Mount Vernon College holds the tradition of schooling smart and talented women. Hope Diamond owner Evelyn Walsh McLean, Radcliffe College President Ada Louise Comstock and Elizabeth Harris, co-founder of Ms. Magazine, are only a few among a list of leading alumnae. “Friends” star Courtney Cox even attended for a year before pursuing her acting career. In the late 1800s, only the distinguished daughters of prominent families and Washington officials were privileged enough to attend.
But a century later, mounding debt forced the college to close and pass its traditions, and financial problems, to a school that could maintain the campus. The George Washington University took over Mount Vernon College in 1999.
Many students at GW have not unlocked the secrets to Mount Vernon’s past. It could be because students barely venture there. Junior Uchenna Okereke said she has been there three times. Others feel they were not given much information about the history of Mount Vernon.
“(GW) told us information about applying there, but not much after that,” freshman Kristen Ill said. Students say they only know that it was once a separate, women’s college. Freshman Meghan Karuturi said she learned the basic facts at Colonial Inauguration.
Elizabeth J. Somers created Mount Vernon Seminary and College in 1875. The school was named after her brother’s church after he died. He was a minister at the Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church. Mount Vernon was described as a college preparatory school to get around a stigma female college students faced. Many families at that time did not support the idea of sending their daughters to college, but they did endorse secondary education.
Somers wanted her school to shape the character, intellect and femininity of young women. A two-year program was available to women who were not interested in going to college, and a six-year course of study was offered to prepare women who planned to pursue a college degree. Mount Vernon Seminary featured a boarding program, a first in the District, and the school soon gained national distinction.
Mount Vernon College moved three times before reaching its current location on Foxhall Road. The school began in a converted house at 204 F St., a few blocks from the Capitol building. By 1880, the school enrolled students from every state except Vermont and had several foreign students.
In the summer of 1880 the Seminary moved to its next location, 1100 M St., known at that time as the fashionable West End. Over the years, the Seminary grew to include more than 100 boarders and 50 day students. Its reputation exceeded its capacity, and the school no longer admitted all who applied. Somers began concocting plans for a future site that could accommodate more students. Nebraska Avenue, across the street from land that had been purchased to build American University, was the prime location. This venue allowed Mount Vernon to expand to 16 acres of land, leaving space for sports fields and a campus atmosphere.
In 1924 Elizabeth Somers passed away, but the legacy of the school remained steadfast. Adelia Gates Hensley and Jean Dean Cole, the proceeding headmistresses, were noted for their significant transforming of the school into “The Greater Mount Vernon Seminary” on Nebraska Avenue. The redesigning of the curriculum was one such improvement. The six-year program became a separate entity, called the Junior College.
In the 1930s the Mount Vernon Seminary and College prospered despite hard economic times. The 1942 fall enrollment included students from Egypt, England, France, Italy, Iraq and Panama. But on Nov. 20, 1942, a message was delivered from the Secretary of Navy’s office stating, “the Navy Department has determined that in the interest of the war effort it is necessary to acquire the free simple title to the buildings and grounds of Mount Vernon Seminary located on 3801 Nebraska Avenue, Washington D.C.”
The President of the college, George Lloyd was quoted saying, “We are a casualty of the War,” when he announced to students the Navy’s decision. He refused to let the school shut down and was willing to do what it took to carry on Elizabeth Somer’s tradition. In early January 1943, the campus was fully transferred to a temporary location in Spring Valley. This venue lasted three years, until the Mount Vernon Seminary and College moved to its final and current destination on Foxhall Road.
By the 1990s, the attraction of an all women’s college had dwindled. With a decline in applicants, the students’ tuition was not could not support the school’s expenses. In the fall 1996, Mount Vernon announced affiliation with The George Washington University . A year later, it was certain that the college did not have the means to operate independently. In 1998, the college underwent a transition, becoming The George Washington University at Mount Vernon College. The class of 1999 was the last class to graduate with Mount Vernon College degrees. In 2000, Mount Vernon campus began accepting men to live on campus, an idea most students favored. GW cited low admissions as a reason for the change.
Nina Mikhalevsky, director of the Elizabeth Somers Center and Women’s Leadership Programs, said the University has preserved the history of the Mount Vernon Seminary.
“GW has definitely focused on those ideas and values that were central to Mount Vernon Seminary and College and have retained those in ways that benefit GW students today,” Mikhalevsky said.
She said Mount Vernon College focused on undergraduate education, the interaction between students and faculty and promoting women’s leadership and accomplishments. GW used Mount Vernon to offer smaller, more personal classes on the new campus.
Even though the University is expanding the Mount Vernon Campus, there still has been a strong interest in keeping the “traditional brick and ivy look,” Mikhavlesky said.
“I think the University felt responsible to show some respect and appreciation for 125 years of history. It truly didn’t have to, but they did. And that’s a good thing,” she said.
The feeling that GW carried out its obligations to Mount Vernon is not unanimous. Young professors, hired by GW, quickly replaced the Mount Vernon faculty. In December of 1998, 13 Mount Vernon professors sued GW. They believe GW misled them into thinking that Mount Vernon would retain all of its traditions – its tenured faculty being an important one to them.
When GW invested money to save a small college, it gained more than a piece of land. Mount Vernon’s tradition and legacy will continue to be passed on to GW student who set foot on its intimate campus. And it is only a shuttle ride away for anyone wishing for glimpse into such an intriguing past.