The birthplace of West Virginia, West Virginia Independence Hall is now a museum dedicated to the history of statehood and the Civil War. Located in downtown Wheeling, the three-story structure was built to be the federal custom house for the Western District of Virginia. The building also housed the post office and the federal district court.
In 1855, Ammi B. Young, supervising architect for the U.S. Treasury Department, designed the Wheeling Custom House in what he called the ‘‘Italian Palace’’ style, now often referred to as the Italian Renaissance Revival style. In an attempt to make government buildings fireproof and to encourage the American iron industry, Young’s plans called for an innovative structural system consisting of wrought iron floor beams and hollow wrought iron box girders supported on cast iron columns. Refinements to this structural system would later lead to the development of skyscrapers.
Construction began in September 1856, and the building opened in April 1859. On June 13, 1861, the Second Wheeling Convention began in the federal courtroom on the third story of the Custom House. This convention declared the Confederate state government in Richmond illegal; created a Reorganized Government of Virginia loyal to the United States; elected Francis Harrison Pierpont governor of Virginia; and called for the western counties to be formed into a new state. The legislature of the Reorganized Government met in the courtroom from July 1861 to June 1863, and the constitutional convention for the new state met there in late 1861 to early 1862. Governor Pierpont and other state officials used offices on the second floor of the Custom House from June 1861 to early 1864. Thus the Wheeling Custom House served as the capitol building for Reorganized Virginia, although it was never the capitol of West Virginia.
The Custom House remained a federal building until 1907, when a new federal building was completed. An insurance company purchased the structure and over time made many changes. An addition was built on the south end and a fourth floor was added. The variety of businesses located in the building while it was in private hands include a bank, liquor store, night club, and offices for the Hazel Atlas Glass Company.
In 1964, the state purchased the building and leased it to the West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation for a dollar a year. The foundation raised funds to restore the public areas to their 1860 appearance. Original drawings from the National Archives were used to ensure the accuracy of the restoration work. In 1979, West Virginia Independence Hall was opened as a museum administered by the West Virginia Department (now Division) of Culture and History. Independence Hall was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Each year West Virginia Day is celebrated on June 20 with reenactments, music, speeches, and special programs.
Read the National Register nomination.
This Article was written by Gerry Reilly
Last Revised on May 06, 2013
Curry, Richard O. A House Divided: Statehood Politics & the Copperhead Movement in West Virginia. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964.
West Virginia Independence Hall. Wheeling: West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation, 2001.