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Keeping It Old School

Oakton school site may qualify as historic.

Plans for the former site of the Oakton schoolhouse and Appalachian Outfitters may change once again.

In 2003, owner Daniel Couch sold the 1-acre property, also referred to as the crossroads site because of its location at the crossroads of Chain Bridge Hunter Mill roads, to Chevy Chase Bank. The plan was to tear down the two store structures built in the 1930s, move the century-old schoolhouse to a nearby park and build a Chevy Chase branch in its place.

But since Chevy Chase Bank is a federally chartered bank, it had to go through a Section 106 process, part of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 that requires federal agencies take into account the effects their actions might have on historic properties.

As part of the process, Chevy Chase hired historical preservation consultants John Milner Associates to examine the eligibility of the site. The report John Milner Associates drew up in late July, which said the site was not eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, went to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources for review.

But Historic Resources determined that although two of the three buildings on the parcel were not individually eligible for National Register listing, all three contribute to a historic district at the Crossroads site.

"All three buildings on the parcel have therefore been identified as historic properties for the purposes of Section 106 and their demolition would result in an adverse effect," wrote architectural historian Kristin Hill in a letter to the Office of Thrift Supervision dated Friday, Aug. 5.

"(Historic Resources) feels like this district represents an intact fragment of early 20th century life in Fairfax County," wrote Hill. John Milner Associates must revise and clarify its draft report before any further decisions can be made, she said.

"Hopefully, we’ve reached the end of the identification step," said Hill. "We’ve made our own recommendations about eligibility. The next move really comes from the Office of Thrift Supervision. At this point, the federal agency really needs to decide how they want to proceed."

The process is still in its beginning stages, she said.

Kirstin Falk of John Milner Associates also stressed that nothing is finalized in the Section 106 process, and that "there were a couple of things that were incorrect in the (Historic Resources) letter."

Still, the Historic Resources determination means that Chevy Chase may have to look at some other options for the crossroads site, said Dan Sponn of the Hunter Mill Defense League.

"If the agency wants to keep it, they have to look at ways to mitigate the adverse effects," said Hill. "Could they rehabilitate one or two of the buildings, and use them for the bank or something like that? I know some local citizens want to move the schoolhouse to the park."

"Chevy Chase could also come up with a preservation solution," said Sponn. "It could keep the bank function and preserve some of the history of the buildings. It is one of the many options that need to be explored. They’re obligated to do that under the National Historic Preservation Act."

THIS OPTION, proposed by The West Group and approved by the Fairfax County Park Authority, would be to move the schoolhouse to what is now called Oakton Community Park, said Bob Adams of the Friends of the Oakton Schoolhouse.

"We have done a significant amount of fund raising, in terms of getting pledges, monetary and services pledges, of well over $500,000," said Adams. "We have essentially identified people who will move the schoolhouse and restore it to the condition where it approximates the look the schoolhouse had in the 1890s."

"(Chevy Chase Bank) could decide just to walk away from the site, in which case the property would go back to the Couch family," said Hill.

In that case, said Jeannie Couch, daughter-in-law of the former owner, a number of people have expressed interested in matching the price Chevy Chase would pay for the property. Some of these people were interested in restoring the buildings, she said.

Couch herself has a personal tie to the property, having met her husband at the Appalachian Outfitters store over 20 years ago. On the window of the abandoned store, she posted a sign offering Appalachian Outfitters T-shirts. Two years after the store closed, said Couch, she still gets calls from people interested in the T-shirts.

"I am optimistic we’ll be able to have a sense of history preserved there on that corner," said Sponn.