HARPERS FERRY — The Hill Top House Hotel that could open to visitors for the Independence Day holiday in 2021 will pay tribute to Thomas S. Lovett, the African-American entrepreneur who built the original hotel in 1888, the developer explained at a public hearing here Friday.
“What we’re envisioning is that every part of the hotel will have paintings and drawings and historic photographs and portraits,” said Karen Schaufeld, who works alongside her husband, Fred Schaufeld, at Leesburg, Va.-based Swan & Legend developers.
The new Hill Top – constructed on the scenic bluff high above the Potomac where the structure was rebuilt in 1912 after a fire – won’t have a single display of the site’s history or a “history room,” Karen Schaufeld testified during the hearing. Instead, the entire development will serve as a kind of living history museum, she said.
“Everything will have the ability to be tagged to some sort of app or with other information,” she testified. “The idea is that everywhere you look, you’re going to understand and appreciate the history of this place.”
Karen Schaufeld’s remarks came during Friday’s 7 p.m. public hearing before the Harpers Ferry Planning Commission at the Stephen T. Mather Training Center on the former Storer College campus.
The event, marking the first time for public comment on the developers’ revised formal plan, drew a capacity crowd of about 70 and more than a dozen speakers – all of them offering praise for the proposal to restore the structure long known as the single-word Hilltop. The building has sat closed and decaying since 2008, shortly after its purchase by Swan.
Speakers from Harpers Ferry, Bolivar, Ranson, Charles Town and elsewhere each got five minutes to address the gathering. Small business owners, longtime residents, newcomers and others rose to say how the Schaufelds’ plan for a world-class destination hotel designed to mimic the Victorian charm of the hotel in its heyday but with modern amenities including a spa, eateries and meeting space would spark much-needed economic development in Harpers Ferry and the county as a whole.
developers plan to demolish the existing structure, reusing as much of the stone as possible for the new building’s turret and in other ways. The new hotel would be three stories to match the original hotel’s 55-foot height and footprint. Four historic federal Armory buildings, an annex and another building on the site would be completely restored.
Once the Hill Top is open, the hotel is expected to generate $12 million ore more in revenue every year, according to Annette Gavin Bates, the executive director of the Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau and one of those who signed up for the public comment period.
Thanks to the hotel-motel tax that visitors pay, the Hill Top’s presence would translate into $360,000 in new annual revenue for the town of Harpers Ferry, a municipality with about 300 residents, Bates said. “That’s money the town would have to spend on parks, the arts, beautification projects, so many other needs,” she said.
The spike in hotel-motel taxes from the Hill Top also would mean another $360,000 annually for the CVB to spend on promoting the county, she pointed out.
“We all love the community we live in and we want visitors to discover our community and come to love it too,” Bates said. “This project isn’t just an investment in our community but in each and every one of us.”
Visitors to the new hotel complex would provide additional revenue for the county and the state as Hill Top through spending at restaurants, shops and recreational outlets, Bates said.
On social media in recent weeks, the Hill Top plan has come under fire as an effort to “destroy local African-American history,” but Karen Schaufeld detailed how the luxury resort complex actually would highlight the original groundbreaking work of businessman and Storer graduate Thomas Lovett.
This latest Hill Top criticism shifts from previous complaints about the project’s original size, about potential traffic congestion and parking, how the construction period would create noise and other problems, and that the new hotel wouldn’t fit into the neighborhood.
While the Lovetts are important figures in the area’s African-American history, the Hilltop has been out of the family’s hands for more than 90 years. After a second fire in 1919 damaged the hotel, the Lovetts sold the business to Fred McGee in 1926, according to a West Virginia Encyclopedia entry on the Hilltop written by Walton Danforth Stowell Jr. Starting in 1959 and through much of the 1980s, D.D. “Dixie” Kilham, a former Baltimore resident and real estate icon, owned the Hilltop before selling it to William Stanhagen.
Wayne Bishop, a contractor by profession and a Harpers Ferry resident for more than three decades, was an early critic of the project’s redevelopment. Elected the town’s mayor last year, Bishop lives his wife, Elayne Edel, in a Ridge Street home that once was owned by the Lovetts.
In a 2016 story that appeared in The Journal, Bishop pointed to the crumbling hotel’s environmental state. “I have this report that says this place is chock-full of asbestos and lead and everything else,” he is quoted as telling Journal reporter Jeff McCoy.
On Friday, the mayor sat in the back of the room during Friday’s public hearing beside his wife and Town Council member Midge Yost.
