In Old Town Manassas, efforts to save decaying house grow more dire


This historic home on Prescott Avenue in the Old Town neighborhood of Manassas has long been deteriorating, but there are efforts under way to stabilize it. (Jeremy Borden/The Washington Post)
November 20, 2011

The once-grand house is faded, with chipped paint and stark plywood peering out where there should be windows. Yellow caution tape stretches around a wide, Southern-style porch that looks ready to give way.

The more than 100-year-old house at 9300 Prescott Ave. in Old Town Manassas has been slipping into decline for years, even as neighbors and officials search for ways to restore it to its former glory.

But now efforts to save the structure — and a bit of Manassas history — have grown more dire. With its damaged roof and sagging porch, it might not weather another winter, officials said.

“It’s a house that needs to be preserved,” said Kittie Blakemore, who grew up on nearby Quarry Road and remembers roller skating on Prescott when it was one of the few paved streets around. “But whether it can be now, I don’t know.”

The house, which has been condemned, has no electricity or water. No one has lived there for years, and it is on the edge of foreclosure.

Neighbors have long lobbied the city to preserve the house. Officials, initially reluctant to step in because the property is privately owned, are considering acting under a state law that allows localities to intervene in blighted properties, said Mayor Harry J. “Hal” Parrish II (R). The city is putting out a bid to contractors to see how far $90,000 in fixes would go.

“As mayor, it’s frustrating to me, because we’ve got what could be a beautiful home,” Parrish said. “All the while, in the back of my mind, here’s the government making a decision about private property.”

Dorothy Feaganes, who owns the house, declined to comment. Feaganes, who is in her 80s, has a reverse mortgage, which enables senior citizens to live off of their home’s equity, officials said. The mortgage, through Bank of America, is backed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Maria Bynum, a HUD spokeswoman, said that Feaganes hasn’t been able to make an estimated $120,000 to $160,000 worth of repairs and that it’s up to Bank of America whether it forecloses. The bank, Bynum said, is required by HUD “to protect and preserve” the property but not fully repair it.

Bank of America, which has boarded up the windows, wants to make repairs to stabilize the house and is working with city officials to gain access, said Jumana Bauwens, a bank spokeswoman. A repair plan would require HUD’s approval.

Neighbors hope someone steps in before the home is battered by the winter elements.

“I’ve lived here a long time, and too many historic buildings are just going away,” said Ann Hempen, who owns the nearby Manassas Junction Bed and Breakfast. “You can’t make buildings like that anymore.”

Hugh N. Ickrath said it’s about preserving an essential part of Manassas.

“Manassas has its stock of historic homes,” said Ickrath, a neighbor. “To let that stock dwindle, which is what [the city has] done on a couple of different houses . . . it’s a shame, because they’re simply not making more of them.”

Decades ago, the house served as a grand entrance to Old Town, when Route 28 cut through the municipality’s center. Route 28 is now a ubiquitous commercial strip, and Prescott can be reached by taking a left at the bright red Walgreens sign.

The house is one of the city’s “painted ladies,” Queen Anne-style structures built before a massive fire swept through Manassas in 1905. After the blaze, wood buildings were abandoned in favor of red sandstone, concrete and brick structures.

In its heyday, 9300 Prescott was typical of the houses populated by employees of Southern Railway. L.B. Williams was the original owner, records say.

“They were a lovely family, and the house was beautiful when [the Williamses] lived there,” said Wilhelmina Detwiler, 86, who has lived across the street from the house since 1932.

Williams was a railway postal clerk, responsible for mail, which traveled by train, from the District to Charlotte, Blakemore said. The neighborhood men would go to work together — the train is close enough that, like most places in Old Town, residents can walk to its platform and, from almost anywhere, hear its whistle.

“That house is just beautiful as you come into Prescott,” said David Ealy, who lives next door. He said Feaganes comes from time to time to sweep the porch, then takes a moment to sit and look out.

Ealy called the city’s lack of action “bureaucratic nonsense.” It’s a special case, he said, and the city enforces strict codes on neighboring properties for even slight changes because of their historic designations.

In 2007, the city nearly stepped in to repair the house, seeking to spend $94,000 to shore up the property. That decision was reversed.

Ickrath doesn’t think the house has seen its last day: “It’s waiting to be beautiful again.”

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Jeremy Borden covers Prince William County, Va., for The Washington Post.
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