The Leesburg Town Council voted unanimously Tuesday to expand the town's historic district to include the Paxton property east of Ida Lee Park, a move that severely hampers plans by trustees of the estate to demolish a Victorian manor and two stone outbuildings.
The trustees' plan, which they said was undertaken for financial reasons, has set off a fierce debate over how to best carry out the vision of philanthropist Rachel Paxton, who left her estate to help needy children after her death in 1922.
Conservationists, residents who live near Carlheim Manor and parents of children who attend the Paxton Child Development Center in other buildings on the property launched a "Save Paxton" campaign this spring to prevent the demolition. They said the manor was too historically significant to lose. Mayor Kristen C. Umstattd agreed.
"It will be my pleasure to try to protect this property, which has enormous historical significance," she said.
Paxton's inclusion in the historic district means that trustees would have to obtain a permit from the town's architectural review board to demolish any buildings, and they would not be allowed to begin demolition for one year. The trustees would be allowed, however, to sell the property to a buyer willing to preserve it.
The 32-room manor, built in the early 1870s, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Conservationists describe it as one of the few houses in the area reflecting architectural tastes in the years after the Civil War, when Virginia suffered economic ruin.
The trustees -- William B. Hanes, Basil DeLashmutt and Mary Lou Raymond -- have received several offers to buy the 16-acre property, said their attorney, Grayson P. Hanes. Hanes added that the property would be worth more if the manor and nearby outbuildings were destroyed, a contention that many people involved with "Save Paxton" dispute.
A private appraiser has valued the property at almost $2.5 million, Grayson Hanes said. If the manor were razed and the land could be developed, the property could be worth about $7.1 million. As part of the historic district, the value drops to about $945,000, Hanes said.
The trustees "have a fiduciary duty to obtain for the benefit of these children the highest price they can for this property," Hanes said. "To do that, they need to remove these buildings."
The trustees have said the Paxton Child Development Center, a nonprofit that offers preschool and kindergarten classes as well as day care, would close June 18. Hanes said that the center was considering how to redirect the trust's funds.
Rachel Paxton, the wife of a wealthy industrialist from Pennsylvania, said in her will that she wanted to establish a home for needy children in honor of her daughter. The Paxton Child Development Center allotted a limited number of places for disadvantaged children.
Opponents argue that demolishing the manor would go against the wishes of Paxton, who they say intended the manor to remain an integral part of the trust. They allege the trustees want to shift their mission to focus on issuing grants and scholarships.
"It's a laudable aim, but I don't think it's consistent with what Mrs. Paxton would want," said Scott Billigmeier, who lives near the manor and has been a part of the Save Paxton campaign, which says it includes 200 families.
Hanes, however, said a circuit court ruled in 1954 that the trustees had the authority to make whatever decisions would best aid the children who were the beneficiaries of the trust.
Brian Rolston, a Save Paxton organizer, said one of the larger issues in the debate over the property is the future of the region. Too many historic properties already have been razed over the years, he said.
"I see this as a huge problem for Loudoun County that the town of Leesburg could be losing something that is very cherished," Rolston said. "Folks need to say, 'This isn't right anymore.' "
The Town Council vote was 6 to 0, with member J. Frank Buttery Jr. absent.