Sunday, May 15, 2016

Wheels to Wheeling

“The cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a cultural group. Culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium, the cultural landscape is the result"
Carl Sauer wrote that.  Sounds pretty "out there"...huh?  Yeah, well, these are the cool things that folks like me get to ponder in Historic Preservation programs.  It is much more than "Hey, don't sandblast old bricks" or "That's a One-Third Georgian floor plan."  Some of it is very cerebral stuff.

Pulling from Dr. Sauer's line, lets say that cultural base, in this case, is a small town. Lets say the natural area is the river near it and the hills that surround it.  The cultural landscape is a meshing of the two. Its not just the river, but how people used the river or how the river impacted the town and therefore the people.

If we say that the small town is Wheeling, West Virginia and the river is the Ohio, you have an outstanding opportunity to study American cultural landscapes. I recently returned from a specially designed week-long class.  I can tell you with certainty that this class was clearly one of the best I have had in my graduate studies.  

Lets ignore the fact that West Virginia is often near the bottom of good lists and the top of bad lists when compared to the other 49 states. Lets look past the fact that drug use is rampant in there. Lets look past the fact that East Wheeling is reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic world  seen in the opening minutes of the Terminator.

Instead, lets look at a town that is architecturally awesome.  This is especially true if compared to the rather stagnant Downriver area I call home ("Ooooh look, its a...ranch...").  Lets look at a town that was the "Gateway to the West" before St. Louis gained the title.  The National Road certainly had a play in this (and likely had better construction that modern-day I-75 in Monroe County!). How about being the hometown of Rebecca Harding Davis?


Rebecca Harding Davis is considered to be the founder of a writing style called "literary realism." Basically, authors write about everyday experiences of everyday people.  While that is hardly profound nowadays, somebody had to start it, right? That's the rub here.  Big powerful people are constantly the subject of literary works but what about the common Joe shoveling coal in a dirty town? That's what she wrote about.   If we study the town and study the writings about those Joes, the cultural landscapes become less muddy. Historians have a better picture of what Wheeling really was which ultimately contributes to what is has become. 

Ultimately, the class, co-led by Professors Dan Bonenberger and Melissa Milton-Pung, gave us the chance to dissect Wheeling during the Rebecca Harding Davis era, specifically the Antebellum Period (Pre-Civil War).  Dan, as a "Wheelinger", has been studying this town for years and has incorporated it into many of his lessons. In fact, rumor has it that Dan is actually, in part, a reincarnate of a mysterious young man who was madly in love with her. but died over a century ago... (By the way, from here on out, I'll just use RHD.)

So, with visits to the Deeds Office, the Ohio County Library,  West Virginia's Independence Hall, historic districts, and the Center Market, RHD's Wheeling came to life.  

Of course, the opportunity to visit RHD house would be wonderful. Yeah, well, no.  Notice the past tense of that sentence. It didn't happen.  Sadly, a few years back (the 1970's?), her home was taken town.  A small part of Dan died, I'm sure.  The location is now....wait for it...a parking lot and can be seen in the picture below.  Is it just in front of the green building (which stood in RHD's time). 

Of course, not all of Wheeling as it stands now was there for her.  If she needed a coffee, it would have been brewed in her home and not secured at the Startbucks that resides in the Barnes and Noble Bookstore.  But, having an architectural eye gave us the opportunity to ponder how the town looked to her. 

Take the photo below.  Is that a beautiful looking street or what?  Well, she did not see it that way at all, at least not during the Antebellum Period.  The only home standing during that time would have been the stubby little green one on the right.  All the others are Post-Civil War structures.  

Now what if RHD needed eggs to go with that coffee?  I would suspect one place she could have purchased it was the Center Market.  It's still standing.  Yup, since 1853 (older than West Virginia itself!), folks can still go there and get some groceries or perhaps some fish from Coleman's.  

If you think about cities, they often have some sort of diagnostic feature that identifies them.  Detroit has the GM World Headquarters. San Fransisco has the Transamerica Pyramid.  Wheeling has its suspension bridge.  While some may say "big whoop" with a sarcastic roll of the eyes, I say "cool."

