The Hilltop House has been a defining presence in Harpers Ferry since Thomas S. Lovett, an African American businessman and hotelier, constructed the hotel in 1888. It, along with Storer College, was a pivotal element in resurrecting Harpers Ferry from the ashes of the Civil War.
The Hotel’s breathtaking views, great food, and service became a magnet for America’s elite. It was the Presidential mountain retreat before Camp David. Alexander Graham Bell, Mark Twain, Carl Sandburg, and Pearl S. Buck were among the notables who stayed at the Hotel. In 1946, Hilltop House hosted the preliminary meetings which led the establishment of UNESCO.
Hilltop burned and was rebuilt several times, including 1912 and 1918. It has been derelict since 2010. A strategic debate about the future of Hilltop House has swirled through the Harpers Ferry community for many years. The Hotel’s 110+ year role in shaping the town’s identity and economy is at the center of how it can impact the next 100 years.
Carol Gallant is a key community leader who saved the historic jail in Charles Town, and revitalized the arts throughout the Jefferson County. She is today’s guest columnist.
Carol’s views are shared by me and many others in the Harpers Ferry area. Her insights and commitment to the betterment of our community are second to none.
LOW-HANGING FRUIT AND MAGIC BEANS—by D.C. Gallant
Today I’m stepping back a bit from the close-up snap-shot of Hilltop House and its site specifics in order to get a panoramic view of a small town in America, though I certainly applaud officials and citizens necessarily dealing with the particulars, from parking to zoning! I’m a former speech-writer, so this is the speech on Hilltop House I would give if before an audience of all the people who can make a difference on this issue. I would call it, “Low-Hanging Fruit and Magic Beans.”
Many of us in this area chose to adopt The Mountain State as home and, specifically, Harpers Ferry, with its stunning beauty and historic character. For me, that adoption came in 1976. Here’s what I now know about this state: It always has sold off its resources, above and below ground, to out-of-state interests, who get rich at the expense of the people who live here. For some ‘magic beans’ (i.e. promised jobs, quick money, predictable tax-base, etc.) we surrender our unique treasures and acreage to those whose only interest is in making money off of us, and who would happily break up a one-of-a-kind antique chair to sell for kindling, or cover it with pseudo-gilt for better marketing, or take the top off a mountain for convenience. Thus, without Alabama and Mississippi, we would remain at the bottom of any economic/quality-of-life list. When will we learn to stop being low-hanging fruit for any Tom, Dick or SWaN?
I remain stunned that a debate even needed to take place about whether or not a hotel on the unique overlook where Hilltop House sits--on a residential street currently about the width of Scotch Tape-- should be required to fit into the historic context, size, and community character of Harpers Ferry.
The plan SWaN presented failed on all counts; it was lazy, untailored and unimaginative—resort destinations with spas and amenities now being as exciting and new as Starbucks. It takes over a public street and changes traffic patterns, with woeful impact on residents. As far as I know, SWaN has never even built a motel, much less a hotel, and it shows.
But the presentation of The Hulk Resort was gilt-framed! And while the rainbow promises for the town’s future are swishy, they enchanted many. In addition, this company was instantly a bad and inconsiderate neighbor-- letting the old hotel disintegrate, creating an eye-sore and surrounding it with an ugly fence. When SWaN didn’t even bother to remove newel posts or old key-racks for use in making a ‘new’ Hilltop House interesting, I knew we were in trouble. Apparently for SWaN, the splendid view from the Hilltop Hotel promontory of three states and a tiny historic town at the confluence of two mighty rivers--the Potomac and the Shenandoah--somehow morphed into a vision of an isolated bluff high above the sea—perfect for a huge Hearst Castle, for the rich. This particular historic town, by the way, is a National Historical Park, and one of three in the nation that is also a Monument Park.
As a former travel writer for Frommer Guides, I’ve visited many prosperous, historic and unique towns--and I’ve yet to see an out-of-context, ‘first-class resort destination’ as the center-piece. What works, what draws people to these popular destinations, is the consistency of the unique character and atmosphere, with facilities intricately enmeshed within the community setting. It is, then, possible, to have a healthy tax coffer and thriving businesses without selling off character and ignoring citizen needs. The other problem I’ve seen is that genuine ‘resorts’ are a draw for people who want to lounge and relax, at the resort facility. Oh, they’ll shuffle into town for a souvenir or two, but they were not drawn to the area for its history and setting, but for their luxury accommodations.
This debate has not been an easy one, as most out here aren’t. Pressed together like a large, opinionated family on a long trip in a small Camper, our arguments become loud and personal. I suspect officials are not always bad and up-to-something; and certainly active citizens speaking out are not trouble-makers. This Hilltop House debate often has been distorted, framed in a way that, say, makes you for-or-against progress and economic growth/town merchants, depending on your opinion of the SWaN plan. That misses the crux of what is at hand to decide: What is our true character as a community and what is best for our future. No one opposes a hotel. In the face of all the arguments and frustrations, praise is due to the many citizens doggedly researching, writing and confronting, and to the public servants who still apply an open-mind and elbow grease in working on the matter.
