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Charleston

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On December 28, 1787, George Clendenin purchased a thousand-acre tract on the northern side of the Kanawha River at its confluence with the Elk River. The next spring he erected a two-story, double-pen log house on his land and surrounded it with a rectangular stockade in which other cabins and sheds were soon built. The settlement, first named Fort Clendenin, then Fort Lee, was augmented when Clendenin's brother William built a smaller blockhouse farther upstream on the Kanawha. In large part because of the Clendenins' influence, the Virginia General Assembly passed an act establishing Kanawha County on November 14, 1788, to become effective October 1, 1789. The act directed the justices of the county court to “meet at the house of William Clendenin.” When the court convened, George Clendenin was named county lieutenant of the militia and Daniel Boone lieutenant colonel. As the seat of a county that then extended to the Ohio River and included the entire southwestern quadrant of what would become the state of West Virginia, the Clendenins' settlement had a promising future.

Daniel Boone served as a Kanawha County delegate to the General Assembly. In a 1791 report to its members regarding frontier defenses, he provided an overview of the state of settlement along the Kanawha River: “from the pint [Point Pleasant] to Elke no inhabitence, from Elke [Fort Clendenin] to the Bote yards [Cedar Grove] 20 miles all inhabited.” Too many inhabitants for him, and in the summer of 1795 the notoriously agoraphobic Boone moved his family to greener pastures—or at least to new frontiers with fewer people.

In 1794, the year before Boone departed, George Clendenin engaged Alexander Welch to survey and plat a forty-acre tract just above the juncture of the two rivers, dividing it into one-acre lots. First referred to prosaically as “Town at the Mouth of Elk,” the community was formally established as Charlestown on December 19, 1794. It was named in honor of the Clendenin brothers' father and was officially renamed Charleston in 1818 to avoid confusion with Charles Town in Jefferson County.

Although Boone stated that the area was “all inhabited” by 1791, other accounts attest to much slower growth. John D. Sutton, who visited in 1798, wrote that the town “extends for about ¾ of a mile in length, but only contains five houses, besides outhouses.” Ten years later Lewis Summers observed that “Charles Town is entirely built of log houses, except one not yet finished; they are in a string along the river bank, a street passing between.” Anne Royall, writing in 1826, liked what she saw: “four stores, two taverns, a court-house, a jail, an academy; the three last are brick; and a post-office, a printing press, and some very handsome buildings.”

In the next two decades, at least three other observers left written descriptions of Charleston. Joseph Martin, writing in A New and Comprehensive Gazetteer of Virginia, and the District of Columbia (1835), called it “a beautiful little village” and noted that the “few scattered log huts [that] once arrested the traveller's eye” had been replaced by “commodious and elegant buildings, the abodes of comfort and even of luxury.” He also remarked that “the hills abound with fine quarries of sandstone for building, and rich bituminous stone coal, which is the common fuel.” The Reverend Henry Ruffner, visiting in 1838, called Charleston “a handsome growing village” but chastised its inhabitants for obscuring the riverfront: “It would have enjoyed its beautiful situation much more, if the river bank, instead of being covered with houses, had been left adorned with its native trees.” In 1845 Henry Howe estimated the population of the “neat and flourishing village” at 1,500. His woodcut of Kanawha Street shows the classical columned portico of the branch Bank of Virginia, which opened in 1832.

Some of those early observers undoubtedly saw the handful of houses that remain today on Kanawha Boulevard, including the MacFarland-Hubbard House ( CH31). According to one historian, the Whitteker brothers, who “were architects, stone and brick masons, carpenters, painters, and everything else essential to construction,” built Charleston's best antebellum buildings, including this one.

Charleston, illustration from Henry Howe, Historical Collections of Virginia (1845)

Union troops held Charleston during the Civil War, and Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, stationed at Fort Scammon overlooking the city, observed: “Make West Virginia a free state, and Charleston ought to be a sort of Pittsburgh.” It would become one, eventually, but first it had to beat Wheeling, western Virginia's metropolis and leading industrial center. In 1860 Charleston's population was only 1,520 compared with Wheeling's 14,083. Wheeling would take the lead in directing the course of events that led to the formation of a new state, and fully intended to serve as the capital.

Charleston, however, had an undeniable advantage over Wheeling as the seat of the new state's government: location. On February 26, 1869, the state legislature passed an act declaring that Charleston would become the capital on April 1, 1870. As a necessary first step, citizens of the new capital began to plan a capitol. According to the 1892 issue of the Southern Historical Magazine, “plans and specifications were secured from a Cincinnati architect and on the 11th of September, 1869, the contract for the erection of the building was let to Dr. John P. Hale at $50,000.” On October 27 the local press reported that “Dr. Hale's brick machine is rolling out 15,000 bricks per day.” The first floor of the three-story capitol was faced with heavily rusticated sandstone quarried from nearby Cox's Hill, while Dr. Hale's “brick machine” provided hard-pressed brick for the floors above.

