ARCHITECTURAL DESCRIPTION FOR HISTORY AND DOCUMENTATION Built in 1916 and designed by architect Wesley Bessel, Building 1 served as the main school building for the Mount Vernon Seminary for Girls and was later altered to accommodate offices for the U.S. Navy. Building 1 is a three-and-one-half-story (sloping site to rear, so front elevation only looks like two-stories), brick, U-shaped building with a gabled roof covered in slate. The Nebraska Avenue Complex (the NAC) site was originally developed as the Mount Vernon Seminary for Girls in the early part of the twentieth century when this part of the District of Columbia was largely rural in nature. The main school building (#1), was built in the Georgian Revival style and set the tone for much of the later development on this campus. It still presents the predominant visual image of this complex to the street and the public. All of the subsequent major buildings built as part of Mount Vernon Seminary’s academic campus were designed by Mr. Bassell. This was the first academic building erected on the Mount Vernon Seminary for Girls campus in 1916, and was later altered in 1943, to accommodate the offices of the U.S. Navy. The building originally housed classrooms and dormitories, and is currently used to house administrative and support offices for the DHS. The U-shaped three-story building was erected in 1916 and features a central block with flanking wings that protrude slightly from the facade of the central block. The north and south wings are banked into a hill that slopes downward from west to east so that the basement is fully visible on the rear elevation of each wing. The exterior walls of the building are brick. The central block of the building is capped by a gabled roof with in slate shingles. The north and south wings are also gabled with slate roofing. An octagonal cupola with a copper roof is centrally located on the roof ridge of the central block. Four interior brick chimneys are evenly spaced along the roof ridge of the central block, and five interior brick chimneys are evenly spaced along the roof ridge of the south wing. Three additional interior brick chimneys situated perpendicular to the roof ridge are located on the north wing. Six evenly spaced hipped-roof dormers extend from the southern slope of the roof at the eastern end of the south wing. Each dormer features a four-over-four light, double-hung window. Three hipped-roof dormers are evenly spaced in the western end of the northern roof slope of the north wing and feature four-over-four light, double-hung windows. Two hipped-roof dormers flank a two-bay shed-roof dormer in the eastern end of the northern roof slope of the north wing. The westernmost dormer features a louvered vent in lieu of the six-over-six light window situated in the other two dormers. The central block has nineteen bays and faces west towards Nebraska Avenue. A gauged brick stringcourse divides the first and second stories, and a curved, wood cornice accentuates the roof line. Four splayed, stone steps, flanked by a wrought iron railing, lead to the main entry situated in the centermost bay, which is aligned with the cupola. The main entry consists of a set of double-leaf, paneled, wood doors in an ornamental wood frame. The doorway is set into a sandstone surround that consists of pilasters topped by a broken pediment. The pediment contains a T-shaped limestone keystone, the top of which extends above the pediment and features engraved lettering that reads “Mount Vernon Seminary.” The keystone bears the shield of the Mount Vernon Seminary. An original lantern still hangs below the shield. Two non-original metal lanterns are surface mounted in the brick wall to either side of the stone surround. The central block has six-over-six light, double-hung aluminum replacement windows at the second level and 9/9 such windows at the first floor level. A projecting entry bay is centered in the east (Courtyard) elevation of the central block. The bay consists of an arched ground-floor doorway, a second-story tetrastyle portico forming a balcony, and a pedimented gable with a clock in the tympanum. The west end of the south wing is three bays wide forming a pavilion at the the south end of the west elevation. At the center bay of this pavilion is a two-story half decagon, projecting bay with the same aluminum replacement windows at the first and second levels and slate clad spandrels between, on each facet. The west end of the north wing forms and identical pavilion at the north end of the west elevation. The south wing's main elevation consists of unevenly spaced bays. Some of the windows in the basement level have been replaced with aluminum louvered vents. The windows in the first story consist of nine-over-nine light, double-hung aluminum replacement windows, whereas the second story contains six-over-six light aluminum replacement windows. Several window openings in the first story have been filled in with brick. The north wing's main elevation consists of unevenly spaced bays comprised of a variety of window types including six-over-nine light; six-over-six light; and four-over-four light, double-hung sash, all of which are currently aluminum replacement windows and frames for the original wood windows and frames. The north elevation has a slightly protruding central bay with a gabled end that includes the five bays and an oculus window in the face of the gable end. The first story contains a former entry that now consists of a twelve-light fixed-sash window topped by a four-light transom. Two secondary entries are situated in the basement level. Slate shingles clad the exterior spandrels between each story at the two of the easternmost bays of this elevation. Filling the space at the interior of this U-shaped floor plan, the historic Quadrangle was designed by Bessell to be a private exterior space for use by the students of the Mount Vernon Seminary and was originally surrounded by the open colonnaded cloister. It was defined by the sheltering building walls on three sides, by the natural terracing of the site at its center and by a major fall in the topography at its open eastern edge. A formal walkway and steps connected the exterior to a central door in each of its surrounding wings. Today the cloisters have been completely enclosed so that access can only be had through one door on the western side. The interior open space has been largely obliterated by the intrusions of Bldg. 100, large mechanical equipment, a gazebo and several trees which have been planted in more recent times. Historically this open quadrangle had minimal plantings at the base of the western building façade, so as to read as a large green room used for graduation ceremonies and other festive group gatherings. All of the non-historic intrusion should be removed in order to recapture this character defining exterior feature of Bldg. 1.

Built in 1916, Bldg. #1 was the first academic building erected for the Mount Vernon Seminary for Girls. The whole Nebraska Avenue Complex (former Mount Vernon Seminary for Girls campus) has been found eligible for listing in the National Regicter of Historic Place as an Historic District.

This district encompasses two distinct periods of significance, from 1916 to 1942 as the Mount Vernon Seminary for Women and then from 1943 to 1952 as the Naval Communications Center; this property has been determined significant according to National Register Criteria A, C & D.
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. All of the buildings built for the Mount Vernon Seminary campus and many of the major buildings built for the Naval Communications Annex were designed by Mr. Bessell.
The NCA is significant under Criterion D for its potential to yield information regarding the consumption and disposal patterns of the residents of Mount Vernon Seminary.

Building #1 is still the most imposing of all the buildings in this historic campus ensemble. It became the focus and the architectural model for all of the subsequent major buildings for both the historic school and for the historic period of its ownership my the U. S. Navy. It's siting parallel to Nebraska Avenue set up the grid subsequently followed by all later development of the site, and its Georgian Revival stylistic vocabulary and materials are the precedent subsequently followed in all of Bessell's academic buildings for both the Mount Vernon Seminary and the U. S. Navy. To date it is the tallest building on site and its central cupola still forms a beacon and a symbol of the historic institutions once housed here.

Description Architect
1916 1917 original construction Wesley Sherwood Bessell
1943 1943 alterations for US Navy Wesley Sherwood Bessell
1951 1951 Bldg. 1 Measured Drawings Ross & Walton
1980 1980 ca. 1980s original wood double hung windows replaced with aluminum windows
1982 1983 Bldg 1 Courtyard Drainage Improvements Dept of the Navy
Last Reviewed: 2021-08-25