Huntington sprang full blown from the fertile mind of Collis P. Huntington (1820–1900). The western terminus of his Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, it was platted on a huge, level tract of Ohio River flatland between the earlier communities of Guyandotte on the east and Ceredo on the west. Except for a single structure housing Marshall College and a few scattered farmhouses with their attendant structures, there was little on the site when Huntington first saw it in 1869.
In 1870–1871 Huntington acquired most of the land, determined the railroad's right of way, and began planning for shops and other facilities. He then conveyed the remainder of the property to the Central Land Company, of which he was president. Early in 1871 the West Virginia legislature incorporated the city of Huntington. Surveyor Rufus Cook from Boston, about whom little is known, prepared the city plan and filed his plat on December 6, 1871.
Cook's grid pattern resulted in a city much lauded for its broad avenues and tree-lined streets. Numbered streets lead from the river southward, intersecting with avenues, also designated by numbers, running east and west. Cook also had the prescience to provide alleys between the avenues. Later extensions generally follow his grid pattern, deviating only where the level site gives way to foothills south of 13th Avenue. There, in what became and remains a choice residential area, streets follow topographical rather than geometrical dictates.
Bolstered by the founder's enthusiasm, word of the new city spread fast. In answer to West Virginia's Roman Catholic Bishop Whelan, who wanted to know if the city would be a likely spot for a church and school, Huntington bragged that “at no distant day it will become the largest city on the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.” Huntington's papers in the Library of Congress reveal that his standard response to inquiries from clergymen like Whelan was to provide a copy of the town plan, suggesting that the church buy the lot it wanted “at about the cost of the same to the company.” Huntington promised a donation to the building fund, but there was a catch. As with all private lot sales, purchasers, including religious societies, had to agree to “commence improvements at once.” The 1872 deed for the Roman Catholic church contained a clause directing that a church or school be built within the year. Huntington wanted a real city, not one that existed solely on paper, and he wanted it quickly.
In addition to privately sponsored construction, the new city benefited from the railroad's myriad building operations. Huntington's pivotal role in this aspect is revealed in his correspondence with Lyman H. Blend, a self-styled architect and builder from Oneonta, New York. Delos W. Emmons, Huntington's brother-in-law, who came to the new city as the railroad's right-of-way agent, was from Oneonta, and he likely introduced the two men. In November 1871 Huntington advised Blend that he would need about a dozen houses
for the mechanics employed in our shops … to be say 20 by 30 ft., with an extension say 10 × 12 ft. for a kitchen; the main building to be two stories high. [T]he lower story 10½ ft. and the upper story 9 ft. in the clear and the extension one story high, to be divided into rooms in such a way as to make them as convenient and comfortable as possible;—the houses to be built in pairs, and of wood.
Early in 1872 Huntington sent Blend drawings his staff had prepared of the proposed buildings. He was not satisfied with “the appearance of the cornice etc.” and thought it “quite likely that [Blend] could suggest some improvements in regard to that part of the building.” Soon, two rows of houses, one of brick, one of frame, were built on 8th Avenue near the extensive railroad shops. After they had served their original purpose, they were rented to railroad employees, but other houses were sold outright, as one of Huntington's precepts for a contented workforce was that workers be encouraged to own their own houses.
On January 29, 1873, the first train arrived at Huntington, bringing with it a demijohn of James River water that celebrants poured into the Ohio. The same receptacle was then filled with Ohio River water and taken back to Richmond for a similar ceremony there. The exchange of water symbolized the long-awaited joining of the two rivers by an effective means of transportation, but the return train carried something far more important than H2O: four carloads of coal.
A promotional publication that the railway issued in 1878 described Huntington less than a decade after its creation: “population about 3,000, and increasing; large saw mills, planing and flour mills and furniture factory … three public schools, five churches; and fifteen miles of streets (80 feet wide), and avenues for drives, opened and graded.… Taxation low, and no city debt.” In 1890 the U.S. Census counted a population of 10,108, making Huntington, still only a teenager, West Virginia's second-largest city after Wheeling.
Though new business and manufacturing enterprises located there, Huntington remained preeminently a railroad town. Throughout the late nineteenth century, the railroad continued to expand and build, so much so that bricks from local brickyards had to be supplemented by shipments from Richmond, 420 miles away. Many company facilities served not only the C&O, but also its new subsidiary, the Lexington & Big Sandy Railroad.
The city's founder died in August 1900, and during the first decade of the twentieth century, his Central Land Company transferred its assets to the newly organized Huntington Land Company, formed by a group of local investors. This group marketed Huntington as aggressively as the founder had, and succeeded in bringing new industries to town. In 1901 the former Lexington & Big Sandy became part of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, bringing a second major railroad into the economic picture. City limits were extended to the west in 1909 and to the east in 1911, when Huntington appended the formerly independent community of Guyandotte.
During the 1890s and into the new century, the versatile James B. Stewart, Huntington's first resident architect of note, provided designs for houses, warehouses, hotels, and churches. He designed the First Presbyterian Church ( HU16) in 1895, the same year he was selected as supervising architect for the Cabell County Courthouse ( HU1). From 1901 to 1906 he practiced with Edwin Alger, with whom he designed the Carnegie Library ( HU6).
