Randy Lewis' lifelong dream may have gone up in smoke when the Wachapreague Hotel caught fire this summer, but he still hopes to restore and reopen the grand old resort on Virginia's Eastern Shore.
The July fire destroyed the roof and unused fourth floor of the Victorian woodwork masterpiece, and water damage to the other three floors was heavy. "I thought it was gone," Lewis said. "The fire department had to pump so much water that everything except the basic structure was ruined. It's about a half-million-dollar job, and we didn't have it insured for a quarter of that."
Lewis already had sunk all his cash and most of his credit in the hotel, and says he needs either federal assistance or "somebody with a lot of money who loves the place like I do."
A Virginia Historic Landmark Commission survey team will visit Washapreague shortly to see whether the 1902 hotel rates registration as a national landmark. If so, Lewis may qualify for an emergency grant to get a roof on the building, which suffers further damage every time it rains.
As a boy Lewis worked for the wealthy sportsmen who used to frequent the Wachapreague and "dreamed of being rich enough to buy the place. I never did get rich enough, but when I heard that the hotel was up for sale I couldn't resist."
After 20 years in the contracting business in Baltimore he came home to the village of 100 souls in 1976. "We had just begun to edge into the black when the fire hit us," he said. "We were making it. The place was beginning to draw hunters and fishermen like the old days." Wachapreague boasts some of the world's finest flounder and billfishing, and stands at the edge of a vast marsh rich in shellfish and waterfowl.
The money-lenders just snickered when Lewis explored the possibility of concentional financing for the restoration of the heavily mortgaged building. "You're talking about not only restoration but upgrading," architect Lonnie Henley of Richmond said.
"This job is so extensive that it will have to meet the modern electrical, plumbing and fire codes as though it were new - and properly so. What a building it will - would - be; there's nothing like it anywhere in this whole region."
Wachapreague Hotel lovers, of whom there are many, have been known to burst into tears upon first seeing the charred roof beams black against the sky. "You see them just stumbling around the grounds, looking lost," Lewis said. "That's how I felt. The fire started in an outlet box, a couple of wires that apparently had been installed carelessly, maybe a generation ago, and finally shorted out."
He looked up at the huge white building and shook his head. "It's really kind of silly for someone in my financial position to try to save the place, but then I never expected it would be easy to make the Wachapreague live again. I expect to spend the rest of my life here, and I guess I don't have enough sense to quit."
If he got the money tomorrow it would take at least a year to do the job, and meanwhile the town is without a major restaurant. "We have found that the charter boats suffer when there is no good place to eat nearby, so we'll break ground next month for a restaurant to be open by spring," Lewis said. "We've got to have some cash flow or the marina operation will go down the drain, too.
"but if we don't get the hotel under roof before the heavy winter weather sets in, we may lose the building. Freezing and thawing could cause serious structural damage, and then it would be time for the bulldozers."