What is fate of Hill Top House Hotel?
Sometimes a little exploring can pay off. During a 2012 trip to Harpers Ferry, W. Va., my wife and I discovered a large abandoned hotel overlooking the Shenandoah River. The property included many other buildings plus that million-dollar view.
We returned to the location the first week in April this year, and found that it's still abandoned and in far worse shape then nine years ago.
But, of course, there is a story here.
Opened in 1888, Hill Top House Hotel served as a premiere hotel until 2008. It was rebuilt after two fires in 1912 and 1919 and was founded and operated by Thomas Lovett, an African American businessman. Over the years, it attracted many famous guests including presidents Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton, as well as Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain.
The property may be abandoned, but it's not forgotten, being purchased in 2007 by SwaN and Legend Venture Partners. The new owners laid out extensive plans to renovate – actually rebuild from the foundation up – the hotel, returning it to the grandeur it once enjoyed. In fact, the new design replicates the way the hotel looked in 1912.
Plans for the property include a 120-room resort with a spa and infinity pool, chef's garden, bowling lanes and conference rooms. Plans for other historic buildings on the property include living-history hotel suites and cooking and photography schools.
The developers planned to start construction of the $139 million project in 2020, but of course the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted that.
But that's just one hurdle in a long history of small-town political intrigue that has held up the project. That intrigue includes a contested town election, which ended up in the West Virginia Supreme Court. After a 13-month legal battle, the court ruled that four uncounted provisional votes must be allowed, which unseated an incumbent by one vote. The controversy also included an illegal ballot cast by the mayor's daughter who lives in Salt Lake City. She was found guilty of illegal voting.
After all that, Harpers Ferry officials appear to support the project, but the two sides can't seem to get to the finish line.
At the top of the list of issues is ownership of the roads leading into the property. Since it's in a residential area, the roads are public property. The developer is willing to purchase the roads and improve them; town officials want a long-term lease.
The developer says financing depends on ownership of all property around the hotel.
There is no doubt the hotel would be a significant economic boost to the historic town of 300 people yet there are mixed feelings about the project.
The state seems to be on board with the project and has awarded the owners $48.6 million in tourism tax credits.
The co-founder of the investment company, Fred Schaufeld, is well-known in Washington, D.C., circles as part owner of the Nationals, Wizards, Mystics and Capitals. He and his wife, Karen, are active in organizations dedicated to education, health, environment, peace, inter-faith tolerance, military support and the arts.
For now, Hill Top House Hotel is an idea on paper.