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Some spooked by town's Vesper Hall

By Carolyn Keister Baker - Daily Staff Writer

(Oct. 30, 2004) One might think a house called Vesper Hall -- meaning a place of evening prayer -- would be peaceful at twilight.

But, Harry C. and Verlyn Bounds, of Houston, spent a sleepless night at Vesper Hall in Strasburg and never want to stay there again.

The Texas couple came to visit friends, Barbara and Wayne Sullivan, who live in this grand but deteriorating mid-19th century Greek Revival house, located on the outskirts of Strasburg on Va. 55 near Interstate 81.

The Sullivans have lived in the pre-Civil War house for 16 years, and are proprietors of Country House Antiques, located in the house.
"We were up on vacation," Mrs. Bounds said of the sleepless, bewildering night. Harry Bounds, an avid Civil War buff, met the Sullivans through the antique business.

The stay at the house turned out to be more than the two bargained for.

Strange and mysterious things happened.

"No matter how close you got to the fire that night, the back of your neck was always cold," Mrs. Bounds said. "There was a presence in that room that shouldn't have been there.

"We felt like something was there, like we had company," Mrs. Bounds added.

Little wonder, the Boundses didn't sleep. The next morning, the couple, not knowing what to think, told the Sullivans their chilling tale.

"We had no inkling," said Mrs. Bounds, who was never told about the ghosts.

"We kind of wonder how they live with them," Bounds said.

The House

Vesper Hall was built around 1852 by Jacob Pifer. The exact date, however, is uncertain. Some accounts place the construction as late as the mid-1860s and its first occupant as Elijah Pifer, Jacob's son.

According to the Pifer family history, not long after the construction by Mennonites and slaves, the decorating of the house was interrupted by the Civil War, Mrs. Sullivan said. During that time, it is believed the house was used as a hospital to care for the injured and dying, she said.

When the war ended, the decorating of the house continued. William Rupp, a German, is believed to have painted the fresco in the parlor. The fresco has been described as "perhaps the most interesting display of decorative painting in the county," according to a Shenandoah County Historic Resources Survey.

By 1885, with its location opposite the Capon Road Depot of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the house was used as hotel, according to the documents from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

In 1924, Harry S. Williams, a telegraph operator and Pifer descendant, was tragically struck by a train during an accident near the old depot.

Williams was carrying mail sacks and turned back to get a package he had forgotten and was struck by an eastbound passenger train No. 52, according to a newspaper account. There were no witnesses to the accident, the article read.

Williams' funeral was held in Vesper Hall, and he was buried in the family cemetery on the estate.

A long line of Pifers and Pifer family descendants lived at Vesper Hall, the last being Katherine William Warrenfeltz, who died in 1980.

Warrenfeltz, the great-great-great granddaughter of the original owner, died in the house and lay near the top of the stairs on the second story for three days until she was discovered.

Mrs. Sullivan says her late calico cat, Spicy, would never walk in the spot where Warrenfeltz lay, but, instead, circled around it.

The Ghosts

A trip to Vesper Hall on a dreary day is a perfect time to talk of ghosts.

And, so it was on a recent afternoon. Clouds loomed overhead and rain dripped from leaves still hanging from trees surrounding this imposing house.

Explaining that Vesper Hall has not changed in more than 150 years, Mrs. Sullivan showed the house, pointing out the original floors, fireplaces, mantels and ornate fresco in the parlor.

Everywhere are antiques. Antique paintings, sofas, tables, rope beds and candelabras with dangling crystals -- all add to the ghostly atmosphere.

Because the house is difficult to heat with its large, long windows and 10-foot ceilings, the Sullivans use the working fireplaces to help warm the house.

While the Sullivans have worked to restore the house since they moved here 16 years ago, the house is no longer the showplace it once was. Paint is peeling from the trim and porches. When I-81 was built, just a stone's throw from the house, the plaster cracked in the parlor, ruining the fresco painted after the Civil War, she said.

Soon after the Sullivans moved into the house, owned by Strasburg Interstate Properties LLC, people who stopped by to look at antiques often asked Mrs. Sullivan: "Do you have ghosts in the house?"

"I don't think so," Mrs. Sullivan said she would reply.

Mrs. Sullivan said she feels uneasy talking about ghosts in the house.

But, unexplainable things did happen, most often at times when the Sullivans had company. The house had not been lived in for a decade, and Mrs. Sullivan said she wonders if the ghosts were unsettled by their moving in.

Mrs. Sullivan's 6-year-old grandson told his grandmother he saw a figure of a woman with long black hair in the upstairs hallway.

Her teenage grandson reportedly felt a hand around his shoulder.

And, her elderly mother-in-law believed she was taken by the arm and led back to her bedroom by a ghostly presence.

The only time Mrs. Sullivan felt she encountered a ghost was an evening when her friend was staying overnight, convalescing after surgery. Mrs. Sullivan heard footsteps on the second floor, she said. The steps sounded as though someone were walking in slippers, scuffling across the floor. The footsteps continued down the stairs, four of the six steps, and then disappeared, as if into the wall, she said.

Mrs. Sullivan asked her friend the next morning if she had risen from her bed. Her answer was "No."

Mrs. Sullivan insists the specters at Vesper Hall do no one harm. In fact, their presence is most often felt when someone is hurt or sick, Mrs. Sullivan said. "They are compassionate," she said.

Because her family soon became too frightened to stay at the house, Mrs. Sullivan said she finally asked the ghosts to leave. The family has not seen or heard from them since.

But, Mrs. Sullivan said she suspects the spirits may be stirred up again, unsettled by the news of construction plans.

Vesper Hall sits on property that Strasburg Interstate Properties LLC plans to develop for commercial purposes. The plans include construction of a convenience store, a hotel and other commercial businesses for Strasburg. Partners, Robert W. Claytor and Wayne Aikens, both of Winchester, plan to preserve an older log structure that sits near Vesper Hall, the original house of the Pifer family.

Maral Kalbian, an architectural historian, will conduct a study of Vesper Hall, said Claytor, a proponent of preservation. But, whether the walls and foundation of Vesper Hall are structurally sound and the house can be saved is uncertain, he said.

"I have been expecting a return," Mrs. Sullivan said.

* Contact Carolyn Baker at cbaker@nvdaily.com

Note: Reprinted from the Oct. 30, 2004 issue of The Northern Virginia Daily.

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