If its weathered sandstone and busted windows could speak, Manassas Park's historic Conner House would howl. First with the pain of its dilapidated condition, and then with its pleasure over the recently revived effort to save and restore the city's only historic structure.
"We've been fooling with this thing since 1976, doing a little bit at a time," said City Building Official Fred H. Wharton. "This is just a fresh effort, using what we've learned from history." The structure is near City Hall and Prince William County's New Dominion school.
The City Council decided last week to establish a local historical society that would be responsible for getting community support and local contributions for the project, which may cost more than $200,000.
"We're going on the hope that by 1995 we can at least make some steps towards rebuilding" the Conner House, council member Frances Embrey said.
Despite its shoddy condition, the house, named after one of its last owners, local dairy farmer E.R. Conner, is a commanding structure, with its deep red sandstone walls.
The first section of the house, which probably sheltered the local farm's overseer and his family, was constructed in the early 1800s, according to historical accounts. Stones for its walls, which are 1 1/2 feet thick, most likely came from a nearby quarry. A second section of the house, previously referred to as the "Bloom's House" because of the nearby Blooming Grove, was built in 1855.
During the Civil War, it served as headquarters to Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston from July to November 1861. It also may have been caught in a brief spat during the war, according to Manassas resident Elvere Cox, E.R. Conner's daughter.
"When I was a little kid, there was a big cannonball embedded in the chimney. It was up there for years," Cox said, adding that vandals eventually extracted the artifact.
In the Second Battle of Manassas, the house opened its doors as the "Yellow Hospital" for wounded soldiers. Specks of its yellow coat of paint still can be seen, according to a recent architectural study.
Conner bought the house and surrounding property in the early 1900s. His son, E.R. Conner Jr., who now lives in Catharpin, sold the house and a small portion of land in 1973 to Manassas Park. Prince William County bought most of the remainder of the property.
In 1976, citizens led by the Manassas Park Women's Club persuaded the City Council not to demolish it. The council had viewed the decrepit structure as a safety hazard.
"They felt it was important because it was actually the only historical structure within the city," said Embrey, who is now president of the women's club. "They didn't want to see it torn down, so they went to work."
The club, through various efforts, raised more than $5,000, some of which went to replacing boards over windows with clear plastic. The city also contributed some funds for roof repair and a fence to keep out vandals.
The remainder of the club's money helped pay for an architectural study last year when the council was considering moving the structure, now on state and national registers of historical landmarks, to Signal Hill Park. The study indicated that the move could cost about $500,000 and that it would jeopardize the structure's historical designations.
Plans for the house were put on hold until recently, when the specter of razing it surfaced once again. Some of the structure's plastic windows have been knocked out and the interior is cluttered with crumbling plaster and wooden planks, which appear to have been ripped from the ceiling and floors.
At the council's request, Wharton inspected the house. "I couldn't in good conscience say it was going to fall in tomorrow," said Wharton, who then suggested that Manassas Park turn to the community and local businesses if it could not finance the repair work on its own.
As a result of Wharton's recommendation, the council put him in charge of setting up the historical society, which will be incorporated for tax and fund-raising purposes.
Wharton, who already is mapping a strategy for seeking financial support, says he is eager to get funds to at least stabilize the house's condition.
"We need to try to put a dream in front of everybody's eyes," he said, "and once they start dreaming, they will get involved."