Last call at roadhouse: Bell tolls for ex-Washington club's 'dilapidated' building
WASHINGTON — In its day, Woody's Roadhouse was a musical mecca, booking acts like Foghat, Orleans and Bonnie Raitt.
Today, the Route 8 building sports yellow police tape and no-trespassing signs, its roofline a failed souffle.
A generation after its last show, it looks like last call once again, this time for the ramshackle structure itself. If officials in the town of Washington prevail in court, the last traces of the roadhouse, now seen as a roadside detraction, will be erased.
Last March, after snow collapsed a portion of the structure, Washington's fire chief gave owner Woodrow Witter 60 days to tear down the building.
Witter didn't comply. The town's Select Board and Board of Health followed up with a demolition order in June. Still getting no action, the town filed suit in Berkshire Superior Court.
"The property is dilapidated and dangerous and remains in a state of neglect and disrepair," the town said in a September filing. The roadhouse had been unfit for occupancy "for a period of years," it said.
"The immediate demolition or removal of the structure at the property is essential to protect the health and safety of the public," the town said. It asked the court to allow Washington to demolish the building, then place a lien to recover its costs, including the expense of bringing the suit.
In a handwritten reply, Witter, who is 83 and lives in Cheshire, took issue with town's facts. "The property is not dangerous," he wrote on a single sheet of lined paper, received by the court Oct. 23.
"This is not true," he wrote a few lines down, referring to the town's claim that the property, once known as Woody's House of Washington, is unfit for occupancy.
It was hardly the first time Witter disagreed with local officials. In the three decades he ran a business at 333 S. Washington Road, just north of the Washington Town Park, Witter jousted frequently with the town and his neighbors over club operations.
"The Roadhouse doesn't have a great reputation with officials," Witter said in an interview, speaking in the present tense of a business that closed in the late 1990s, after being cited yet again for serving alcohol to minors.
He added: "It certainly has a great reputation with people. That place was so good to me."
A few days before a Feb. 27 court hearing, a real estate broker persuaded the Washington Select Board to give Witter a little more time — until May 1 — to see if he can find a buyer. The town didn't have much to lose. Though the court case qualified for "fast track" status, the expected date of a judgment is September 2020.
Witter is now racing the clock to sell, after failing for nine months to comply with a demolition order from the town. The property is listed for sale at $130,000. Witter says he has a potential buyer — though not a purchase-and-sale agreement.
"It could be a bargain, if you knew what you were doing," Witter said of the property. "But a nightmare if you don't."
Craig Walton, a real estate agent with The Kinderhook Group, said he is in touch with a potential buyer.
"We're going to put a plan before the Select Board before the time expires," Walton said.
The proposal will not be for a bar, Walton said. But other than that, he's not aware of what the tentative buyer has in mind. The existing building might be razed.
Witter declined to identify his prospective buyer, except to say it is someone familiar with the history of the business.
The value of the site lies mainly in its location along Route 8, Walton said, just north of the Washington Town Park and across from Frost Road.
The question of what to do about the vacant roadhouse has occupied a regular place on the Select Board agenda under the shorthand "Woody's update."
Minutes show the board losing patience with Witter's promises and growing more concerned about liability. An official reminded Witter on Nov. 19 that the site is a nonconforming property and any building project would need Planning Board approval.
It hasn't helped Witter's relations with Washington that he owes thousands of dollars in property taxes. He says he stopped paying after the roof collapse. People began going into the old building and pulling out momentos.
"They stripped it pretty clean," he said.
Witter concedes that he should have sold the property long ago, but felt sentimental about it. He thinks the building and its 1.9-acre lot might once have fetched $400,000 or more. Now, it is a distressed property in need of rescue.
"I had a real attachment to the building," Witter said of the roadhouse. "It was a bad mistake. I should have sold it. No good reason to hang onto it, but I did."
On that, his broker agrees.
"Yes, he should have," Walton said, when asked if Witter should have cut the cord long ago.
In its prime, Woody's Roadhouse hosted nationally known performers like the Cars, NRBQ, Blue Oyster Cult and many others.
It was famous and infamous. Loyalists would crowd town meetings after officials brought the hammer down following violations of one sort or another. After a flare-up in 1980 over a complaint that the club served five underage patrons, the leader of the county's March of Dimes chapter came to offer a reference for Witter, who had held fundraisers for the group.
But not everyone was a fan. Neighbors griped about noise and unruly customers. They objected to plans in 1986 to host a revue of male strippers, a show later upheld by a local judge.
Who disliked it? Witter is asked.
"The parents of the kids who went there," he said.
Though Witter says he's sentimental about the place, some roadhouse moments were grim for him personally.
In January 1988, he was convicted of setting a fire in the building's attic and spent time in jail. A notecard filed in Berkshire Superior Court puts the consequences in stark terms: "Sentence imposed: 2 years, hard labor, House of Correction." The judge suspended the second year, and with 400 hours of community service at Hancock Shaker Village, Witter was out early. No one was injured in the fire, which did relatively minor damage.
Witter had pleaded not guilty, but is denying it no longer.
"I did set the fire. There was no reason to do it," he said. Money wasn't the motive for the arson, he insists. "I never needed money, but I've been broke three times, big time."
Another setback came earlier, when the state lifted the legal drinking age to 19, then 21. Witter estimated at the time, in the late 1970s, that 70 percent of his patrons were ages 18 to 21.
In 1980, in response to complaints, the town ordered a uniformed officer to be posted at the club. Officials at one point ordered him to close up at 1 a.m. instead of 2 a.m. because of problems. Years later, according to archived news stories, supporters went back to have the lost hour restored.
Money problems were ever-present. In 1990, the club was seized by the Department of Revenue for nonpayment of a variety of taxes and its locks changed. But in time, the place bounced back.
Witter saw slow times as well, including the spell when he shifted to a country western theme and changed the club's name to Roadhouse. Though the name held, the country genre didn't.
"When I say a flop, I mean a flop," Witter said. "When you listen to country, it's kind of gloomy."
For a brief time he adopted the name Woody Guthrie's Roadhouse. After hearing that the Guthrie family wasn't happy, he blacked out their last name on a sign.
In a 1982 interview with The Eagle, Arlo Guthrie — a town of Washington neighbor — called Witter's use of Woody Guthrie's name a rather clever publicity stunt.
The end came when the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission accused the roadhouse one last time of serving underage customers. Witter tried to mount an appeal but lost.
More than 20 years after the music died, Witter looks on the bright side.
"When it finally caught hold, I was running three days a week," he said. "It was a colorful time. I had a good 30 years there."
Asked what odds he gives for a sale coming through, Witter is philosophical: "It should sell, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it."
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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