Properties in limbo
e Town of Washington’s powers of reinvention, on regular display by the Inn at Little Washington, are legendary. But a mix of town structures – some owned by the the county, others by investors or individual – have been stranded in a limbo zone, awaiting investment, renovation and the glimmer of some new purpose. Real estate professionals warn that the longer such buildings sit empty, the faster they lose value. Here are 10 town wallflowers, about which residents naturally wonder what’s next. the 1920s as an apple packing facility, it has since been used as a business o ce, a shop for furnituremaker Peter Kramer, a showroom for antiques, a photography gallery, an o ce for RAAC, a home for the Washington Thri store, a studio for painter Kevin Adams, a gallery for the “Six Pack” artists’ group, and a video rental called Cinema Paradiso. The parade of shi ing identities may be approaching its conclusion as the building slides into terminal neglect. A er a pipe sprung a leak last year, forcing a temporary shutdown of town water, o cials have informally raised the idea of razing the Packing Shed.
► Empty brick ranch house:
Downhill from the Packing Shed and facing Main Street stands an unassuming brick ranch house that has been maintained, but sits empty.
► First Washington Museum:
The structure at the corner of Porter and Main streets, owned by Abdo, is awaiting a new life. Abdo, whose ambitious 2014 rejuvenation plans ignited one of the county’s least civil debates, owns the structure along with several others in town. He has lowered his local pro le to the point of invisibility, o ering only vague suggestions of how he might bring the building back to life.
► e tiny o ce building on Gay Street. Built in 1857 to serve as a law o ce, the free-standing, woodframed work cubicle has been used by Commonwealth Attorneys, private lawyers, the County Extension O ce, the Home Demonstration Agent’s o ce, and the County Administrator. It’s no one’s o ce now, and sits jammed with boxes and papers.
► Kramer building: The building housed Tula’s, the popular eatery and bar, and is owned by Rob and Christine Bangert Grey, who own Whippoorwill Farm on Piedmont Avenue. The Greys have refurbished the lobby and upstairs of 311 Gay St., where Tula’s was located, but haven’t revealed plans for the restaurant itself.
► Warren Avenue pair of vacant houses: Visitors approaching Washington from the eastern Warren Street entrance see the newly
constructed and landscaped post office along with a pair of empty and dilapidated private houses. Catlin says the structures are “in desperate need of restoration,” but no one expects a solution any time soon.
► The former Rappahannock News building on Main Street: Also owned by Jim Abdo, the town has only a preliminary site plan for this commercially-zoned building, but its next use isn’t known.
The Covid lockdown and its impacts contributed to a number of buildings being stuck in limbo. Zuschlag points to a menu of problems inhibiting developers and investors: waves of workers leaving the workforce, building materials snarled up in supply-chain tangles, and rising interest rates in the face of pervasive inflation. “Right now isn’t the time to start big projects or ambitious projects,” he concluded.
However, on the residential side, Covid has actually propelled investments. Three years ago, David Pennington, now a psychotherapist, and Seth Turner, a real estate broker, set out from Washington, D.C., to explore a possible weekend retreat in Rappahannock County, where they had a few friends. They landed on a vacant — and significantly compromised — house at 41 Harris Hollow Rd., with an intact guest house in the back. Covid hit, and the two — both in their 30s — decided to live mainly in Rappahannock County and invest in rejuvenating the entire property they’d bought. “There are nice people, good art, good food and good drink,” said Pennington.
The main house on their Washington property had water in the living room, more water in the basement, a roof needing replacement, a ruined electrical system and a long-cold heating apparatus. The community ties and congenial ambience kept the rehabilitation from becoming a nightmare for its new owners, whose affection for their new home only increased. When Pennington and Turner planned their marriage in October 2022, they opted to hold the ceremony at Washington’s Trinity Episcopal Church, where Turner is now a regular reader.
The experience demonstrates the town’s appeal to young remote workers, who, in this case, faced the ruinous condition of a long-vacant structure. But
business investments, or the renovation of county-owned buildings like the jail or the old theater, aren’t as simple as residential makeovers like the one that transformed 41 Harris Hollow Rd. There, the rehabilitation was the result of two people seeking an address in a location they hoped to inhabit. In contrast, a new business or arts center needs to capture the public imagination, then draw in customers by offering experiences people have reason to value. An owner’s excitement isn’t enough to assure success.
Alexander Neill-Dore, who manages a tightly scheduled home-building and renovation business, is waiting for the commercial activity to catch up with the rehabilitated homes. “For a town with such allure for so many people, it’s odd that there are so many places that are vacant,” he said, adding that as a county resident himself, he’d enjoy another restaurant and coffee shop that he and his girlfriend might frequent on evenings and weekends.
Washington’s various boosters recognize that despite the retirees and remote workers, the town’s population has dropped to just over 100 from a high of 300 in 1900 — a shift duly noted by potential business owners. A more encouraging sign is the local workforce of some 250 people employed by the county’s administrative offices along with the Inn and other businesses in the hospitality sector. Few could afford to live in the town, but if there were more diversions and eateries, they might spend more time and money there. This, at least, will be the case that Mayor Whited says he will make as he meets in coming months with the existing and prospective business community of Washington.