By Sigurd Neubauer
One of J. Karl Voglmayr’s fondest childhood memories was sitting under the kitchen sink at age three, playing with glue and tools in his father’s newly constructed home in a suburb of Sydney, Australia. Decades later, Voglmayr would pursue a career in construction focusing on historic preservation, including at National Park Seminary (NPS). He instrumentally brought the community’s crown jewel, the Gymnasium, back to life.
For it, he won two coveted prizes for historical preservation. In 2017, he won the Montgomery County Planning Department Design Excellence Award. Prior to this award, Voglmayr won the county’s 2015 Historic Preservation Award.
History of the National Park Seminary
With a Swiss chalet, a Japanese pagoda, and an imposing Gymnasium resembling an ancient Greek temple, along with other historic structures, the National Park Seminary is in many ways reminiscent of a small village on the footsteps of the Alps. But the landmark community is not in Switzerland or Austria, but rather in suburban Maryland, where it is surrounded gracefully by parkland, creeks, and walking trails.
It was first built as a resort in 1887 for Washingtonians seeking relief from a bustling city life until 1893 when NPS transitioned into a finishing school for young women from America’s preeminent establishment. The graduating seniors were hosted at the White House for tea during its high days. This tradition lasted until 1942 when President Roosevelt declared eminent domain on the property as part of the war effort. It was consequently turned into a U.S. Army medical facility.
By the early 1950s, however, the structures had fallen into shambles as a new and abandoned ‘shanty town’ was emerging for curious teenagers from the surrounding neighborhoods.
Decades later, concerned neighbors established in 1989 Save Our Seminary (SOS), an advocacy group dedicated to saving the campus from ongoing deterioration and planned demolition by the Army.
“The ‘last straw’ in this years-long struggle with the Army was when the historic Odeon (the theatre) for the seminary was lost to arson in September 1993. Angry and heartbroken at the loss of such a significant building, SOS, along with the National Trust for Historic Preservation as co-plaintiff, sued the Army for its neglect of this property listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Although the lawsuit itself was not successful for SOS, it motivated the Army to dispose of or transfer the site to a new owner,” says Bonnie Rosenthal of Save Our Seminary.
The new owner became Montgomery County.
Meanwhile, Voglmayr, the oldest son of a prominent Austrian scientist who had first immigrated to Australia in the 1950s, moved in 1970 to the U.S. with his family, where his father had accepted a research professorship at Pennsylvania State University. They settled in a newly constructed garden apartment where the six-year-old boy developed his knack for construction.
From Pennsylvania, the family shifted to Sterling, Massachusetts. In Sterling, his biochemist father recruited the son to chop the downed trees into firewood. The 13 large pine trees blocked the light to solar panels installed using the Carter Administrations Federal Grants.
“At the time, I was a lab rat,” says Voglmayr with a grin, where he assisted his father with animal surgery, often playing Aneselogosit. He had initially wanted to be a medical doctor, but he was much better at political science and economics.
Recalling those early years, Voglmayr says, construction would become an outlet for his artistic desires while attempting to establish his independence as a businessman.
The son of an Austrian scientist and an Australian hospital executive, Voglmayr, who considers himself a quintessential American, was first introduced to Jewish life at Clark University. Then, he established his first business, a college painting enterprise. His initial success afforded him to be on the Kosher meal plan and buying a new car, he says with a laugh. He was also involved in student government, wrote for the school newspaper and played lacrosse.
Once he had earned a degree in government and economics in 1988, Voglmayr briefly moved to Australia to return months later to Washington, DC for a job with construction conglomerate the Trammell Crow Company.
While working full time, Voglmayr attended night school at John Hopkins University from where he obtained a Master of Administrative Science.
Years later, he became an avid tennis player and amateur winemaker, even winning the Maryland State Faire for the best wine in 2009.
He described his first professional job as a “culture shock” as most of his colleagues were from Virginia, adding that he was a “Yankee through and through.” However, after four years with the company, Voglmayr had decided that it was time to stake out his path by establishing Washington Landmark Construction in 1992.
Recalling the early days, Voglmayr advises aspiring entrepreneurs and students at Georgetown University, where he teaches a real-estate course, that “you better have some money in the bank before you go on your own.”
During this period, he cut his teeth on historical preservation by purchasing two buildings in Washington D.C.’s Dupont and Adams Morgan neighborhoods. Voglmayr managed the two buildings and renovated apartment after apartment personally before selling off the buildings, earning comfortable profits, which he reinvested into the company.
