By Steve Novotney
They collect old photographs of couples because the subjects usually appear unhappy, and they think that it’s funny.
For the same reason “Carlton the Butler” – a creepy, zombie-eyed porcelain statuette – greets all houseguests. “And you never know what he may offer you on his silver tray,” said Elmer Murphy, co-owner of the recently recognized property along Main Street in the North Wheeling section of Wheeling. “And why not? He starts a lot of conversations when we have people over.”
Murphy and Harry Sprowls adopted that “Why not?” attitude in the mid-2000s, and the pair purchased and restored four Wheeling properties since beginning on the corner of Echo Terrace and Edgwood Street in the Woodsdale section of Wheeling in 2005. The second was the Etz Mansion at the tippy-top of the Edgwood Club, and the third was a condominium within the Virginia Apartments.
“When there’s nothing left to tinker with, Harry gets bored with the house,” Murphy explained. “This house has time left, though. Visually, it was a disaster, and we’re far from finished. But that’s OK because we really like the North Wheeling neighborhood.
“There’s a good feel here, and more and more people are buying the houses and doing what needs to be done,” he said. “The people who live here now are looking out for each other, and we’re seeing more of the historic houses being bought and worked on.”
“This house was in pretty good shape, but it did need a lot cosmetic work,” said Sprowls, who worked full-time at Lowe’s in Centre Wheeling. “And there were very few electric outlets, especially on the second floor.”
Elmer and Harry were two of the property owners who were presented historical-marker plaques by the Wheeling Historical Landmarks Commission two weeks ago. The program is separate from the National Register of Historical Places, and the initiative is an effort to recognize Wheeling buildings that are at least 50 years old and score well in the categories of architectural value, maintenance, and historical value.
The Landmarks Commission plans for recognizing such structures will continue with the acceptance of owners’ applications in order to preserve the history for future generations. The plaques will be presented twice per year, and those interested parties can download the application from the City’s website: (http://www.wheelingwv.gov/uploads/04-04-14_8e_PlaqueApplication2014.pdf).
“Elmer and Harry truly care about preserving Wheeling’s past through restoring the homes that they have,” said Jeremy Morris, executive director of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. “As a fellow resident of North Wheeling, I don’t want to see them go anywhere once they finish their house because they are great neighbors to have.
“The best part about what they have done so far with the homes they’ve owned is that they’ve gone about each project very realistically,” Morris continued. “There are some folks with the best intentions in mind, but they buy up too much property without the abilities to do anything about them for a number of years.”
The Skelton and The Skin.
Harry is the bone doctor. He’s the plumbing-electrical-HVAC-foundation guy.
Elmer takes care of the cosmetics. He paints the pig all the way back to its originally intended beauty. The furniture is ornate, the décor is aged, and the accessories are appropriate. It’s about getting back to the original.
“We’ve done all of the research on the property and why it was built in the way it was built,” Murphy said. “This lot was first deeded in 1866, and then construction started in 1886. In 1900, the house was completed.”
The dwelling is not supported by pillars but instead long support walls in the basement, Sprowls pointed out. There’s a double-furnace, an extensive breaker box, and a large “tinkering room” on the bottom level.
“I worked for years in health care, and I lived in Claysville,” explained Sprowls. “I was surrounded by historic homes there, so I got very interested. That’s why I got into the home inspection business. I wanted to see the insides of a lot of places that otherwise I wouldn’t have had the chance to see.
“And while working in home inspections, I came across our first property on Echo Terrace. It needed a lot of work, but once we were done, we found another opportunity.”
The Etz Mansion, once the lone dwelling with the 98 Edgwood Street address before the Edgwood Club construction in the late-1970s, was Property No. 2 in 2008. The house was split into apartments at the same time, and the restoration performed by Elmer and Harry involved replacing the roof, skinning the shag carpet, and updating all of the appliances.
Three years later, the condominium at the Virginia Apartments was No. 3.
“There were four of the units for sale at the time we bought ours,” Sprowls said. “But after a little while, there was nothing left for us to do because there is a building association, and the outside had to be a certain way. It was a great place, but then we started looking for something new.”
“And we almost decided to move to Florida,” Murphy admitted. “We wanted to get away from the winter weather we have here, so we looked at a couple of different locations in Florida. But then we found this house instead in October 2013, and it’s worked out ever since.”
Paint Over the Woodwork?
Far too often have houses such as the one at 624 Main St. been renovated away from its original design with painting and wallpapering and kitchen-gutting. In most Wheeling neighborhoods, in fact, the large, Victorian-style homes have been separated into apartments.
“Before we bought this house, the owner had made the living room her bedroom, and she also changed the bathroom on this level that covers one of the windows,” Sprowls explained. “She had to do what she had to do, but it means we still have some work to do in there.”
There’s a cracked wall that needs addressed, and painting on the second floor is in the future. The full-sized attic, frigid in the winter and hot and humid in the summer, serves as storage space.
“I think this house was designed for bigger people,” Sprowls said. “Everything in this house seems wider than other places this age.”
One bedroom has been painted and restored on the second floor, but two others are projects-in-waiting. The second floor bathroom is also a debate yet to be settled.
“We have opened up the house for tours of people who want to see the inside of the house, and before we started the project, we had some people ask if we planned to paint over the woodwork,” Murphy said. “We explained why we believe that doing such a thing is a big mistake.
“I’ve always lived in old houses during my life,” he said. “That’s my passion – old houses and ‘old Wheeling.’”
There are historic houses for sale in North Wheeling right now. Most of them are what we call, “fixer-uppers,” but the prices are relatively reasonable and certainly negotiable. Rental property also is popular in North Wheeling with some apartments attracting a $1,200 monthly payment, and others priced at $400 per 30 days.
“The best part about most of the rental properties here is that most of the property owners live here, too, so they are very careful whom they rent to,” Murphy said. “Most of the renters in North Wheeling right now are people who work for Williams Lea and Orrick.
“But it’s happening here in North Wheeling, one property at a time,” he added. “People are buying with the intentions of living here, and that’s the best part of it all.”
For another Weelunk perspective on North Wheeling: Victorian North Wheeling…