Hill Top House project in Harpers Ferry moving ahead

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Hill Top House project in Harpers Ferry moving ahead
The Hill Top House may be accepting guests by 2024 now that the City of Harpers Ferry has approved construction.

It’s been a long time coming, but there’s good news for fans of the renowned Hill Top House Hotel, the majestic destination in Harpers Ferry that opened its doors in 1888.

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More than 13 years after the decaying hotel shut down, town officials have signed off on agreements that business owners and others here say will get the $139-million project moving at long last.

Officials have green-lighted a demolition permit for the hotel, which has been crumbling and sitting empty since February 2008. Now a gold-star, 120-room hotel could open for guests by the summer of 2024.

The Hill Top House as it appeared in an early 20th-century postcard.

Martha Ehlman, who owns the Ten Fold Fair Trade shop at 180 High Street, says she's happy to see the hotel project and others moving forward.

“I am thrilled to see the positive motion,” Ehlman said. “My hope is that we can leave behind the divisiveness that has scarred our town.”

Building on its stunning views of the Potomac River, the new Hill Top will feature a signature restaurant by James Beard winner José Andrés and his ThinkFoodGroup and will offer world-class meeting and catering spaces, luxury accommodations, a holistic spa, wellness programs, and an array of academic, cultural, and artistic offerings.

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Developed by SWaN principals Fred and Karen Schaufeld of Leesburg, Va., the project will usher in good things both for Harpers Ferry and the Eastern Panhandle, says Ehlman, who’s been a leader of a county effort to see the Hill Top built.

In addition to temporary jobs created during the hotel’s construction, the finished Hill Top is expected to offer about 130 permanent jobs and inject hundreds of thousands of dollars in spinoff economic benefit and hotel-motel tax income every year.

The deteriorating structure slated for demolition is not the original building, as the hotel had to be rebuilt after significant fires in 1912 and 1919.

Thomas Lovett, unveiled the Hill Top when Grover Cleveland was in the White House and found enviable success, welcoming Mark Twain, W.E.B. Du Bois, Alexander Graham Bell, and other A-list visitors of the day.

An African American entrepreneur, Lovett had come to Harpers Ferry because of its landmark desegregated school, Storer College.

In 1998, well into its “shabby chic” period, it could still draw the big names—including then-President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who lunched at the hotel during an Earth Day visit to the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

The target audience for the new hotel includes visitors from throughout the D.C. metro area. Harpers Ferry is located about 60 miles from Washington—an easy drive and an even easier trip by train into the station just down the hill from the hotel site.

Historians and nature lovers already are drawn to Harpers Ferry, through which the Appalachian Trail runs. In 1859, abolitionist John Brown tried to take over the federal armory there as part of his plan to arm enslaved men and women and end slavery in the U.S.

Ehlman says she can’t wait to see the Hill Top reclaim its spot high atop the town.

“It’s exciting to think about the construction of a viable, beautiful Hill Top House Hotel—one that honors the legacy of the Lovett family and its rich tradition of drawing influential people together in our historic town,” she says.

Ehlman says the town council also passed a street-use agreement with the hotel property’s owner that had dragged on for four years. SWaN will pay $257,300 for use of six “paper streets”—areas near the hotel that had been designated for streets but never constructed.

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