With the sale of the Appalachian Outfitters site in Oakton looming, community groups are racing to save a historic schoolhouse encased in one of the property's deteriorating structures.
Longtime owner Dan Couch has signed a contract to sell the one-acre landmark, with its three brown, rambling buildings, to Chevy Chase Bank. Appalachian Outfitters, a wilderness supply store at the heavily traveled intersection of Route 123 (Chain Bridge Road) and Hunter Mill Road that once attracted outdoors enthusiasts from throughout the region, closed last year after more than 30 years in operation.
Chevy Chase Bank has applied for a zoning exemption from Fairfax County that would allow it to build a 3,700-square-foot branch and two drive-in ATMs on the property near the Oakton Shopping Center. Couch said the sale is contingent on the bank receiving the zoning exemption. The application will be considered by the county Planning Commission before it goes to the Board of Supervisors. A ruling is likely within a few months.
In the meantime, neighborhood groups are scrambling to determine whether they can save the 107-year-old schoolhouse, one of Oakton's first elementary schools, that is embedded in one of the Appalachian Outfitters buildings.
The wood building was a hardware store from the early 1900s until the early 1970s, when Couch bought the site and opened Appalachian Outfitters.
Inside the structure are vestiges of the one-room schoolhouse, which children from the quiet farming village of Oakton attended from 1897 until the early 1900s.
Three of the school's exterior walls -- made of wide white planks -- are visible inside, as is the original blackboard, although it has been painted over. The pine floor and ceiling are original, as are most of the wallboards and the window frames, say community groups and historians who have examined the site.
"They literally built around it," said Bob Adams, president of Friends of Oakton Schoolhouse, a group that is trying to save the structure.
The Appalachian Outfitters buildings, unused for the past year, have begun to disintegrate, and community groups fear they don't have much longer to save the schoolhouse. Supporters of the project say that the building is a key piece of Oakton's history and that it would be a tragedy to lose the school.
"We're trying our best to save the building," said Jody Bennett, a member of the Hunter Mill Defense League, a civic group that monitors development along Hunter Mill Road. "We don't want it to go into the dumpster."
Couch said he supports the efforts and probably will contribute to the cause when the sale goes through. "We have the right to just tear it down -- no questions asked," he said. "But, of course, we would not do that if there was any use" for the property.
At the request of Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), West*Group, a Tysons Corner developer with some expertise in moving historic structures, agreed to fund an architectural analysis to see if the building is in good enough shape to be moved. The survey was just completed, and supporters of the project are awaiting the report.
If the report says the structure can be safely moved, Friends of the Oakton Schoolhouse plans to ask the county Park Authority's board to approve moving the building to a 10-acre park area the county purchased several years ago, about a quarter-mile up Hunter Mill Road.
Then would come the hard part, they say: raising an estimated $150,000 to move and restore the building. Supporters envision refurbishing the structure to make it look like it did in the 1890s, so county residents could see a slice of life from a bygone era.
But some people have questioned the wisdom of spending so much money to move the building. Others say they prefer that it stay where it is.
Jeannette Twomey, president of the Hunter Mill Defense League, said relocating the structure might hurt the league's efforts to have the Hunter Mill corridor declared a historic landmark.
"Preserving it in the corridor somewhere was definitely a low second choice for us," she said. Nevertheless, she said, moving it was a better option than razing it.