— Project reflects Charles Town’s commitment to history.
After a remodel nearly 16 years in the making, Charles Town’s Charles Washington Hall is set to have a grand re-opening on April 7 at 10am.
The completely remodeled building, located on the corner of Washington and George Streets, will tentatively include a new home for the Charles Town Visitors’ Center, a fresh food market called “Bushel and Peck,” and a restaurant space, all on the first floor, according to Charles Town Councilwoman Ann Paonessa. The second floor, which features a balcony, a large open space, and a stage, will be available as a rentable meeting space and event venue. The stage is complete with lighting and theatrical curtains.
Bushel and Peck, which falls under the auspices of The Jefferson G.A.P. Coalition (Growers, Artists, and Producers) will be something of an extension of the Saturday Charles Town Farmers’ Market, but with a larger portfolio of operations, according to Lars Prillaman, co-owner at Green Gate Farm, and vice president of the board overseeing the project.
“We intend Bushel and Peck to operate more like a small grocery store than a farmers’ market,” said Prillaman. “We intend to have produce cases stocked with a variety of seasonal foods sourced absolutely as locally as possible, but we also want to offer foods that can’t be grown locally, such as citrus or bananas.” He added that it’s the hope to eventually offer other grocery items like organic dry goods and toiletries.
Joslyn Noland, who owns Middleway Farm with her husband Dan, believes the advantage of having a year-round location to offer products for sale will be a boon to many of the participants in the existing Saturday market, of which their business is one.
“I see it as a positive for local agriculture and local consumers,” she said. “It may even encourage more to pursue farming …” based upon the prospect of a year-round income for the products offered.
According to Paonessa, the idea to adapt the use of the building was first kicked around in 2000, when the Rouss Building, which currently houses the arts cooperative and Charles Town Visitors’ Center, was renovated. When Shu Chen’s Chinese Restaurant ceased operations in the building, the process began.
Paonessa said Charles Town originally investigated a funding stream through the U.S. Department of Transportation, but eventually opted for a different program, administered by the Department of Agriculture—the Rural Development Fund. This program offered Charles Town the opportunity to borrow money at a low interest rate to renovate the building. Since part of the structure will house a fresh food market, the project qualified and the loan was approved. While Charles Town does have to repay the loan, they will be receiving approximately $900,000 through tax credits, though the final figure won’t be available until the tax credit process is finalized, according to Todd Wilt, maintenance and operations manager for the City of Charles Town—who managed the renovation project for the city.
Panoessa indicated the Council will ultimately discuss what to do with the tax credit income, but options include paying down the loan amount or further infrastructure improvements.
Wilt highlighted the fact that the Charles Washington Hall project is unique in that it appears to be the first project of its kind in the country to qualify for tax credits while being financed through the (USDA) Rural Development Fund’s Community Facilities Loan Program.
“If the city is able to successfully finalize the process, this project could open the door to communities across the country and allow many historic structures to be renovated that might otherwise continue to deteriorate,” he explained.
Where History and Community Meet
While many remember Charles Washington Hall as the longtime home of Shu Chen’s Chinese Restaurant, the building has a very long and important history to both Charles Town and Jefferson County.
According to Doug Perks, Jefferson County Museum’s historian, the construction of the present Hall was authorized by the Charles Town (then Charlestown) Council in 1874 and named for the town’s founder, Charles Washington. The original three-story building, constructed in 1806 and used as a market place and meeting space, was burned in 1862 by the retreating Union Army—as it was thought to house gunpowder.
The 1874 building was also used as a market place, and until 1921 contained the town’s post office. The second floor was used, until 1911, as a theater venue and public meeting space. The present-day Old Opera House opened in 1911, and all theatrical pursuits were transferred to that building. The second floor of the Hall was then converted into office space, and housed local attorneys, the Charles Town Justice of the Peace, and others throughout the 20th century. Perks said the business concern thought to have the longest tenure in the building was that of George Tabb Light, who was advertised as a “druggist and chemist,” and also performed notary public services, spending 52 years in the main part of the first floor—the future home of Bushel and Peck.
Now that the renovations are complete, visitors to Charles Washington Hall will see the painstakingly specific efforts made to ensure as much of the original integrity of the building as possible. According to Wilt, most of the windows on the first floor are made to look as original as possible, while part of the floor in the restaurant section and part of the metal ceiling are original to the building. In the “backstage area” of the second floor, a large amount of writing and graffiti on the walls has been preserved, most of which shows names and dates, including many surnames with long ties to Jefferson County. The chandelier on the second floor is similar in design—a circular set of lights—to one originally installed in 1882. According to research provided by Perks, “Mr. Charles E. Seal, gas fitter, installed a ‘crown-light of 37 burners … all ingeniously contrived and executed’” in that year.
Rob Aitcheson, the historic preservation specialist on staff with the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission, said Charles Town will see a positive impact with the new Hall—through additional businesses.
“I believe it is important to note that Charles Washington Hall is being reverted back to its historic uses,” he emphasized. “I think this reflects Charles Town’s commitment to its history, and a vision for the future where historic preservation benefits the local community.”
Perks agrees, and goes one step further by maintaining: “Charles Washington Hall is second only to the Courthouse in its significance [to Charles Town and Jefferson County].” Both are public spaces, he added—both tangible reminders of our history. “Charles Washington Hall is a symbol of Charles Town’s resilience and ability to persevere.”By H.S. Leigh Koonce