Oakton's old schoolhouse, which has been standing guard at the corner of Route 123 and Hunter Mill Road for 107 years, may get a new home. The county is considering moving the building, which housed the Appalachian Outfitters store until last year, a quarter-mile up Hunter Mill Road to the site of the planned Corbalis Park.
The county's proposal comes at a time when the site's owner — Winchester, Va., resident Daniel Couch — is considering selling the land.
In 1968, Couch started Appalachian Outfitters as a way to help Boy Scout troops find equipment. He rented a counter from a hardware store that was then housed in the old school building, before taking over the entire building and a neighboring one in the early 1970s. In 1995, he sold the business but retained ownership of the land. The store has been closed since the new owner declared bankruptcy in October.
"It broke [Daniel Couch's] heart, and it broke our heart, because any of us would have been willing to help [the new owner] in a heartbeat," said Jeannie Couch, the original owner's daughter-in-law. Jeannie Couch stated working at the store when she was 18 in 1972. After a little while, she started dating the manager, Daniel Couch's son. The two married and today live in Gainesville.
WHEN PEOPLE in the community heard the site was for sale, they approached Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence) to ask her to find a way to save the building. Smyth said she is working with local builders and developers, including West*Group, to see whether any of them would be willing to donate their services in moving the building.
"Frankly, the development community needs to be doing outreach with the community," she said. "It's not just a matter of moving the school, it's a matter of what happens once we get it located there on the Corbalis property."
Couch said she and her father-in-law support moving the building in order to save it. The building is in good shape and would probably survive the move, she said.
"We would like to preserve the schoolhouse one way or another," said George Lehnigk, who runs the citizen group Options for Oakton. "Our strong preference is to have it saved at its current location; however, if that turns out not to be feasible, then we would obviously also endorse saving it at a related site, possibly the Corbalis Park."
It seems unlikely that the property's new owner would be willing to preserve the schoolhouse. The site is located in the very center of downtown Oakton and was assessed last year at $1,156,330. It is zoned for office use.
Jeannie Couch said her father-in-law has been in negotiations with potential buyers.
"We're looking at maybe another boring bank or something," she said.
Although the building is on the county's list of historic sites, there is nothing the county can do to force the new owner of the site to preserve the building, said Smyth.
"Here in Virginia when we start talking historic, we think 18th century, and nobody pays a whole lot of attention to something that is late 19th and early 20th century."
Also, she added, the schoolhouse could get in the way of the county's transportation plans.
"I'm not sure exactly what the county plans are for [Route] 123, but the schoolhouse isn't all that far from the road, which is one of the other reasons why moving it might make more sense."
Bob Adams, an Oakton resident who serves on the Transportation Advisory Commission, said the school would not be saved unless citizens come to an April 19 meeting to support moving the building.
"It would be really sad if the community misses this opportunity," he said.
THE SCHOOLHOUSE was built in 1897 and was first enlarged in 1914. It served as a school until the early 1920s, when it was converted to apartments. Sometime after World War II, it became a hardware store, before Couch converted it into the Appalachian Outfitters in 1968.
"It's a good type building as far as I know and certainly authentic," said Mayo Stuntz, a member of the Fairfax County Historical Commission, who has written a book on Oakton history. "It probably housed the first seven grades."
Over the years, the building's owners built additions, so that today the original building is almost completely encased. A blackboard still hangs behind shelves that used to hold hiking and camping gear.
Couch said she was planning to have a sale sometime in the next few months to liquidate the store's leftover inventory.