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Historic Rouss building getting renewed attention

March 18, 2002|BY DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W. Va. - C. Broadway Rouss may have not received the recognition he deserved, but his legacy is getting renewed interest through the renovation of a historic building in the city.

Rouss was a savvy merchant who went to New York City in the 1860s to operate a dry goods business.

In addition to the business, Rouss started his own merchandise catalog - Rouss Monthly Auction Trade Journal - which at one time had a larger circulation than catalogs distributed by Sears and Montgomery Ward, said Larry Mullin, who wrote a book about Rouss in 1974.

"He literally went from being a tramp in New York City to being a multi-millionaire," said Mullin, principal of Charles Town Junior High School.

Rouss' connection to Charles Town can be seen near the intersection of George and Washington streets, where a tall, slender building bearing his name still stands. Later in his career, Rouss began giving his money away, and in 1896 he donated $1,500 toward construction of a new Independent Fire Hall in Charles Town.

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Rouss had become familiar with Charles Town after his parents purchased a home in the Kabletown area about 1850, said Mullin.

The Independent Fire Co. has since moved out of the building and it fell into disrepair through the years.

Now the building is poised for a comeback.

Under an agreement approved by the Charles Town Building Commission, the First Charles Town Group will renovate the hall in return for being allowed to use the top two floors, Mayor Randy Hilton said.

The City of Charles Town gets use of the first floor, said Hilton.

The Charles Town Building Commission is an agency whose legal obligation is to hold ownership of city buildings, said Hilton.

The city had always wanted to renovate the Rouss hall, but did not have the money for it, said Hilton.

At the Charles Town City Council meeting tonight, council members are expected to begin discussions of possibly turning the first floor of the former fire hall into a visitor's center to promote Charles Town tourist attractions, said Hilton. The visitors center, if developed, would compliment a historical interpretive area being planned next to the historic Jefferson County Courthouse across the street, said Hilton.

It could also tie into possible public use of Charles Washington Hall, an adjacent historical building at the corner of George and Washington streets. Charles Washington Hall was initially a town market house that was destroyed during the Civil War and rebuilt in 1870. Charles Town has already received $200,000 for the renovation of Charles Washington Hall and is considering some type of public use of the building, said Hilton.

The agreement between First Charles Town Group and the Charles Town Building Commission calls for the installation of an elevator between Rouss Hall and the Charles Washington Hall which will allow the second floor of Charles Town Hall to be handicapped-accessible, said Hilton.

The old Independent Fire Hall contains unique features like a bell tower which allowed firefighters to spot fires from as far away as Summit Point, said Peter Chakmakian, a Charles Town attorney and president of First Charles Town Group.

There is a circular window below the tower and other curved windows on the George Street side of the building. On the third floor, there is a sprawling hardwood dance floor in a room that used to be used by a Masonic lodge. A canteen for teenagers also thrived in the old hall.

Chakmakian said it is a shame Rouss never received more recognition for his business success and philanthropic efforts. As a result, the local attorney said he plans to pay tribute to Rouss through the extensive renovation of the fire hall.

"He was way ahead of his time," said Chakmakian.

The $500,000 renovation is expected to be completed by the end of August, said Chakmakian.

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