It was the longest suspension bridge in world upon completion in 1849.  Over a thousand feet long, it was a critical step in the National Road as traffic could now move west into Ohio. It remains the oldest vehicular suspension bridge in the United States still in use and is listed as both a National Historic Landmark and Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. That is quite a feat, if you think about it.  In 1849, there were no automobiles. It was just horses and wagons. A bridge intact all this all this time is really quite amazing.

Now, that said, I need to step into the world of full disclosure.  Obviously, the bridge has had some tweaks along the way. In one point, it was widened. Perhaps most significantly, it was, umm....rebuilt.  Not the towers, the deck.  In May of 1854, it collapsed during a windstorm.  Of course, this is not the only episode of a bridge collapsing in the wind. If you want to see what I mean, check out this video of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge from 1940. Perhaps the Wheeling Bridge suffered the same fate?

In any case, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge  is really quite impressive.  The photo below was taken at rush hour.  As you can see, rush hour in Wheeling is not the same as rush hour elsewhere....

Historically, Wheeling was a major city back in the day.  During the late 1800s especially, the river front along the Ohio was a mad house of commerce.  The Wharf, as it was called, was exactly not that,but it was. Well, at least not in the sense that people would consider a wharf, not be be confused with Worf.  

Ugh.  Let me explain.

A wharf, in the traditional sense, is a wooden assembly along a waterway used to dock a boat.  The Wharf along the Ohio was simply where the boats came close to shore to manage their freight, but there was no dock. So how did they not drift down the river, you might ask?  They simply tied off to the giant iron rings along the wall that is easily 50 yards from the water's edge. Access to the boat was along a wooden plank. These rings are easily a foot in diameter.

Of course, Wheeling would still be in Virginia (as opposed to West Virginia) if the Civil War never happened.  Dissatisfied with the course that Virginia had taken at the outset of America's bloodiest war, counties in the northwest corner of the state opted to excuse themselves and form their own state.  Clearly lacking originality with a name, West Virginia ( profound...), became its own state in 1863.  

Francis Harrison Pierpont was instrumental in guiding the region through this process.  His statue now stands outside of West Virginia Independence Hall.  I was actually somewhat familiar with the hall as I had to build a computer model of it a few semesters ago as a part of Dan's Antebellum Wheeling project in his Digital Cultural Heritage class.  I can honestly say it was quite amazing to see a building in real life after I was already  so familiar with it.  (Sadly, my friend Bill could not say the same.  The church he modeled was taken down just a few weeks before we arrived. Both the Hall and Church stood during RHD's time.)

The Mount Wood Cemetery is a must if you like old cemeteries.  Established in 1831, some of the major players in Wheeling's history can be found here.  Frustratingly, the opportunity to really get into the nooks and crannies of the place did not occur as I was only there during a class session.  In any case, simply walking the grounds is amazing.  With a handful of late 19th century mausoleums on such hilly terrain, it is unlike most cemeteries around here (at least outside of Detroit).

For the record, it should be noted that the dark black mausoleum in the photo below is not shown in the natural stone color.  I'll give you four guesses.  1) Black paint from vandals.  2) 19th century pollution 3) Photoshop fun 4) Not sure.  

If you guessed "pollution", you would be right.  Remember Wheeling was a industrial town for decades.  Now, imagine that gunk in your lungs and what it could do to your health. Now, imagine that you were a worker over a 100 years ago when labor laws simply did not exist as they do today.  Imagine a writer who detailed the horrors of this lifestyle.  Now you have Rebecca Harding Davis.

So if you are now wondering what I REALLY did in the this class, it was not all show-and-tell field-trip stuff.  Sure, that stuff is important when detailing a landscape as cultural landscapes are about people and places, right?

For the "places portion," each team was assigned a series of structures (many were homes) in the historic district of North Wheeling.  Research in city hall and  the library allowed us to establish a chain of possession for the homes and find out a bit about those people.  