West Virginia's first capitol erected specifically to serve as such was an adequate but not particularly distinguished example of Italianate architecture. Although the Southern Historical Magazineannounced that the architect was from Cincinnati, it did not identify him. It is tempting to speculate that S. W. Rogers, known to have been the architect of the Hale House, a Charleston hotel that Dr. Hale was building concurrently with the capitol, designed both buildings. Rogers, from Cincinnati, had, along with his better-known architect father, Isaiah Rogers, designed several of nineteenth-century America's leading hostelries.

Charleston did not have a sufficient work force to construct the hotel, or, presumably, the capitol. According to David Hunter Strother's 1872 work, The Capital of West Virginia and the Great Kanawha Valley, “carpenters, bricklayers, plasterers, stone-masons and other skilled workmen [were] obtained from Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and other large cities” to build the Hale House.

One of nineteenth-century Charleston's proudest boasts was that it was the first city “in the United States to adopt the method of paving streets with brick.” Dr. Hale's method of laying hard-pressed brick in a herringbone pattern over a sand and board foundation was used to pave Capitol Street in 1870 and Summers Street in 1873. The system, also adopted by several other cities, eventually proved faulty, and in 1909 Charleston contracted with the Atlantic Bitulithic Company of Richmond to cover the bricks. The resiliency of the new material, it was claimed, would “cause a great saving in horse flesh.”

Charleston's role as state capital spurred population growth. From the 1860 figure of 1,520, the 1870 census counted 3,162, causing one enthusiastic observer to brag that it was “growing like a western town.” Growth and enthusiasm were temporarily stymied when a Wheeling-sponsored bill to restore the capital to the Northern Panhandle city passed the legislature in February 1875. Wheeling made good on its promise “to erect a State house superior to that at Charleston,” but the rival city's victory was short-lived. Two years later, in February 1877, Wheeling was out of the running altogether when West Virginians voted to decide whether Charleston, Clarksburg, or Martinsburg—all more centrally located—would become the permanent seat of government. On May 1, 1885, Charleston became West Virginia's state capital for the second and, so far, final time.

The February 1877 act locating the permanent seat of government included a $50,000 appropriation for a capitol, and it was decided to use the money to make “alterations in, and additions to the State house at Charleston.” C. C. Kemble and A. Peebles, both of Wheeling, were employed as architects, and in May 1880 A. H. Sheppard of Meadville, Pennsylvania, who had built the 1870s Wheeling capitol, won the construction contract. Sheppard's work proved unsatisfactory, and in June 1884 both he and the architects were replaced. S. W. Howard was appointed architect, and Henry D. Ruffner and James Grady as contractors.

The confused design that eventually emerged is suggested in a contemporary description to have been as eclectic as the capitol itself: “The structure may be said to be of modern architecture, but throughout is a blending of the Roman and Grecian with here and there the Corinthian column on which rests the Doric arch.” The remodeled capitol combined Italianate, Second Empire, and High Victorian Gothic elements. It was the largest structure in Charleston, stretching 230 feet and “surmounted by a tower 194.03 feet high.” The observer who so carefully calculated the exact height also noted that the building contained “85 rooms, 121 doors, and 313 windows.”

Other important late-nineteenth-century Charleston buildings that no longer stand include the Ruffner House and the Burlew Opera House. When the Hale House burned in 1885, it was replaced on the same site by a larger hotel, the Ruffner House, owned by the prominent Charleston family of that name. James W. McLaughlin of Cincinnati designed the hotel. The Burlew Opera House, designed by Lexington, Kentucky, architect H. B. Rowe, opened in October 1891. This elaborate building on Capitol Street seated 1,500 people in a city whose 1890 population was 6,742. Rowe also designed the Sacred Heart Church, now Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral ( CH26).

Though Charleston gave most of its major nineteenth-century commissions to out-ofstate architects, by 1894 it could claim its own coterie of professionals: John Fulks, D. W. Daily, M. M. Rusk, Fuller and McDermott, George Henneman, and Harrison Albright. Albright, a native of Pennsylvania, worked in Philadelphia before moving to Charleston. One of his most important designs was the turn-of-the century Capitol Annex (1903), described as “among the most substantial and prettiest buildings in the state.” It was definitely among the most classical. With columned portico and dome, it appeared far more like a traditional state capitol than the actual seat of government it served. Albright designed a number of buildings throughout West Virginia, but had moved to Los Angeles by 1916.

H. Rus Warne, a Parkersburg native, trained at the University of Cincinnati, then attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and afterward studied in Rome. He arrived in Charleston soon after the turn of the twentieth century, and the architecture firm he established remains, through several name changes, as one of the state's largest. Warne obtained a number of state commissions, and by September, 1916, Ohio Architectobserved that “in respect to the public work that he plans for the State of West Virginia, nobody is comparable to him.”

In 1900, with a population of 11,099, Charleston followed Wheeling, Huntington, and Parkersburg as the state's fourth-largest city. Though it would not become the largest for many decades, it grew so rapidly during the first half of the twentieth century that on the eve of World War I a writer for Ohio Architectrhapsodized that “with its white skyscrapers and its genial beauty [Charleston] looks like a city of 1,000,000 inhabitants.” Disregarding the hyperbole, Charleston did have at least three skyscrapers, and indeed two of them were, and still are, white, thanks to their terra-cotta sheathing (see CH4). By this time the state capitol was no longer pointed to with pride, and the same writer accorded it only a lukewarm accolade: “The state house … is a type of the older kind of architecture and gives an added attractiveness to the downtown section.”

