Featured image (above): Architect’s rendering of the proposed Hill Top House.
There’s much to see from the hilltop of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. This vantage point offers unimpeded views of the wide sky and the tumbling cliffs above the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. Beauty and serenity permeate this place. Yet, from hilltop to lower town, reminders of conflict, tragedy, and reinvention are also omnipresent — evidence of the town’s historical and ongoing role in the American narrative.
A Family Tradition
Thomas Lovett, with his wife Lavinia and daughter Charlotte, operated a world-class hotel here on the hill above Harpers Ferry from 1888 to 1926. Mr. Lovett, born 1855, was the third generation of his mother’s family to be free of the chains of formal slavery. His parents, Sarah (Weaver) and William Lovett came to Harpers Ferry in the 1860s to teach and work at Storer College, later operating a nearby boarding house which served students during the academic year and the public during the summer. Learning the hospitality trade as their hotel’s first clerk, Lovett purchased the property on the promontory to build something bigger, commenting as he looked over the town below “here, where the martyrdom of John Brown took place, I will build my hotel.”
As grand as the 19th century railroad hotels that were its contemporaries, but envisioned as more than just a destination to sell rail tickets, the Hill Top House stood as a testament to the dream of an individual nurtured by big ideas. Lovett’s vision came to life and visitors did come to his hotel, including W.E.B. DuBois, Mark Twain, Pearl Buck, and several US Presidents. The Niagara Movement met here in the early 20th Century, advocating for political and civil rights for Black Americans. It was a place where all people would visit. The vintage promotional postcard (below) captures some sense of the grandeur of this bygone era. But trial and hardship also descended upon this place, with two fires in the 1910s. Rebuilt each time, the hotel was sold by the Lovett family in 1926 and continued to operate for another 80 years under various owners.
Worn Down By Time
By the time Fred and Karen Schaufeld first saw the Hill Top House in the early 1990s, it was still imposing, but definitely “shabby chic” as they described it — built to last, but worn down by time. They settled in Lovettesville, Virginia, but fell in love with Harpers Ferry. Getting to know the hotel owners at the time, they could see the continuing deterioration of the building and came to understand the financial difficulties of the business. When they eventually stepped in to purchase the property in 2007, the Schaufelds envisioned stabilizing the building and rebuilding the business. Fred noted, “we knew it would be major work, but we thought it would be a repair job. We hired an architect in 2008 and learned we would need to rebuild the foundation. And we realized that the additions were really crumbly. We also discovered the front wall had been painted to cover up the continuing structural sag.”
It soon became clear that the building would need to be completely rebuilt. And rather than just aiming for a stable, low-key hotel business, the Schaufelds found themselves animated by a bigger vision. “We were inspired by the postcard image of the 1912 reconstruction, a shingle-style structure with unified architecture,” Karen explained. “We also knew that this would be much more expensive, so we needed to be more expansive on the business side,” added Fred. “It had to be a year-round destination to justify the investment.” Drawing inspiration from the history of the Lovett family, the Schaufelds began to see the vision of a destination resort that could be life changing for individuals and a place where leaders could gather to change the world.
A Grand Rebirth
“It was as if the building was talking to us,” said Fred. “A destination hotel is riskier [than a standard chain hotel], but we felt we needed to rebuild it in a way that would make Thomas Lovett proud. We are approaching this business with a double-bottom line” — referring to a business model that rests on its social contribution to the community as well as its financial return to investors. “It takes a little bit of craziness and a lot of resources,” admitted Fred. “You learn a lot of humility in a project like this, too.”
With the clarity of being designated a WV Tourism Development District, and the recent agreements with the town of Harpers Ferry, the Schaufelds are excited to be moving forward with the project. “Having a clean and predictable process helps us build momentum,” noted Karen. “We expect 200 plus construction jobs over the next couple of years and 130 plus permanent jobs once we open in 2024.” The Schaufelds also noted their hope that the project would help the area’s investment in human capital: “We see working with Shepherd University to train students in hotel and hospitality management; supporting local musicians, artists, and crafts people; helping expand an economy that allows people to live and work here in West Virginia.”
For the Schaufelds, Hill Top House is a living entity, “a building that can create joy, connection and ideas. And now that we know we can build it, we know the people will come again.”
Information about the Hill Top House project
The Hill Top House website (HillTopHouseHotel.com) presents a background and overview of the project. and status learn more about the process of to rebuild and restore this historic structure. The Corporation of Harpers Ferry posts the dates of meeting and public hearings for the project on the town’s website (HarpersFerryWV.us).By Steve Pearson