The ultimate part of the entire class can on Saturday when we had to survey the structures.  Everything from the roof type, window patterns, brick patterns, height and host of other factors needed to be addressed. Each survey was pages long.  

As fate would have it, my team - Team Franklin (myself, Sam and Tiffany) - found the needle in the haystack.  The Rembrandt in the attic. 


The first was the Duplex in the I-house. 

No. Really.  A duplex in an I-house. 

Let me digress.   

Look at the image below. 

This is an I-House. They are common in the Delaware River Valley and points due west (but not common at all in Michigan as Michigan is largely influenced by New England architecture).  The floor plan goes something like this... The front door opens to a central hall with stairs in the back leading to the second floor.  The main floor has two flanking rooms on the opposite sides of the central hall. The second floor is basically like the first floor. Two rooms. Central hallway. The place is also what is called "one pile deep." That is one room deep

Well, while we were looking at this home, the owner (who lived a few yards away) came over and chatted with us as he could tell we were certainly interested in his building.   (The neon vests, clipboards and lots of pointing probably helped.)

He let us in.   

My previously described floor plan did not exist. 

Instead, the central hall had stairs only going to the basementThe hall was shared by what was clearly two separate units - one at each end.  Each unit had its own stairs to the second floor. The two rooms upstairs were separated by a party wall.   

The building was a duplex.   

It was the I-House that was really a duplex - a statistical anomaly in the I-House construction.  I would bet a paper could be drafted on this one house.

Now, you might think the unit stairs were added later but the owner made it clear that there is no evidence of any internal shenanigans. The place was a duplex from the ground up.

As you can see from the photo, the place was gutted by a fire.  The owner is in the process of restoring it to its former glory. The city wanted to tear it down...

Oh, but our fun did not end there.

We were also tasked with expanding our search to investigate homes outside of our block that might be in need of future investigations.   We did not need to take crazy notes about brick patterns and what-not. It was simply "Does that place look like someone down the road should investigate it with Antebellum Wheeling in mind?"

Just a block from the I-House/Duplex, we found this house:

You need to recognize that this home looked like NOTHING else on the block.  Nothing.  What caught our attention was the back of the roofline.  More or less a catslide roof, no other home had it. Overall, it was a small place. One and half stories.  It looked....odd.

Again, our gawking and haz-mat yellow vests garnered the attention of the homeowner.  After a brief conversation, he was simply asked if he knew how old his home was.



"Well, how do you know...?"

"I researched it at the Deed Office...."  

Boom again.  That was the exact same thing we were doing with other structures the day before.  That is a golden ticket.  "My mom told me...." is nowhere near as solid.

So, if his testimony turns out to be true, he is in one of the oldest surviving homes in Wheeling. As far as I can tell, this home has been under the radar of local historians. It won't be the oldest home as that one is clearly noted in the books ( a stone house from 1795).  But this one? It could be the second oldest.....

(What was really cool is we had the opportunity to be inside a home with an 1831 facade just a few hours earlier.  Sadly, the original interior burned out a few years back while the exterior front survived. When the interior was re-built, it was modernized as the original layout was never confirmed.  Perhaps even more cool was the fact that I had to model that home,too!)

How about that? Two great finds!  The house that is really homes and the home that is likely older than the state of West Virginia itself.      

Overall, the class was outstanding.  A bit of this. A bit of that.  Applying learned information from the graduate program and learning more along the way.  Getting to know classmates.  It was just a great time. Its hard to believe it was grad class as fun trumped work.

But there was a moment that really quite chilling.  Natalie had joined me.  (That is not the chilling part.)  While I was doing school work, she went hiking and birding in the area. 

When my class ended at 12:00, I walked over to the Center Market to meet her.  The route from the library to the market took me within feet of RDH's home site.  

A church bell went off nearby. I don't know which one.  
Rebecca Harding Davis' church still stands.  It is completely possible that I heard the bell from her church while walking the same route in her neighborhood that she would have walked if she were going to the Market. 

I functionally froze in my tracks. Really I did.

I wonder what Carl Sauer would have thought?

No comments: