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Southeast Charleston

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Occupying the largest expanse of level land in Kanawha County, this section of Charleston was developed surprisingly late. The area was not platted until the 1890s, when former governor William A. MacCorkle and other capitalists assembled 3,200 acres of farmland to “build a new town, to be called Kanawha City.” Kanawha City was part of the late-nineteenth-century “New South” boom mentality. Typically, its promoters, boasted that their project was “universally admitted superior to all competing enterprises.” Streets were laid out, and the riverfront was reserved for “wharves, dockyards, factories, mills, etc.” Behind the factory sites, the remaining bottomland was divided into 6,000 building lots, while the “sloping table land” to the south was “eligible for beautiful villa lots.”

Plans for the new town did not work out exactly as hoped. Part of the problem was the lack of access to Charleston across the river. In 1914 the Kanawha Land Company bought most of the property, and in 1915 the Kanawha City Bridge (replaced in the 1970s) was built. In the next two years Libby-Owens opened sheet-glass and bottle manufacturing plants in Kanawha City, and by 1929 the two glass factories were the largest of their kind in the world. That same year formerly independent Kanawha City became part of Charleston. Street paving was undertaken in the 1930s as a WPA project, and eventually, after World War II, the area was finally fully built up.

The theme of the April 1936 issue of Architectural Forum, “The Architect and the $5,000 House,” examined the idea that professionally designed houses that could be built for $5,000 or less would be “better to live in, better to look at,… and better to sell” than similarly priced houses constructed without benefit of an architect. Among the portfolio of fifty-two entries featured in the magazine was a group of eight speculative houses designed by the firm of Warne, Tucker and Silling and built by the West Virginia Coal Land Company in Kanawha City. The architects used five basic plans, but no two houses were alike. All were frame and most were one and one-half stories tall with dormers, but one was a full two stories. Each had a garage, whether built into the main block of the house or as an extension of it. Whether any of these houses still exist is unknown. Kanawha City is chock full of such houses, most of which have been added to over the years so that original appearances are not easily discernible. Kanawha City's residential streets still exemplify pre-Levittown domestic ideals, when individually designed houses, no matter how small, were affordable for many Americans.

MacCorkle Avenue, several blocks from the river but parallel to it, has always been the main street and is now a four-lane artery flanked mostly by commercial strip development. The bottle plant closed in 1964, and its buildings have since been converted to the Owens Industrial Park. The site of the sheet glass plant, which closed in 1980 and was subsequently demolished, is now the Kanawha Mall. Fortunately, parcels along the Kanawha riverfront that the 1890s planners envisioned as industrial sites were instead developed as desirable residential areas. Pin Oaks, planted by the Kanawha Land Company in the early twentieth century, have reached magnificent maturity. They provide shade and a sense of identity throughout well-tended residential neighborhoods on both sides of MacCorkle Avenue.

Writing Credits

S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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