Some see a bright future for historic tobacco warehouse

May 24, 2003|By CANDICE BOSELY

It sits alone on the banks of the Potomac River, history exuding through its thick stone walls, windows broken and long-dead vines clinging to its sides.

Perhaps the most telling - albeit unattractive - sign of the Mecklenburg Tobacco Warehouse's future is all the trash that surrounds the building.

Debris yanked from the interior is mixed with the telltale signs of cleanup crews - such as plastic foam lunch containers and empty drink bottles.


Diana Suttenfield said she hopes that within five years the building will reopen as part of a riverfront park.

Suttenfield, president of the Friends of the Shepherdstown Riverfront, said she became enchanted with the tobacco warehouse in the summer of 1966. Living in an apartment on Princess Street - which dead-ends at the river - Suttenfield walked past the building on her daily trips to the Potomac, she said.

Now, she is trying to save a building that over its 215-year history has been a tobacco warehouse, tobacco inspection station and home to the town's water works. It might also have been used for storage, but some of its history is lost.

Since the water department moved to a new building on higher ground in 1974, the town-owned warehouse has been abandoned, but not forgotten.

Over the years, people have expressed interest in turning it into offices, a youth hostel, a teen center, a small theater or even a private, weekend home, Suttenfield said. A problem that continued to rise is that the warehouse is in the flood plain. In past years when the river has risen, the warehouse flooded.

Rather than ignoring the river, the plan is to embrace it. For a town founded off the Potomac, little evidence exists that the river is of any importance.

Three signs refer people to the area near the warehouse and the river.

Two are small and read "Public Stream Access." The third reads "Dead End."

"I think it's time to rediscover our wonderful riverfront," Suttenfield said.

If the warehouse becomes part of a park, it could join an interactive foot path along the river's bank and a heightened boat ramp, said Elizabeth Janssen, chair of Shepherdstown Parks and Recreation.

Janssen and Suttenfield were two of several speakers who addressed a small gathering at the river Friday morning.

As they shared their ideas and dreams for the area, the river churned in the background. Stalks of bamboo growing on the banks of the Town Run, a stream that feeds into the river, were rustling in the breeze. For a few moments, geese honked overhead.

It is not known what the warehouse will be used for. Possibilities include town offices, a museum or an interpretive center. A business might offer boats for rent.

Suttenfield hopes the warehouse's third floor will be left open as a space for public meetings and gatherings.

Others have suggested that restaurants or a bed and breakfast open. No idea is ignored, Suttenfield said.

A lot of work remains to be done on the building, including installing elevators and bathrooms. Restoring the building could cost $1.5 million or more, Suttenfield said.

The roof needs to be repaired, as do all the windows. The warehouse needs to be stabilized, but National Park Service officials have declared it structurally sound, Suttenfield said.

The C&O Canal National Historical Park was considered a logical partner to help restore the warehouse because of the historic connection between the warehouse, river and canal.

Goods from Shepherdstown once were floated across the river and taken down the canal to Georgetown and Washington, said Douglas Faris, superintendent of the C&O Canal National Historical Park.

Plans for the immediate future of the warehouse include finishing a brochure, for which Friends of the Shepherdstown Riverfront received a grant. Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, secured another $20,000 in Budget Digest funds for the overall project.

Suttenfield said she hopes to obtain another grant to revamp her group's Web site,

Also, members will be sought.

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