LOUDOUN COUNTY

97-Year-Old Schoolhouse in Waterford Nearly Destroyed by Fire

Firefighters work to save the historic Old Waterford School building after fire swept through it Thursday morning.
Firefighters work to save the historic Old Waterford School building after fire swept through it Thursday morning. (Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007

There are lots of things folks in Waterford will always remember about the Old School. The way the sun streamed in the high windows in the middle of an afternoon concert. The New Year's parties, the weddings and the craft fair that was held there for 64 years.

The school has long been the social center of Waterford, a small hamlet in western Loudoun County that was settled by Quakers in the early 1770s and was named a national historic landmark in 1970. Yesterday, despite the efforts of dozens of firefighters, the 97-year-old schoolhouse was all but destroyed by a fire.

"It's like losing part of your own house," said John J. Kornacki, executive director of the Waterford Foundation, the nonprofit organization that maintains the school and several other historic buildings. "The school for us here was a gathering place for the community."

Officials said the fire, which caused an estimated $300,000 in damage and appeared to be accidental, started about 6:30 a.m. near a furnace in the basement of the building. A resident on his way to work saw flames shooting from the wood structure at Fairfax and High streets, a short distance from Waterford Elementary School, and dialed 911, said Mary Maguire, a spokeswoman for the Loudoun Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management.

More than a dozen firetrucks and about 80 firefighters -- some from as far away as Brunswick and Frederick in Maryland -- rushed to save the building. But by the time the first trucks arrived, much of the back half of the school was engulfed in flames, said Loudoun Battalion Chief Kevin Wright.

Fire officials said controlling the blaze was especially difficult because Waterford, like many towns in rural parts of Loudoun, does not have fire hydrants. Six tankers took thousands of gallons of water to the scene from Catoctin Creek about a half-mile away and from an underground tank at Waterford Elementary.

In all, firefighters doused the building with about 50,000 gallons of water before the fire was contained about 8:45 a.m.

"It is a lot more challenging to work in a rural setting because of the water situation out here," Wright said. "Fire had pretty much taken over the building. It was burning real good when we got here."

No one was in the building when the fire started. One firefighter was injured while fighting the blaze and was taken to Loudoun Hospital Center in Leesburg for treatment. He was released yesterday.

Flames swept through the school, which is used primarily as a community center and concert hall, blowing out all of the windows in the front building and destroying the recently renovated auditorium and its contents, which included a grand piano.

Fire officials and local preservationists said that the building dates to the 1880s but was rebuilt in 1910 after a fire. They said restoration costs could run into the tens of thousands.

Kornacki said most of the damage will be covered by insurance. He had already received dozens of calls from people offering help, he said, and the foundation has set up a restoration fund.

The absence of a water supply in the more remote parts of the county, one of the most affluent in the country, has become a more acute problem as rapid growth has nearly doubled Loudoun's population to more than 250,000 in the past decade.

Developments are sprouting up in largely rural areas once sparsely populated, taxing precious water sources, straining a dwindling force of volunteer firefighters and creating the need for new equipment and stations, according to county fire and government officials.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company