Nebraska Avenue Complex, Mount Vernon Seminary Chapel, Washington, DC
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.
- Architects: Wesley Bessell
- Construction Dates: 1924-1925
- GSA Building Number: DC1405ZZ
- Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places