In an area where George Washington's supposed rest stops abound, a truly historic site is in danger of losing its identity.
In 1732, the year Washington was born, an inn called the Indian Queen Tavern was opened on the banks of a port not yet known as Bladensburg by a man, believed to be a Scot, named Jacob Wirt.
Over the years, the tavern catered to a host of distinguished people, including Washington, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.
Many a duel was fought in the tavern yard by men who might have consumed too many of the inn's libations. Naval hero Stephen Decatur lost his life to James Barron on a spring night in 1820 after one of those duels.
But now, almost 250 years after the tavern was built, and only five years after it was completely renovated, it may be converted to a private office building.
Although the tavern, also known as the George Washington House, is a registered historic site and therefore cannot be torn down, the artifacts, antiques and dioramas inside may have to be relocated, unless a buyer who is willing to preserve the inn is found.
The Prince George's County Jaycees own the building but say they can no longer afford to maintain it. In an effort to keep the structure in public hands, the town of Bladensburg and the Jaycees applied to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for community block grant money to purchase the old inn.
Bladensburg leaders claimed the tavern is a focal point of town rehabilitation and its current status has led and will lead to further development, which in turn would benefit the area's low- and middle-income residents.
But HUD rejected the grant request, saying it could not see how purchase of the tavern would benefit the poor, a requirement for all projects financed with the Community Development Block Grant Funds.
In a last-ditch move, the County Council and County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan sent a joint letter to HUD area manager Terry Chisolm reiterating the need for the tavern and claiming it was a fundable item.
Once again HUD rejected the request. It was only the second time the federal agency turned its back on a project supported by both the council and executive in Prince George's, according to Donna Olson, chief of the community development section in the county's office of Program Planning and Economic Development.
The future of the tavern now rests in the hands of five Prince George's businessmen who in April signed a letter of commitment to buy the tavern for $113,000 if HUD decided not to fund the project. The five businessmen are Winfield M. Kelly, former county executive and cable television entrepeneur; George Saslow, owner of Crossroads, a country and western club adjacent to the tavern; Charles A. Dukes, Jr., a county banker recently appointed head of the county's park and planning commission; Stanley Machen, a county land surveyor; and Andrew O. (Sonny) Mothershead, a former state delegate.
Kelly, who is also a former Jaycee official, said the businessmen did not expect HUD's rejection but will stand by their commitment.
"One way or another the Indian Queen Tavern is going to be a public museum for the kids of the county," Kelly said. "I don't know exactly how we are going to do it, but it is."
Although none of the five prominent businessmen are poor, the more than $20,000 that each would have to shell out for the project "is still quite a considerable sum," said Bladensburg Mayor Susanna Cristofane.
"At a meeting after we found out that we were not getting the HUD money, I heard one of the businessmen say in surprise that he seems to have just bought one-fifth of the Indian Queen Tavern and he was not pleased," Cristofane said. "I am still worried about the tavern's future, although I am sure that the businessman's commitment is good."
Eric Morsicato, the town administrator, said he still finds it hard to understand why HUD rejected the project.
"Since the building was rehabilitated a few years ago, it has spurred further development in the tavern's area," Morsicato said. "The county's Neighborhood Revitalization Office is also located in the tavern and may have to move if the building is turned over to a private business."
Morsicato added that the presence of the county office in Bladensburg has helped the town's planned commercial revitalization.
"There is no question in my mind that the neighborhood revitalization people's presence has added to the rehabilitation of Bladensburg," he said. "From their office window, they can see exactly what their work has done and that's a major reason the town's development has occurred."
Morsicato said seven sub-target development areas near the tavern will be endangered if the Indian Queen leaves public hands and the county office is forced to move.
The town and the five businessmen are looking for a private buyer who will maintain the public use of the building. The businessmen, who are all connected with the county Chamber of Commerce, are also trying to convince that organization to make the tavern one of its projects.
This means that the chamber would buy the inn and maintain it and the burden would be removed from the businessmen's hands.