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Boulevard Tower (United Carbon Building)

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United Carbon Building
1940–1941, Martens and Son, Architects (Walter F. and Robert E. Martens), with Eliel Saarinen. 1018 Kanawha Blvd., E. (north corner of Kanawha Blvd., E., and Broad St.)
  • Boulevard Tower (United Carbon Building) (State Historic Preservation Office, West Virginia Division of Culture and History, Carl Agsten, Jr.)
  • Boulevard Tower (United Carbon Building) (Michelle Krone)
  • Boulevard Tower (United Carbon Building) (Michelle Krone)
  • Boulevard Tower (United Carbon Building) (Michelle Krone)
  • Boulevard Tower (United Carbon Building) (Michelle Krone)

West Virginia's most dazzling example of the International Style was built to house offices of one of the state's most important corporations. The nation's architectural press publicized the building, and the Charleston Gazette (October 17, 1941) captured its essence on opening day by terming it a “streamlined landmark of a greater Charleston.” The twelve-story tower embodies salient characteristics of its style in its rounded corner, ribbon windows, and materials, including glass brick. The building was envisioned as a sort of corporate billboard in its use of black and gold, the company's colors, for sheathing the steel skeleton. Polished black granite on the ground floor and dark Virginia alberene stone on the first three stories of the rear section contrast with gold-toned brick veneer above.

Before plans were finalized, Robert E. Martens, then a student at Michigan's Cranbrook Academy, prepared a model of the building. According to the West Virginia Review (October 1940), the younger Martens made the model “under the personal supervision of the famed Finnish architect, Mr. Eliel Saarinen, the president of the academy.” Saarinen's wife, Loja, created window hangings for the penthouse suite, and many original furnishings that Martens designed were constructed at Cranbrook. These furnishings, illustrated in the October 1944 issue of Pencil Points, no longer survive in the building.

United Carbon manufactured carbon black, an essential reinforcing component of rubber tires, as well as a coloring agent for other products. Oscar Nelson (1879–1953), a native of Sweden, formed the company and inspired Robert Martens's bronze statue at the rounded corner entrance. Titled From the Fullness of the Earth, it represents, as described in the Charleston Daily Mail (October 17, 1941), “a workman, not definitely a laborer, nor a chemist, nor an office man … but … a man who by sweat and toil is taking the ingredients from the earth and processing them into useful finished products.” Nelson also commissioned the Martens firm for designs at his Greenbrier County estate, Morlunda ( GR18). His first love, however, was his work, and, in a manner of speaking, he is still at his office. His tombstone in South Charleston's Sunset Memorial Park ( KA17) is a granite model of this building.

Although the building is now under different management and no longer serves the corporation that built it, its exterior remains virtually unchanged.

Writing Credits

S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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