After two months of uncertainty, the Town of Warrenton has hired a structural engineer who could determine the future of the fire-damaged, historic buildings at 67 Waterloo St.
Schnitzhofer & Associates won a $7,500 contract to evaluate the former Eppa Hunton house, built in 1825, and adjacent slaves’ quarters. The engineering firm will evaluate the extent of damage and determine the feasibility of restoration.
A suspicious predawn fire badly damaged both buildings July 12.
Four days later, Warrenton Building Official Roger “Bill” Mercer II posted on the front door a notice that ordered the structures demolished.
But, many in the community pushed to save the buildings. So, property owner H&C Investments LLC of Manassas Park reached an agreement with the town to tear down only modern additions to the Hunton house.
Then, a structural engineer working for H&C put damage to the house at “60 to 70” percent.
During his July 24 inspection, Justin B. Currier with his hand pushed the slaves’ quarters unreinforced brick walls, which moved easily. Mr. Currier deemed that structure “70 to 80 percent” destroyed.
“This should be considered a very dangerous condition, especially since some of these walls are above . . . Smith Street and collapse of these walls is a very real concern,” the Culpeper engineer wrote in his report.
Based on that evaluation, Warrenton Building Official Mercer amended H&C’s permit to include demolition of the slaves’ quarters, starting Monday, Aug. 11.
That day, however, town representatives again intervened and asked for a delay.
Because of the structures’ historic nature, Warrenton officials said they wanted expert advice from a neutral third party before allowing demolition.
“We’ll wait for you,” H&C representative Don Thurman told the town council Aug. 13.
“To their credit, they said, ‘We don’t want to rush it’,” Town Manager Ken McLawhon said of the owners, who bought the distressed property for $300,000 in December 2011.
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources provided the town with a list of engineers experienced in similar situations.
James R. Schnitzhofer, whose engineering firm has offices in Charlottesville and Staunton, also does “architectural analysis,” Mr. McLawhon told the town council in a work session last Thursday.
“I think it’s worth doing,” said Councilman Yak Lubowsky, who serves a president of the Fauquier Historical Society. Mr. Lubowsky has advocated finding a way to save the Hunton house.
“There is significant interest in preserving it,” Town Attorney Whit Robinson said.
Mr. McLawhon admitted that saving the structure seems a longshot, given its condition.
But, the independent engineer’s evaluation will allow the building official to make a clear determination in applying the state code.
If the evaluation deems the structure reasonably salvageable, its demolition would require Architectural Review Board approval. Ultimately, the town council could decide the matter — if it went that far.
Town officials hope to have a clear assessment of the buildings’ damage and potential for rehabilitation by early October, according to Mr. McLawhon.
Although he hopes the house can be saved, even Mr. Lubowsky expressed doubt.
“They’re not covering up and we’re having all this torrential rain,” he said. “It’s completely exposed and filling with water.”
Councilwoman Sunny Reynolds said: “It was a disaster before the fire.”
A lawyer, congressman and Civil War general, Eppa Hunton II lived for a while in the Federal-style home built 189 years ago. The house and adjacent building are “contributing structures” to the Warrenton Historic District. The district earned National Register of Historic Places status in 1983.
Phil and Alison Harway operated the very popular Napoleon’s restaurant and bar at 67 Waterloo St. from 1978 to 2002. The Harway family sold the business and the real estate 12 years ago.
Two successor restaurants failed to match Napoleon’s success, however. The second one closed in 2010, and the property has remained vacant since then. After a bank foreclosure, H&C Investors bought the property — once valued a $1.9 million — for $300,000.
The new owner last year got Warrenton ARB approval to demolish a 1980s addition and to replace it with a new, 8,400-square-foot restaurant building on the property. The plan called for renovation of the Hunton house as office space.
But, after demolition of the addition, work on the site stalled last summer.
Demolition of the charred structures would leave a vacant, half-acre commercial lot in the heart of Warrenton’s historic district.