Beside Yost sat Karan Townsend, the proprietor of The Town’s Inn on High Street, who spent the meeting typing up her own record of the proceedings on her laptop. None of the four signed up to deliver public comment.
Political back-and-forth about the town’s day-to-day dealings and future plans are nothing new to Harpers Ferry. Back in 1981, The Washington Post’s Eugene L. Meyer came to the town to chronicle ongoing political battles in the town that was then beginning to attract more retirees and visitors from D.C. and Baltimore.
“Divisions tend to defy simple explanations in Harpers Ferry,” Meyer wrote. “Newcomers and natives can be found on both sides of every argument. Personalities prevail over issues. And in a town with so many retirees from government and politics, the simple lure of battle is a factor in itself.”
Swan in 2008 hired Mary Oehrlein, the historic preservation officer for the architect of the Capitol, to review the site’s structures. She found the hotel does not qualify as architecturally significant in a historical sense because of previous fire damage and “numerous poorly constructed repairs and additions.”
Structural engineers found the hotel’s foundation inadequate and the building structurally unsound and beyond repair.
The initial plan for a $75 million, 179-room luxury resort prompted an outcry and then untold public meetings and hearings. Finally last year, Town Council unanimously approved a zoning overlay map to set boundaries for the proposed new hotel’s footprint as well as regulations for building, land use and site design.
On Friday, former Harpers Ferry Town Councilwoman Betsy Bainbridge, and Harpers Ferry resident Steve Ramberg both reported to those gathered at Mather that they’d thoroughly reviewed the details of the documents submitted by Swan and found the plans conform to all objectives and requirements spelled out in the town’s comprehensive plan and the special zoning Historic Promontory Overlay ordinance.
During her five minutes at the podium, Karen Schaufeld thanked the town’s Planning Commission members for their time and diligence and said she’s hopeful the necessary approvals come by year’s end so that construction can begin and the Hill Top can open by mid-2021.
Next up is the Planning Commission’s recommendation to the Harpers Ferry Board of Zoning Appeals. In April, Fred Schaufeld said that if Swan and the town cannot reach agreement on the Hill Top this year, after a full decade of debate over the project, the company would be forced to “cut our losses and move out of the resort process completely.”
At Friday’s public hearing, Betsy Self pointed out how a similar resort project was fought in Middleburg, Va., the town where she lived before moving to Harpers Ferry. “So many people were up in arms over the Salamander Resort but as it turned out, it was a very appropriate development for Middleburg. The Hill Top will be such a wonderful opportunity for Harpers Ferry. It will put the town on the map and mean a really big boom for our little town.”
Another speaker, who also relocated to Harpers Ferry from Loudoun County, Va., echoed Self’s Salamander comparison.
“An awful lot of people hated the project – until the money started rolling in,” he said. “When every business in town is doing better year-round, even beyond the restaurants, bars and gift shops, and people, it’s a different story.
“Coming from the outside, it’s hard to understand the opposition to progress when so many local businesses are hanging on by a thread. The Hill Top truly is a huge gift to Harpers Ferry and everybody who lives in the area.”
Visitors of note
Over the years, notable figures have come to the Harpers Ferry hotel including authors Mark Twain and Pearl Buck, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, members of Congress and even presidents.
A Washington Post article from Oct. 17, 1915, carried the headline, “Wilson at Old Inn, Motors to Harpers Ferry.” President Woodrow Wilson, along with his fiancé Edith Galt and two of his cousins from New Orleans “left the White House yesterday morning without telling even White House officials where they were going,” according to the story.
“It was raining and the roads were muddy, but the holiday makers were not to be discouraged, and noon found the White House car at Harpers Ferry, 72 miles away. At an inn overlooking the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers the President registered, writing ‘Woodrow Wilson and party.’ ”
The group got a tour from Thomas Lovett, who “took the greatest pleasure in escorting the party over the hotel, taking them on to the great balcony, where can be seen the beautiful country for miles around, including numerous points of historical interest. It happened that it will be 56 years today since the famous John Brown started his raiding at Harpers Ferry.”
The party enjoyed a meal of roast lamb, fried chicken, boiled ham, creamed rice and Southern-style corn cakes, the story notes, and the president paid for dinner and tipped waitress Martha Smith.
A decade before the hotel closed its doors, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore had lunch at the Hilltop after a public Earth Day ceremony at the Potomac-Shenandoah confluence organized by the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.