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City eyes historic district growth

December 14, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- A French and Indian War-era estate where George Washington attended a wedding and a circa-1812 mansion saved from an almost certain fiery end by Abraham Lincoln are among dozens of properties in Martinsburg that historic preservationists want added to a city zoning district where demolition is restricted.

Aspen Hall at 401 Boyd Ave., Boydville at 601 S. Queen St. and more than 100 other structures generally located in the city's historic core are part of an addition to the Martinsburg Historic Preservation Overlay District, which was mapped in the mid-1980s.

A public hearing on the district's first-ever expansion has been scheduled for Jan. 5 at 6:30 p.m. in Martinsburg City Hall council chambers.

"Many people think that once it's listed in the National Register, that's it, nothing can be done, but that's not true," local historian Don C. Wood said of the many properties that have been included in nearly a dozen historic districts in the city.

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A historic property owner outside the specially zoned area in the city can obtain a demolition permit simply by applying for one at City Hall.

Inside the overlay district, property owners have to submit their demolition plans to the seven-member Historic Preservation Review Commission (HPRC) for review and a public hearing.

Noted Confederate spy Belle Boyd's childhood home along East Race Street was one of several properties that has been protected in the current district, Wood said.

"The owner (17 years ago) wanted to tear it down," Wood recalled.

The brick residence later was purchased by the Berkeley County Historical Society and was converted into a museum that features displays about Belle Boyd, local former Major League Baseball star Hack Wilson and artifacts from the Revolutionary War, Civil War and other military conflicts.

Wood recalled last week that another property owner's plan to demolish an entire block in the downtown area was stopped and believes that many of the buildings along Queen and King streets in the town's original business district would have been gone by now if the overlay zoning had not been adopted.

Typically, the HPRC issues "certificates of appropriateness" for building exterior projects within the district, such as paint colors and business signs, city Engineer Michael Covell said. All commission decisions still can be appealed to the city council.

The newly expanded district, if ultimately enacted by a city council ordinance, would include a number of notable properties.

o Interwoven Mills at 615 W. King St., which was established in 1891 and became a world leader in men's hosiery production.

o The B&O Railroad Roundhouse and shop buildings near East Martin and East Race Street, site of the first national labor strike in 1877.

o Norbourne Hall at 396 E. Race St., former home to Civil War-era magazine illustrator David Hunter Strother.

o Aspen Hall at 405 Boyd Ave., where George Washington attended a wedding in 1761 when the estate was known as Fort Mendenhall.

o Boydville at 601 S. Queen St., a circa-1812 mansion spared from being burned in the Civil War by order of Abraham Lincoln in July 1864.

Wood said a committee formed several months ago to explore what properties should be added to the overlay district wanted to include more than what is being proposed, but was reduced because of feedback already received from the community.

Covell said efforts were made to publicize the public hearing, include posting notices in areas of the city that are proposed to be added.

"We'll definitely be looking for the public's input," he said.

After Jan. 5, the proposed expansion of the overlay district then could be forwarded to the city's planning commission, which would consider what would be a zoning map amendment.

The planning commission then could recommend that the city council adopt the amendment by ordinance, which requires three readings.

Covell said some may view the HPRC's role in protecting some of the city's most historic properties as unneeded and cumbersome, but that hasn't stopped millions of dollars from being invested in the downtown area in recent years.

While exterior changes fall within the HPRC's oversight, Covell said the commission often acts in a supporting role, and building owners often learn more about their property and many might not be aware of state and federal tax credit programs for restoration work, he said.

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