From there, Voglmayr built condominium developments across Washington, DC, but with the Great Recession of 2008, he diversified by branching into the home improvement business, starting with his own.
Little did he know that the recession would serve as his most significant professional opportunity to date when he entered National Park Seminary.
By the time Voglmayr had entered NPS in 2010, construction had almost ground to a halt where the Alexander Company had struggled to meet its obligations as it ran out of funding during the recession.
The developer had purchased the entire property from Montgomery County in 2004 for a symbolic $1. Under the agreement, it would restore all historical structures by building condominiums. The restoration of NPS would also entail building new townhomes – which was spearheaded by the EYA company – to create a community where historical and modern architecture blended into one.
At the time, then NPS resident Louis Nayman recalls the frustrations he was experiencing about the standstill of constructions. “One of the buildings they [Alexander Company] were supposed to restore was the Gymnasium.” Instead, “during several years, chunks of the building fell off during rainstorms. As a result, the roof deck of our townhome looked down on the old Gymnasium,” Nayman explains as he watched how the building continued to shed slate roof tiles, ornamentation, and all sorts of detritus and rot.”
This prompted Nayman to write a letter to the Maryland Historical Trust detailing the lack of progress in development. Shortly after that, the developer sold off several of its assets at NPS to raise cash, including the Gymnasium, which is when Voglmayr entered, Nayman recalls.
Built in 1907, Voglmayr explains that no permit plan had been provided while he had received a draft building plan with the purchase.
“We wanted to preserve the historical jewel that the Gymnasium represents but needed to provide modern fixes such as double pane windows, painting, and materials that are meant to last longer than what the material that was available when it was first built,” he says. He also put in a lifetime roof which can last seventy-five to hundred years.
Once construction on the Gymnasium began in 2011, Voglmayr discovered to his dismay that the grounds were saturated with high levels of lead that had washed off the building and into the soil. The building was also filled with debris and trash while parts of the roof was loose with segments threatening to fall off. The façade was also missing. “First I had to stabilize the building,” Voglmayr says which included erecting walls surrounding its premises. After that, he removed all soil saturated with lead, the debris and trash which had to be deposed in adherence to environmental guidelines. While the Gymnasium has twelve-unit, construction was completed in 2013, and every unit was sold in 2015.
Upon completion, Washington Landmark Construction was awarded Montgomery County’s Architect and Design Award of 2017, earning him in the process many friends across NPS for his craftsmanship. One of them, Francis Koh, who had purchased the Power Plant along with Practice House, and the Firehouse from the Alexander Company at the same that Voglmayr had purchased the Gymnasium, eventually sold him the property in May 2017. The two former competitors developed a friendship in the process. A year later, Voglmayr received his building permit. His first condo sold in February 2020, and the last of fourteen units sold within twelve months.
Among his many admirers at NPS, SOS’ Rosenthal describes his “quality restoration” of the Gymnasium, Power Plant, Practice House, and Firehouse as “stunning.”
Future project: Warner Circle Mansion
His next project, Voglmayr reveals, is restoring the Warner Circle Mansion, another abandoned historic structure in Kensington, Maryland’s historic district.
Following his success at NPS, Montgomery County requested Voglmayr’s assistance to restore the Warner Circle Mansion to its former grandeur. Built in 1893, he anticipates that it will take eighteen months to complete the restoration, which will include fourteenth to sixteen units.
The units will be modeled after the floorplan for the gymnasium, Voglmayr reveals.
While the mansion sits on four acres of parkland, once completed it will include a fitness center that will also be used as a community center and for events, including opera performances for the wider public.
Nominated for Calvert Prize
Voglmayr has, in the meantime, been nominated for the Calvert Prize for his restoration of the Power Plant by Alan Hais.
Hais, who purchased one of his units in 2021, grew up in Silver Spring during the 1950s and vividly remembered spending time at NPS as a youngster. “Little did I know how special it would be in the latter part of my life,” he says.
“I will always marvel at Voglmayr’s vision and skill to save these severely deteriorated historic structures from the bulldozer and transform them into aesthetic, fully functional, and completely modern living spaces. Those of us who see the essential value of being able to connect with our past meaningfully know how fortunate we are to have people like Voglmayr on our side,” Hais concludes.