World War I precipitated much of Charleston's early-twentieth-century growth. Once the nation's European chemical imports were cut off, a number of chemical plants were established both upstream and down, utilizing the valley's abundant supplies of coal and natural gas. Rutherford B. Hayes would undoubtedly have approved as Charleston and its environs definitely began to take on the aspect of “a sort of Pittsburgh.” Although small towns grew up around the plants, Charleston was the recognized corporate headquarters for all. In December 1921, Manufacturers Recordreported that more than 700 new buildings had been built during the year. The journal estimated that 90 percent were houses, helping relieve a chronic housing shortage. Newly arrived executives built imposing houses in the East End and across the Kanawha in South Hills, joining long-established Charleston families in these exclusive residential enclaves. West Charleston, Kanawha City, and—farther afield—South Charleston, St. Albans, and Nitro provided living quarters for workers closer to the plants.

The West Virginia State Capitol, Charleston's major monument to the prosperous 1920s, was made necessary when the old building burned on January 3, 1921. One of Cass Gilbert's masterpieces, it is the last and, in many respects, the finest of the many state capitols based on the formula established by the U.S. Capitol. During his elevenyear involvement with the capitol, Gilbert almost received several other Charleston commissions. In June 1922 former Governor William A. MacCorkle inquired about his designing a hotel, and two years later Gilbert wrote his wife that “the Public Library Board … had unanimously voted to retain me as architect for their public library.” Although Gilbert prepared preliminary sketches for the library, nothing came of either commission.

When the new capitol was dedicated in June 1932, Charleston and the nation were reeling from the effects of the Depression. Soon, however, the city was reaping benefits from the alphabet agencies that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had established early in his administration. A new South Side Bridge ( CH17) was completed in 1937, courtesy of the WPA, and a new bridge was built over the Elk River that same year as part of the Kanawha Boulevard project. The six-mile riverfront boulevard, which opened in 1940, was a rather late example of the “city beautiful” movement, in which cities throughout America sought to establish order through large-scale classical designs.

Aiso designated U.S. 60, the riverfront boulevard follows the route of the old James River and Kanawha Turnpike. Among other benefits, its construction required the demolition of a number of buildings whose rear elevations, backing onto the river, had long been a source of civic embarrassment. At last, Charleston rectified the situation that the Reverend Ruffner had so deplored a hundred years earlier. Kanawha Boulevard also provided an impressive setting for Charleston's most modern skyscraper, the United Carbon Building (1940–1941; CH24). The architects of record were the city's fatherand-son partnership of Walter and Robert Martens, but Eliel Saarinen had a direct, and noticeable, influence on it.

The new boulevard was in part a slum clearance project, since many of the buildings that it removed were dilapidated houses and apartments. The Charleston Housing Authority was created to provide new accommodations for those displaced, and in June 1939 two low-cost housing projects were begun with federal funding: Littlepage Terrace ( CH47), with 170 units, and Washington Manor, with 304, of which 127 were for black families. Littlepage Terrace incorporated one of the city's historic antebellum houses in its plans. It and the house ( CH47.1) still exist, but Washington Manor was demolished in a still later urban renewal effort.

All too soon, Charleston prepared once again for war. The South Charleston ordnance plant was reactivated, and new housing developments were established nearby to house workers who flocked to the area as the valley's chemical plants geared up to meet World War II's demands. Toward the end of the war, Charleston began work on a new airport, high up on Coonskin Ridge north of the city. A number of peaks had to be taken down, and valleys filled, to provide sufficient length for the runways. The airport opened in November 1947 with an amazing statistic: it had required more excavation than the Panama Canal.

Within a decade, planning for interstate highways across the nation had begun. Charleston initially rejected the proposals of planners, but after rethinking the situation, soon opted for the in-town route they recommended. No fewer than three interstates—I-64, I-77, and I-79—now converge on the city, providing easy accessibility from all parts of the state. But there was a cost. Huge interchanges on the west bank of the Elk have wreaked havoc on that area, and an enormous cut on the mountainside behind the state capitol mars the once-lovely sight of a gilded dome silhouetted against a forested slope. By the time this segment opened, however, the capitol's once-pristine setting had already been compromised by several pedestrian office structures built to house an ever-expanding state bureaucracy.

In 1980, with a population of 63,968, Charleston at long last became West Virginia's largest city, beating out Huntington for the title. It was something of an empty victory, as Charleston's population had peaked thirty years earlier, with a 1950 figure of 73,501. As with most American cities during recent decades, Charleston has continued to lose population to the suburbs. By 2000 the population had dropped to 53,426. The city has sought to stem the flight by constructing a downtown shopping mall ( CH22) and the state's largest art and performance venue: Clay Center. Charleston has also benefited from federal largesse, thanks to West Virginia's senior U.S. senator, Robert C. Byrd. The huge new U.S. Courthouse ( CH20), designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, is now one of the city's architectural landmarks.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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