HARPERS FERRY – The Harpers Ferry Board of Zoning Appeals heard several citizen comments Monday regarding a permit request to allow the deteriorating Hill Top House Hotel building to be dismantled, razed and cleared away, a major step toward constructing a planned luxury hotel on the prominent historic site.
The initial demolition work is scheduled to begin May 10 with active demolition starting May 24 and continuing for about 65 days, according to representatives of the Hill Top redevelopment project.
Laurel Ziemianski, a project manager for the multimillion-dollar Hill Top redevelopment project, said the crumbling cliffside hotel building needs to come down as a potential public safety hazard.
Jessie Ponce de Leon, a construction engineer involved in the demolition, said the “structural integrity” of the 100-year-old hotel building “has been severely compromised.”
The hotel has been closed to the public since 2009. Mary Oehrlein, the architect of the U.S. Capitol, reviewed the structural condition of the hotel building in 2018 and determined that the building and its system’s poor condition would require significant demolition and could not be reasonably restored, according to a letter provided by Guy Hammer, chairman of the town’s Historic Landmarks Commission.
The planned demolition work of the multistory building will follow all local, state and federal requirements, including environmental regulations to prevent soil and debris runoff during the deconstruction, de Leon said.
“Asbestos abatement” and removal will be part of the demolition. The site will be stabilized and seeded with grass after the hotel building is taken down.
No blasting or wrecking ball machinery will be used during the demolition, Hill Top representatives said.
The deconstruction work is scheduled to be completed by Aug. 27.
Stones incorporated into the current hotel structure to be demolished will be saved and reused with the new hotel redevelopment project, Ziemianski said.
After comments from several town residents mostly supporting the demolition, but a few voicing concerns that the demolition will be performed safely and with sufficient traffic control measures, the BZA members agreed to schedule a discussion and vote on whether to grant the demolition permit at a future meeting.
The current Hill Top site has always been the site of a hotel. A hotel was purchased and rebuilt several times in the 1800s by Thomas Lovett, a prominent African American businessman who established an upscale resort that attracted U.S. presidents, famous writers and artists, and social and civil rights leaders over the years. The hotel’s past is linked to the first 1906 meeting of the Niagara Movement at Storer College in town, a civil rights movement that became a forerunner group of today’s NAACP.
However, for years Harpers Ferry residents have spoken out in favor and in opposition to the current hotel redevelopment plans proposed by Karen and Fred Schaufeld of Leesburg, Virginia. Court action joined by Mayor Wayne Bishop has been threatened to oppose legislation that allows state officials to take over the review and permitting of the Hill Top project that has been tangled in town bureaucracy and politics for years.
Nevertheless, a current narrow majority of town officials are taking deliberate steps to allow the Hill Top redevelopment to move forward.
Next Monday, the Harpers Ferry Town Council has scheduled a public hearing and likely final passage of an ordinance to allow the town to complete a $257,300 sale of six public rights of way that lie next to or cross the Hill Top site.
Selling the rights of way, which include developed streets and undeveloped street pathways, will allow the Schaufelds and others to pursue their drafted vision of a destination hotel and conference center that has been embroiled in small-town government delays and periodic controversy for about a decade.