MARTINSBURG – Until state lawmakers stepped in to save the redevelopment of the Hill Top House Hotel in Harpers Ferry, the property came close to becoming a public park rather than a resurrected historic resort hotel.
Construction is underway to build a $150 million hotel campus on the Hill Top site. Scheduling a ceremonial groundbreaking is being planned.
But Fred Schaufeld, owner of the hotel property with his wife Karen, told members of the Martinsburg Rotary Club at a June 9 meeting that the couple nearly decided to donate the shuttered and deteriorating hotel property as parkland to the state of West Virginia. Years of extended discussions with Harpers Ferry officials and even obstructing lawsuits filed by some town residents caused them to consider abandoning the redevelopment project, the couple said.
Debates and discussions by some town officials and residents over how and how much to control the hotel’s now $150 million redevelopment plans—particularly how to limit the hotel’s size—continued for over a dozen years.
Schaufeld addressed the Hill Top controversy after a Rotary Club member asked why he and his wife continued to pursue the project despite the ongoing delays.
Steve Cohen, a Rotary member who arranged for the Schaufelds appearance, said the couple “have brought tourism to new heights” in the area. But the current construction only happened when West Virginia lawmakers intervened by passing legislation that allowed state economic development officials to usurp the town’s authority to oversee the property’s redevelopment.
Lawsuits filed by Harpers Ferry residents, including former town council member Barbara Humes, are still challenging the legality of the Tourism Development Act. Four lawsuits are still pending in Kanawha County Circuit Court. The lawsuits have been consolidated into one.
Schaufeld said he had not anticipated so many “fits and starts” when he and his wife first considered rebuilding the crumbling Hill Top after years of visiting it in the 1990s. After it became structurally unsound because of inadequate upkeep and repairs, the main hotel building was closed for safety reasons in 2008 after the Schaufelds purchased the property.
Fred Schaufeld said a few residents against the Hill Top mobilized into “a very effective core group, not a mass.”
The Schaufelds said the Hill Top was stunningly beautiful even in its declining years. They said they are both dedicated to keeping the main hotel and property like it was years ago.
Fred Schaufeld discussed some of the history behind the Hill Top, including how it was visited by presidents and became a retreat for intellectuals, artists and authors like Mark Twain. He said the poet Carl Sandburg even wrote a poem about the hotel.
The Hill Top was founded in 1888 by Thomas Lovett, an African American who operated the hotel from its founding until he died in 1926. Lovett was the grandson of an enslaved person. Despite two fires to the hotel’s main structure, the Hill Top was the longest-operating hotel in Harpers Ferry until 2008.
Despite plans to keep the layout and history of the hotel alive, the Schaufelds nearly donated the property to West Virginia until 2020, when the legislature passed and Gov. Jim Justice enacted the Tourism Development Act. The law was adopted to assist and regulate major tourism projects in small municipalities such as Harpers Ferry.
While pursuing the Hill Top’s redevelopment over the years, Fred Schaufeld acknowledged that he sometimes wondered whether he could continue to do so “while I’m on the right side of the grass.”
Active demolition on the site began in May. According to Schaufeld, the project has created an average of 239 construction jobs; when opened will have 135 full and part-time jobs; and a total impact on state economic output of approximately $27 million annually; and more than $1 million in property taxes. Schaufeld said two-thirds of the economic impact will remain in Harpers Ferry.
Resources on the site are being protected and preserved, according to the Schaufelds. Stones from a two-foot-high knee wall will be moved to another location until construction is completed. The stones come from the old Harpers Ferry armory. Containers are storing many of the original wood floors that will be used wherever possible.
Fred Schaufeld said he wants the Hill Top to be a “grand hotel,” one that people as far away as Paris, France, would hear about and want to visit.
When completed, the Hill Top will have 106 rooms, meeting rooms and other amenities such as a health spa. The Schaufelds said they want to create a place that will draw people all year.
The couple said they haven’t decided how the hotel will use five armory houses on the property. Karen Schaufeld said a museum may be established in one of them.
She added that she hopes the Hill Top will open in the spring of 2024. Her husband said he was not quite as optimistic in light of current supply chain problems nationwide.