The time is right to rebuild the Hilltop House

SWaN Investors announced at last week’s Harpers Ferry town council meeting that it would renew discussions with the town about the reconstruction of the once iconic, but now derelict Hilltop House Hotel. SWaN indicated the economy has improved since the project was put on hold in 2010 and they wanted to begin discussing the (draft) new zoning ordinance the town has been working on for two years — providing for the redevelopment of the hotel property, as well as making the zoning ordinance more robust.

[cleeng_content id="504430504" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]The Hilltop House was originally constructed in 1888 by Thomas Lovett and operated by the Lovetts for decades. Their family (and Hilltop) is an important part of African-American history in Harpers Ferry. The original Civil Rights Movement — the Niagara Movement — had its roots there.

In August 2007, SWaN bought the Hilltop property for about $10 million. SWaN also purchased a number of houses in the neighborhood. The hotel was closed in January 2008 after being deemed structurally unsafe, the result of having been poorly maintained for decades by the two prior owners. In May 2009, SWaN submitted a master plan for the project. In March 2010, the front of the hotel collapsed. Although horrific, it was not a big surprise.

A fence was installed around the Hilltop Hotel following the collapse of a porch off the front of the building. Owner SWaN Properties has told the Harpers Ferry town council it is prepared to resurrect its plans to redevelop the site.

A fence was installed around the Hilltop Hotel following the collapse of a porch off the front of the building.
Owner SWaN Properties has told the Harpers Ferry town council it is prepared to resurrect its plans to
redevelop the site.

The proposal by SWaN to restore the site played out a sad saga that was brought on by a small group of vocal residents who were opposed to the size of the hotel and claimed it would destroy the town’s historic character and their idyllic lives — in spite of the fact that their “idyllic” town was experiencing serious economic problems and was littered with many other derelict buildings. These residents wanted SWaN to build a 60-room “boutique” hotel. Such a small hotel would not be economically viable given enormous reconstruction costs, nor would it be adequate as a draw for visitors to a premier heritage area. Even worse, it would be smaller than the current hotel.

In October 2010, SWaN, stung by the reaction from the opponents, put a hold on its $50 million project. They said: “From the beginning, we viewed the opportunity to redevelop the Hilltop Hotel as one that should result in a ‘double bottom line’ benefiting not just ourselves but the community at large … We did not expect a local political firestorm that would result in ethical and criminal accusations against multiple parties … We will wait and see if the atmosphere of the town improves.”

The atmosphere of the town has improved substantially and the (draft) zoning ordinances are both more robust and provide for the redevelopment of the hotel property.

But the fundamental questions still remain: Will the hotel “destroy the historic character” of the town as is claimed by a vocal few? And is the proposed hotel too big or just about right?

Most historic preservationists, including those at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, would regard reconstructing Hilltop to help revitalize the most significant historic district in West Virginia and reverse the economic slide of the last 20 years (attendance at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park was almost 400,000 in 1994; today it is about 270,000). A reconstructed Hilltop House might even make it onto the National Register of Historic Places within 25 years because of its significance instead of the more typical 50 years.

Is the proposed hotel too big or just about right? The answer is probably yes to both.

SWaN proposes a 120-room as part of its phase one construction, with the hotel ultimately growing to 180 rooms. This is an appropriate size — in fact it’s a bit small for a destination hotel. The Salamander Resort in Middleburg has 168 rooms while the Landsdowne Resort in Leesburg has 296 rooms. Typically, destination hotels have 180 to 220 rooms.

SWaN’s proposal is more comparable to the size of a nothing special mid-range hotel such as a Clarion, Hampton, or Holiday Inn in Shepherdstown, Charles Town/Ranson, or Frederick and Hagerstown, which range from 131 to 168 rooms. The size of the proposed Hilltop House is nearly identical to The Inn at Charles Town, which is 153 rooms and four stories, about 350 feet long.

Having said that, a 180-room hotel on the Hilltop property is clearly too large. The proposed footprint is shoehorned onto a relatively small site highly constrained by topography in the form of a 200-foot cliff. In fact, the proposed hotel has a first-floor elevation at the rear of the property about 40 to 50 feet above the existing grade on the cliffside. In addition, SWan proposes a parking structure (top level with surface parking) nearly 300 feet long.

The major problem is that the proposed reconstructed hotel along Ridge Street is about 350 feet long — about twice the size of the 1912 version of the hotel after which it is modeled. If SWaN wants to get approval for they project, it will need to reduce both the length and the visual impact.

Here’s what they can do. Reduce the number of rooms to 160. Increase the height somewhat. Telescope down from four to two stories along Ridge Street, reducing the visible massing. Build smaller guest rooms, maybe even have some with shared baths. (OMG!) Have smaller meeting and ballrooms, put additions on some of the houses or an annex somewhere with additional guest rooms or meeting space.

The atmosphere of the town has improved substantially in the last three years. Hopefully, the vocal few have been muzzled somewhat. More importantly, there is a new mayor and town council and town residents will make sure there is not a rerun of the previous horror. SWaN will also have to do a 100 times better in their community relations. Their “bedside” manner last go around was nonexistent — and that was a major factor in the problems that occurred.

The bottom line, of which I think there is a clear consensus, is that the size and visual impact of the proposed reconstructed Hilltop House Hotel will have to be reduced. SWaN and its team will have to both reduce their requirements and be innovative in designing spaces.

— Don Burgess writes from Bolivar

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