Level it: Mill's glory days are over

REAL ESTATE- ON THE BLOCK- Level it: Mill's glory days are over

ADDRESS: Route 615

ASKING: $335,000

SIZE: Four story hydroelectric mill with 10 silos



CURB APPEAL: 0 out of a possible 10

LISTED BY: Ross Stevens of Stevens and Company 296-6104

Orange County seems to have slipped through the cracks of industrial or even residential growth. The town of Orange, on a sunshine-challenged Saturday, yawned in total boredom. At one stoplight, we took the opportunity to study a map. Not one soul honked as we sat blissfully unaware through a green light.

Surrounded as it is on all sides by palatial estates with huge swaths of English-aristocracy lawns, one can easily see why such a locale would lure landed gentry. Gently rolling hills bounce up and down and seem tailor-made for bourgeois pursuits like foxhunting and point to points. (Lest we forget our southern sensibilities, one particularly grand manse has the Gone with the Wind-y name of Somerset Plantation painted across the entranceway.)

Six miles past Orange, another grand structure appears– and it's eye-poppingly ugly. No shrinking violet, the Rapidan Mill commands huge space. Sandwiched between the road and the lovely, curvy Rapidan River, it must have been an impressive sight during its heyday.

But now it sits forlorn, dejected, and rejected (insert country love song chorus here) and in desperate need of a new owner with big bucks and an even bigger vision.

It's colossal– with 10 poured reinforced concrete silos, each four stories tall– and the imagination fairly crawls with all the vermin and varmints that probably inhabit the place now. A mourning dove cooed balefully from inside, adding to the melancholy atmosphere of so much dead space.

A long, narrow, and totally uninteresting brick building must have been the mill office in better times. With a slight push, the only visible door to the entire complex creaked open, and we gingerly peered inside.

"Uninviting" would barely cover our immediate impression. Soiled mattresses, beer cans, and flotsam (as well as various unmentionables) of another kind of vermin lay haphazardly strewn about. Unfortunately, the debris prevented us from entering, considering that we weren't covered head to toe in protective bio-hazard bodywear.

We quickly hastened back to the road and to a less spooky vantage point on the bridge. The county line runs right down the middle of the Rapidan, with Orange on one side and Culpeper on the other. (One assumes this helps eliminates any boundary issues.) A 200-foot concrete dam straddles the river here, and although it looks serviceable enough, it's probably no longer necessary.

The original gristmill on this property dates back to 1750. Ellen Donnelly, who runs the Mill House, a small museum across the street, says, "We don't know what that one looked like."

It burned down during the Civil War, and a new one soon went up. That also burned– in 1950– and what you see now is its successor. After continuing to function as a gristmill for much of central Virginia, it finally closed its doors in the early '70s. Now it stands, a Donnelly puts it, "derelict and an eyesore."

Pressed for details, Donnelly says she would prefer to see a restaurant and/or condos on the spot where her great great grandfather worked. When asked about resurrecting a replica of the original gristmill and turning it into a tourist attraction, Donnelly balks.

"We like having a country village," she says. A village with high-end condos in it.

Several websites have this property listed under "estates," which is undoubtedly somewhat misleading. True, the pictures look alluring– until one stands at the roadside and tries to conjure future uses for this behemoth. Folks at Stevens and Company help by offering, "It is adaptable to office use or such retail use or tenancy as a restaurant featuring fresh water fish, bass, trout, cat and rock fish (striped bass); an aquarium wall to display all four can be refrigerated by electricity produced by water power."

But why stop there? Dolphins, barracuda, even a whale or two could easily fit in here.

Alas, the glory days of Rapidan Mill are past. The kindest treatment for the old warhorse would probably be demolition. Of course, even that is easier said than done.