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Architects and Architecture


When West Virginia legislators first met in 1863, they appointed a committee to oversee the design of a state seal. According to the written description, one side depicts ‘‘A cultivated slope with the log farmhouse peculiar to this region.’’ Peculiar to this region or not, log houses were certainly the prevalent building type from the earliest days of settlement until long afterward.

Logs weren’t used only for houses. In July 1788, Francis Asbury wrote in his diary that he ‘‘had large congregations at Rehoboth Now a lovingly preserved Methodist shrine, this small log church still stands, covered with a protective canopy, in Monroe County.

Log buildings ranged from the simple to the elaborate. Some were constructed from written specifications that might even include directions regarding the type of notching. Log construction persisted for many years in isolated parts of the state, as evidenced in 1872 in McDowell County, when commissioners ordered that a new courthouse, the county’s second, be of log construction. Throughout the state, log buildings remain in excellent condition today, many covered from the beginning with clapboards.

Sawmills, brickyards, and quarries provided other building materials. In 1798, a visitor to Wheeling described Moses Shepherd’s new dwelling as ‘‘one of the best built and handsomest stone houses . . . on this side of the mountains.’’ With its graceful Georgian proportions and finely crafted details, Shepherd Hall or Monument Place, as it came to be called, would have been at home on either side of the mountains. It stood on the same site where Moses’s father had built a log stockade, Fort Shepherd, a few decades before. Old Stone Church in Lewisburg, another late 18th-century building, tells eloquently of its significance by its very name.

By this time Samuel Washington had already built his own stone mansion, Harewood, in the Eastern Panhandle. In 1794 its beautifully paneled walls witnessed the wedding of Dolley Payne Todd and James Madison. Early in the 19th century, other Washington family members built even larger houses, of brick, near Harewood on tracts that a teenaged George Washington had originally surveyed for Lord Fairfax. Blakeley and Claymont Court still stand across from each other on the meandering Bullskin Run in Jefferson County.

Far to the south, mineral springs in Greenbrier and Monroe counties were already attracting visitors in the early 1800s. As at Berkeley Springs, health and pleasure seekers were first housed in log structures. By 1840 the management at Sweet Springs opened a new hostelry so attractive that its design has often been attributed to Thomas Jefferson, even though it was built after his death. As it turns out, William B. Phillips, one of the talented builders at Jefferson’s University of Virginia, designed and built the hotel which still stands. Sweet Springs was soon eclipsed by the phenomenal Grand Central Hotel at nearby White Sulphur.

Just before the Civil War, the state of Virginia began construction of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum at Weston. When the hospital’s main building was finally completed in 1880, its proponents bragged that it was the largest cut-stone building in the United States. No longer used as a hospital, the sprawling building still dominates its environs.

The Weston hospital was designed by Richard Snowden Andrews, a Baltimore architect, but other antebellum institutions looked westward for their architects. Cincinnati’s James Keys Wilson provided Alexander Campbell with a Gothic Revival design for Bethany College in Brooke County. Begun in 1858 and completed in 1871, Old Main was a remarkable achievement for its time and place. It remains the centerpiece of one of America’s most idyllic campuses.

Far to the east, the U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry was not so idyllic, certainly not in October 1859 when John Brown attempted to seize it. His so-called ‘‘fort,’’ the brick fire-engine house where he was captured, has been moved and rebuilt no fewer than four times, testament to its status as a shrine. Brown’s action helped precipitate events that led to the formation of West Virginia, and some of these took place in another structure that the federal government had recently built. Wheeling’s post office and custom house, a stone Renaissance Revival building, soon came to play a far more important role than architect Ammi B. Young could have anticipated, when it housed delegates who met in 1861 to create the new state. Now handsomely restored, it is known as West Virginia Independence Hall.

Another architectural testament to the separation of one state from the other lies close by. Cast-iron fronts of the List Building were fabricated in Wheeling, but at different times, since the building was erected in several stages. The base of one pilaster is labeled ‘‘Sweeneys & Co. Wheeling. Va.,’’ while the base of the adjoining pilaster bears the label ‘‘Sweeney & Son. Wheeling W.Va.’’

Wheeling could build almost anything, thanks in great measure to its talented cadre of German craftsmen and builders. Known as the Nail City, it also became famous for its pressed, stamped-metal ‘‘Wheeling Ceilings.’’ Rows and rows of townhouses still exist in Wheeling, the only city of any real urban character when West Virginia was created.

Three of the new state’s first priorities were to provide for a state university, a state penitentiary, and to decide where to locate the capital. After alternating between Wheeling and Charleston, the latter city was finally selected as the permanent seat of government, and it soon began to grow accordingly. Charleston’s 1870s Kanawha Presbyterian Church was designed by another Cincinnati architect, M. E. Anderson, and its interior is lit by richly colored stained-glass windows by Tiffany.

West Virginia University, located in Morgantown, has grown over the years to become a fascinating architectural amalgam. One of the earliest architects associated with the university was Elmer Forrest Jacobs, who also embellished Morgantown with some of its finest Victorian-era mansions and commercial structures. Jacobs was the first, and for many years the only, West Virginia member of the American Institute of Architects.

The original architect for the State Penitentiary, a grim, foreboding Gothic pile at Moundsville, is believed to have been Joseph Sinclair Fairfax. At the turn of the 20th century, Wheeling architects Franzheim and Giesey designed a huge addition. Ironically, West Virginia’s state motto, Montani Semper Liberi, which translates as ‘‘Mountaineers [are] always free,’’ appears high above the prison’s battlemented entrance.

