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A Truckload of History

Historic Oakton Schoolhouse moves up Hunter Mill to new park property.

After 110 years of sitting at the corner of Hunter Mill and Chain Bridge roads while Oakton grew up around it, the Oakton Schoolhouse was moved early Sunday morning to a plot of land a few hundred yards north.

The other old buildings on the site, as well as the additions that had been built onto the schoolhouse over the years, were demolished in the weeks prior, and the original section of the school had already been lifted onto a huge flatbed a few days beforehand.

Before the sun rose at about 7 a.m. on Sunday, 50 people or so had gathered at the corner, mainly community activists and curious neighbors. As the schoolhouse was pulled down a short stretch of Hunter Mill Road, which had been closed to traffic, the crowd followed along snapping pictures, some using tripods and others cell phones.

"It's a great day," said Kevin Couch, whose father, Dan, had owned the corner where the schoolhouse sat. He said he was glad to see the schoolhouse saved from demolition. "We wanted to have Payne's market preserved also, but I guess the county decided it wasn't as important to keep."

FOR ABOUT 25 years, Dan Couch ran the camping store Appalachian Outfitters out of the buildings which sat on the site — the expanded schoolhouse, a two-story building that had once been Payne's General Store, and a tiny residential building. In 1995, he sold the business but retained the property, leasing it to the new business owners until the company shut down in 2004, said Kevin Couch.

Many people in the community, including members of the citizens' group Hunter Mill Defense League and the now-defunct Options for Oakton, had expressed a desire to see at least the schoolhouse preserved on-site. However, Providence District Supervisor Linda Smyth said on Sunday, "The problem was that we didn't have anyone coming forward to say they had an adaptive reuse for it."

Chevy Chase Bank bought the property shortly after it was put up for sale. Most companies could have bought the property, knocked down the buildings and developed by right. However, because a bank is a federal institution, Chevy Chase was required, under the National Historic Preservation Act, to consider any possible way to mitigate the impact of its development on the buildings, which were deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The bank insisted that it would be impossible to construct a branch while leaving any of the buildings on the site, so it offered to move the schoolhouse.

Smyth and Bob Adams, an Oakton resident and the head of the group Friends of Oakton Schoolhouse, estimated that Chevy Chase ultimately ended up promising about $750,000 for the relocation and restoration of the building and for work on the future park where it was moved.

"I keep thinking, only a bank could have afforded to do this," said Smyth.

It took three years of meetings with the community, the Park Authority, and the county's Planning and History commissions, as well as negotiations with Chevy Chase, to bring about the move, said Adams. Of the bank, he said, "The nice thing about them, they were really easy to work with," noting that Chevy Chase had readily cooperated with requests regarding the move and the park.

THE PLANNED OAKTON PARK will be on about 10 acres of land near the intersection of Hunter Mill Road and Mystic Meadows Way. The land was purchased by the county from the Corbalis family, and the old family home will have to be demolished to make way for a foundation for the schoolhouse. Until then, the school will sit on blocks nearby.

Mike Rierson, resource stewardship manager for the county Park Authority, said the house will be torn down in the next month or two, and it will be a total of four to six months before the schoolhouse is in its new permanent location. After it's on a foundation, he said, restorations will begin, including restoring the roof to its original shape, rebuilding the small cupola that once sat on top and repairing the sides where the additions were built, to include replacing the windows that were removed.

At first, the building will be an "interpretive history" exhibit, said Adams, meaning park-goers will be able to observe the inside only from the outside. To open the building to the public and bring it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said, would be cost-prohibitive. "Hopefully, at some point in the future, we'll be able to put historic furniture inside," said Adams, adding that he hopes to open the schoolhouse on a limited basis and have docent tours offered. "But the money to do that is enormous, and it just couldn't be done at this time."

The schoolhouse was actually only a schoolhouse from 1897, when it was built, until 1912, shortly before the county began building high schools, said Rierson. The first addition, on the right side of the building, was added in 1904, and subsequent additions on the other side were added later. The former general store, he said, was built in the 1930s. The schoolhouse also functioned as a hardware store before Dan Couch took it over.

Kevin Couch's brother, Kenny, was particularly excited to see the schoolhouse moved. "It was the whole family's heartfelt wish that someone would grab hold of this and keep it," he said.