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Proposed Demolition Ignites Outrage

Supporters of the "yellow house" line up to voice opposition to funeral home's plans to demolish property.

From 1984 until 1988, Valerie Winstead, of Herndon, lived at the yellow house at 719 Elden Street. Monday night, Winstead lent her voice to those who are fighting to keep the Elden Street landmark away from the wrecking ball. "I can't believe we would ever even think of tearing this house down," Winstead said, in her plea to a mostly sympathetic Heritage Preservation Review Board (HPRB). "We need to be a lot more creative in our plans for this structure. I don't know why it has to come down. It's a beautiful little house."

The owner of the Adams-Green Funeral Home on Elden Street met with strong public opposition from concerned citizens like Winstead to his plan to demolish the vacant yellow house behind the funeral home along the W&OD Trail during a public hearing Monday night.

In a marathon meeting before the town's HPRB, a hearing that ended well after midnight, citizens pleaded with an already skeptical board to deny the demolition application.

At the request of the applicant, Chris Adams, the application was ultimately deferred until the February HPRB meeting, but not before the owner and his lawyer heard from nearly 15 angry citizens and answered questions from seven skeptical board members.

The structure, known more commonly as "the yellow house," was built in 1874 and once housed the Herndon School and the Fortnightly Club library, according to the Historic District/Brief Survey Form. The house has been vacant for nearly 18 months, according to Benjamin Lay, a Leesburg lawyer representing Adams-Green during Monday's hearing.

"WE KNOW it is a very sentimental structure," Lay said, but he added that the yellow house "does not fit into the site or the needs of this funeral home."

Saying that Adams-Green was struggling to keep up with the funeral home conglomerates that dominate the area and the industry, Lay said his clients needed to raze the yellow house to increase the size of their existing parking lot. "We need to modernize and we are already 40 percent below industry standards," Lay said, calling parking the most 'chronic' problem facing his client. "We don't want to worry about fights or accidents between family members in the parking lot on the worst day of their lives."

Pressed to back up their claim of accidents, Adams said they were aware of two accidents since he took over in 2000. He added that his funeral home performs approximately 10 funerals per month.

Calling the yellow house, "obsolete and unusable," Lay went on to say that his client, who purchased the property in 2000, did not want to move out of downtown Herndon. Adams acknowledged that he was aware of the Herndon Heritage Preservation District when he purchased the two properties, and he told the board that "it was not my intention at the time I purchased it [to demolish] the yellow house."

Board member Anne Ballengee questioned the applicant about using the yellow house for auxiliary office functions. Lay quickly dismissed that idea, saying it wasn't feasible. "I don't think anyone wants to have to cart corpses across the parking lot."

Most board members seemed unconvinced at the funeral home's arguments. "Out of respect for this community, we owe it the citizens to stand firm and save this historic house," board member Elizabeth O'Brien said. "Once this house is gone, the house is gone."

Monroe Street resident Robert Burke said he and his wife had renovated three similar homes, which were in worse shape than the yellow house. "This goes to the heart of the Heritage Preservation ordinance," Burke said. "This decision should not be taken lightly. We will lose a big part of our historic charm if this house is torn down for a parking lot."

Janet Moore agreed. "This is an important piece of architectural history. The Prinz house was lost forever only to be replaced by a brick box," she said. "We are here tonight, facing another loss if this demolition application is approved. If we lose the visual history of Herndon, we lose much of what makes us so special. What's next? Do we move down Elden Street?"

One of the applicant's arguments for demolition was based on similar homes which have been razed including homes at 700 Lynn Street and the "Prinz" house at 727 Elden Street.

O'Brien, and many others disputed this logic. "The fact that they gave us a list [of other demolished homes] doesn't help their case," the board member said. "We don't want the list to get any longer."

IN THEIR REPORT to the board, the applicant stated that because the structure is set back from Elden Street, the demolition of it would not affect the visual change to downtown. "It is partially obscured from view because of shrubs on the W&OD Trail," it read, adding that it is the main funeral home that occupies the "commanding point in the downtown Herndon corridor."

Many speakers objected to these arguments, insisting that the yellow house represented a "gateway" into town. Pat Voltmer said she first discovered Herndon by riding down the trail some 20 years ago. "It is important to maintain the town's architectural integrity and history," she said. "This house sits on the W&OD and I know I can see it from downtown and I wouldn't want to change the view to a parking lot."