Edward Bates Franzheim, Millard F. Giesey, and their sometime partner Frederic F. Faris, were the state’s leading architectural triumvirate for many years. Though their work centered in the Wheeling area, they designed a courthouse for Mineral County, and did several buildings at the turn of the century in Marion County’s overnight oil boomtown, Mannington.

Parkersburg, a city that had already grown rich on oil, was large enough to have its own architects. Parkersburg’s Juliana and Ann streets contain the state’s most concentrated grouping of Italianate, Second Empire, and Queen Anne mansions, all typical of upscale Victorian- era design. Many were designed by Richard H. Adair and William Howe Patton. H. Rus Warne, a Parkersburg native, practiced in his hometown only briefly before moving to Charleston. He became one of the state’s most important early 20th-century architects, and founded a firm that still exists. Two of his most interesting and unusual commissions were for the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, held in Norfolk, Virginia. His colonial-revival West Virginia Building remains standing there, but his ‘‘Coal Column,’’ an obelisk constructed of coal from 19 different West Virginia seams, is gone.

Huntington, Collis P. Huntington’s planned town on the Ohio at the western terminus of his Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, became headquarters for many coal companies with the development of the southern coalfields. Its downtown skyline grew tall, and Fifth Avenue became a street of churches, where Gothic towers share honors with Romanesque arches and Ionic porticos.

With coal came the company town, the most maligned and most misunderstood category of West Virginia architecture. Castigated as monotonous, poorly constructed, and horribly located, some company towns were all of the above. Others were model communities. At Gary, in McDowell County, the U.S. Coal and Coke Company maintained an in-house staff of architects and engineers who, among other duties, designed houses, churches, stores, and even baseball diamonds. No matter that the drawing of an onion dome for a proposed eastern Orthodox Church appears more like something from Vidalia than from Muscovy, the company tried earnestly to provide its work force with amenities far beyond basic requirements.

Many coal-company owners lived outside the state, and built palatial houses elsewhere with their West Virginia profits. One who stayed home was James E. Watson, who built High Gate in Fairmont. The state’s most remarkable Tudor Revival mansion, it was designed by Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer. Bluefield architect Alex B. Mahood, trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, designed mansions for magnates of the southern coalfields, and embellished Bluefield’s residential districts with some of the grandest Georgian Revival houses in the state. Bluefield is also home to a small building that is among West Virginia’s architectural jewels. Sacred Heart Church is one of several projects during the 1920s that resulted from the inspired partnership of John J. Swint, Roman Catholic Bishop of West Virginia, and Edward J. Weber, architect of Pittsburgh. Wheeling’s St. Joseph Cathedral, a magnificent stone edifice that takes its architectural cues from Lombard Romanesque churches of medieval Italy, is the capstone of their remarkable collaboration.

The Depression of the 1930s hit West Virginia hard. Yet, some of our most significant and important buildings were products of this pivotal decade. Cass Gilbert’s magnificent State Capitol in Charleston had been started in 1924, but was not completed until 1932. Its main wing follows the architectural pattern established by the U.S. Capitol, though its gilded dome rises five feet higher. Next door is the Executive Mansion, designed by Charleston architect Walter F. Martens.

With Eleanor Roosevelt’s encouragement, the nation’s first subsistence homestead project was created in West Virginia. The federal government purchased the Arthur family farm in Preston County. A number of houses, all with enough land for a vegetable garden, are still occupied by the families for whom they were built. Two other West Virginia communities were created under the same auspices, Eleanor in Putnam County and Tygart Valley Homesteads at Dailey in Randolph County.

Also during the Depression, a number of state parks were developed, with design assistance from the National Park Service and building assistance from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Log cabins, concession stands, picnic pavilions, stables, and other structures reflected the rustic flavor then deemed appropriate for park design. Pioneers of the olden days would have deplored the round logs, heavy chinking, and chopped off ends of CCC work. After more than a half century, these ‘‘Lincoln Log’’ buildings in parks such as Babcock in Fayette County, Watoga in Pocahontas, and Lost River in Hardy, seem just right for their woodsy settings. Hawks Nest, in Fayette County, has several Depression-era buildings along with a 1960s lodge designed by the well-known Cambridge, Massachusetts, firm TAC: The Architects Collaborative. The lodge, an angular composition of poured-in-place concrete and brick, has yet to appear as comfortable in its spectacular natural setting as its 1930s companions.

Modern architecture in West Virginia has kept up the pace of excellence that earlier generations established. Walter Martens and his son, Robert, with help from Eliel Saarinen, gave Charleston’s riverfront a superb International Style skyscraper just before World War II when the United Carbon Building was completed. A wing of the Huntington Museum of Art, built in 1968–70, is the last work of the internationally famous architect Walter Gropius. In 1975, Clarksburg opened a new public library designed by Marcel Breuer, adding another distinctive element to its architecturally rich downtown. In the 1980s, Michael Graves designed one of his signature buildings for the Erickson Alumni Center at West Virginia University. Perhaps the most unusual of the state’s religious structures is in Marshall County, near Moundsville. At the end of one of West Virginia’s most tortuous country roads stands a splendid vision of Indian Hindu architecture: the Hare Krishna Palace of Gold. Tenderly crafted in the 1970s by disciples of the faith using ‘‘how to’’ books, it incorporates marble, semi-precious stones, gold leaf, and stained glass. Charleston’s brand new U.S. Courthouse by architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill combines state-of-the-art functionality with a design based on one of the world’s oldest architectural styles. Its huge lotus columns harken back to the time of the Pharaohs.

Architecture is alive and well in West Virginia. The framers of the state seal would be happy to know that many of the old log farmhouses peculiar to the region still stand, now alongside a myriad of buildings representing every conceivable type and style, and built of materials they could not have imagined.

Written by S. Allen Chambers Jr.