Nebraska Avenue Complex, Mount Vernon Seminary Main Building, Washington, DC
Built in 1916, Building 1 was the first academic building erected for the Mount Vernon Seminary for Girls.
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. 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.
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 U.S. 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.
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.
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.
- Architect: Wesley Bessell
- Construction Dates: 1924-1925
- GSA Building Number: DC1405ZZ
- Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places