I’ll give you a specific story of another distorted debate, and the outcome—which I think has bearing on the Hilltop debate, or any historic community disagreement:
Those of us private citizens who banded together (JCPASH) and fought for seven years (five court hearings and a trip to the WV Supreme Court) to demand an historic review, of the old Charles Town jailhouse, are familiar with the tactic of displacing the real issue and ignoring historic facts. (To this day, most don’t know what the issues were.) The County Commission, five people, knew the county needed government office space, and wouldn’t parking for county workers also be grand; there’s an old jailhouse—tear it down. Simple. (Sort of like—we need a hotel; here’s a plan. Take it.) But, turns out, decisions about downtown’s future were of concern to many residents who knew they would be affected; some of the populace even understood the importance of a downtown historic designation.
Well, there was no common-sense reason for the County Commission to oppose a federally and state-mandated public hearing and historic-review prior to destruction of an historic structure, but they did—they had a plan and, by God, they were sticking with it. Diligence and research were applied by citizens and the new public officials they got elected, experts were brought in and, sure enough, all was not as it had been presented by those in favor of tearing down the jailhouse (two-thirds a house), willy-nilly. But the argument became not about common sense and following the facts, but about whether the building was historic or not, and it was widely reported that it was falling down anyway.
The fact that national architects and engineers pronounced it sound, and that there were photos of coal miners in the jail cells (Coal-Mine War treason trials of 1922), and that it has been designated historic in 1997, never made it into the public record, until we won. And when the Review examination finally was conducted, by an independent firm in Virginia, turns out the Courthouse back-wall would have cracked or collapsed had the jailhouse been bulldozed, that the historic designation for the downtown area would have been jeopardized, and that adaptive re-use of the sturdy building was cheaper than trying to tear-down A. B. Mullett architecture, etc. (I put the full report in libraries).
And what else did we learn? Turns out you can fight ‘city hall’, or any powerful entity (like a developer), and win. We didn’t end up with a parking deck on that corner, or a collapsed Courthouse wall. The jailhouse building was beautifully put to new use (family court) and celebrated on Heritage Day with tours for the public and state officials giving speeches. Thanks to the collaboration between conscientious officials and relentless citizens, what had prevailed, finally, was common sense and respect for history/character. The city could continue to seek grants (including an important one designated for historic towns near interstates), and so phone lines could be put underground, new sidewalks installed, parking meters removed on main street. New businesses could piggy-back on city efforts to draw people downtown. And so it goes—one step in the right direction leads to the next right step.
The point? There are many. The first easy solution is not always the wise solution, or the only answer to progress, especially if it ignores heritage. Stubborn determination to get a project done without thorough attention to consequences is fool-hardy. A muddled public debate does not serve truth--The Hilltop debate is about what best fits the context and serves healthy growth. (Yes, there are a lot of trees to be discussed, but that’s the Forest to keep in view). Citizens impacted by public decisions can and should ask for attention and consideration. Public officials should neither ignore a law/regulation/zoning, nor hide behind it; they have the power to make the rules, and to change them.
The responsibility rests with them to do the right thing. And the right thing to do, for an individual or a community, is to courageously follow solid principles, not easy money, in decision-making. The money will then come, along with good things not even anticipated.
While this may all sound frothy and touchy-feely to some, experience and history prove it to be true in the long-run. Here’s another fact: A shared respect for our community heritage, and for our neighbors, leads to healthier growth than any magic beans the rich-folk come here to offer us. They want our cooperation and support? Show us some. We have a heritage here, it matters and we matter. Here are our rules.
Harpers Ferry’s heritage is profoundly American and significant, and we alone, or SWaN, don’t own that. Harpers Ferry is an internationally-known destination so we have responsibilities here. I recall being in Seoul, Korea many years ago, and meeting a Korean couple who exclaimed with delight that they had visited my town and eaten at “the big house up on the hill.” Seldom did I sadly visit the site after SWaN took it over that someone wasn’t visiting even the ruins, just to show their children where they got engaged, where they went to celebrate when they first returned from the war, where they took Mom for her birthdays, where they got married. Heck, if we all had simply done a world-wide call for help from everyone who visited and loved the Hilltop House Hotel, we easily could have outbid SWaN.
In conclusion, this site matters far beyond our personal concerns and SWaN’s money. Hilltop House for more than a century attracted tourists, presidents, newlyweds and county citizens to its lofty panoramic view, its folksy or grand events and its front-porch rocking chairs. However challenging the effort required-- and whatever rules, regs, laws need to be changed or protected--this unique and authentic American setting is deserving of respect and protection for the enjoyment of all.
Loving this country and its heritage starts at home, for every citizen and public official in every town