Alger established his own firm in 1907, and his work was featured in the December 1910 issue of Ohio Architect, a monthly journal that often covered items of architectural interest beyond its state's boundaries. In addition to office buildings, a high school, and the First Congregational Church ( HU2), Alger designed a number of impressive houses, many of them in the popular style now called American Foursquare. These large, solid brick houses, almost invariably fronted with expansive porches and covered with dormered hipped roofs, came to characterize Huntington's early domestic architecture. As a Chamber of Commerce publication stated, Huntington had “no feudal castles—no hovels. Between these two extremes [are] miles of comfortable, modern, well kept, well lighted, cheery looking homes.” Especially in the area known as South Huntington, solid blocks of foursquares contribute greatly to the city's architectural identity and have come to be known as “Southside bricks.”
In 1912 the Huntington Lumber and Supply Company was organized, and soon, under the name Minter Homes Corporation, it began to specialize “in the manufacture of ready-cut houses.” An early catalog shows 100 houses, as well as churches, garages, and schools. The company supplied manufactured houses to the U.S. government to build Nitro (see Kanawha County) during World War I and to any number of coal companies for company towns throughout the state's southern coalfields. With a 200-man workforce at its 3rd Avenue headquarters and as many as three times that number in the field, Minter was, on a regional level, the equivalent of mail-order giants like Sears and the Aladdin Company.
Just before World War I, the city's architectural fraternity soared in number, as growth provided commissions for all. The 1914–1915 Polk's Directorylisted eleven architects and/or firms: Edwin Alger, Cunningham and Conner, Robert L. Day, Levi J. Dean, A. Ford Dickey, John R. Gieske, Darby H. Hutchinson, Verus T. Ritter, William B. Smith, W. G. Wilkins Company, and Harry W. Willett. Five had offices in the imposing Robson-Prichard Building ( HU5), completed in 1911, but designed by a Cincinnati firm.
A. Ford Dickey, subject of an article in the May 1914 issue of Ohio Architect, designed a number of houses in the American Foursquare vein. Levi J. Dean, who established an independent architecture office in Huntington in 1910, enjoyed an extensive practice in the city and its southern hinterlands. Named company architect for West Virginia's O. J. Morrison department store chain, he designed its stores throughout the state. His bestknown residential commission was for real estate entrepreneur John G. Ricketts ( HU37). Two of Dean's sons later joined their father in architecture practice and continue today as the firm of Dean and Dean.
By 1916 another firm, Meanor and Sweeney, joined those already in the RobsonPrichard Building. Wilbur A. Meanor, native Pennsylvanian and graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began his career in Pittsburgh but had been associated with Verus T. Ritter in Huntington since 1911. He first partnered with James P. Sweeney but in 1918 formed a partnership with Edward J. Handloser. Ten years later the West Virginia Reviewhailed the firm of Meanor and Handloser as “probably the largest and most successful architectural firm in West Virginia.” The talented team produced an enormous body of work during Huntington's most prosperous years, executing competent examples of practically every building type and style. At the end of the 1920s, Meanor moved to Charleston to open the firm's second office and contributed to the capital city's development until his death in 1947.
The 1920s were a period of great expansion in Huntington, as they were throughout the nation. The International Nickel Company (INCO) opened a 76-acre refinery and rolling mill south of Guyandotte in 1923. According to the February 1, 1923, issue of Manufacturers Record, the company selected the Huntington area over four other sites because its labor force was “95% English speaking Americans” and because “a majority of workers own their own homes.” By 1941 the WPA-sponsored West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain Statewould describe the INCO facility as “the largest plant in the world devoted exclusively to the production of nickel and nickel alloys.” One of INCO's products was Monel metal, named for the company's president. Sinks, appliances, countertops, decorative grilles, and roofing were made from Monel sheets produced in Huntington until it began to be replaced by cheaper stainless steel in the 1950s.
Completion of the Keith-Albee Theatre ( HU11) late in the decade proved that the city could play as well as work. So did Ritter Park ( HU34), the municipal park that serves as a perfect transition between the tightly built-up grid on the level river plain and the less developed, more suburban foothills to its south. The park was virtually surrounded by fine houses by the end of the 1920s.
During the 1930s, a long-standing problem that had plagued Huntington and other Ohio Valley towns was at last addressed. The city was devastated by the flood of 1937, which inundated the entire downtown area to a depth of 11 feet. Congress authorized the U.S. Corps of Engineers to proceed with construction of a floodwall, funded through a bond issue and federal grants. Cantilevered steel walls encased in concrete soon protected the city, but separated it from its front yard, the Ohio River.
By 1930 Huntington, with a population of 75,572, had at last outdistanced Wheeling. In 1950 its population peaked at 86,353, the largest figure yet recorded for any West Virginia city. In 1960 Huntington lost out to Charleston, not Wheeling, to play second fiddle once again. As of 2000, it continues in that role, but with a greatly reduced population of 51,475. Recent area growth has taken place outside the city limits, primarily along the I-64–U.S. 60 corridor leading eastward to Charleston, fifty miles away. East of the city, on the corridor, Huntington Mall, which claims to be the state's largest shopping complex, has taken a great deal of commercial trade away from downtown. Among the largest current contributors to Huntington's economy are Marshall University and the renamed International Nickel Company, which now, as Inco Alloys International, advertises itself as “the World Leader in High Performance Alloys.”
Good news counterbalances the bad news of a half-century of population loss. Huntington had little need to demolish existing structures for new facilities during the second half of the twentieth century. Except for a 1970s urban renewal project that resulted in the demolition of commercial buildings between 3rd Avenue and the Ohio River waterfront, most of the city's important buildings from earlier decades remain.
Huntington is an easy city to visit and appreciate. Its downtown is compact and well defined, as are its residential areas. Huntington's buildings include good representatives of nearly all the styles popular in American architecture since the city was founded. There are a number of surprises as well, including the last work of Walter Gropius.
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