It was a special evening for most people when they had the opportunity to dine there because the décor was elegant, the etiquette was classy, and the menu offerings were top shelf.
But the decline of Ernie’s Esquire on East Bethlehem Boulevard followed the region’s population loss, and in 2005 the establishment was closed to the public by owner Ernie Pandelos. Ten years later, however, the 50,000-square-foot structure was purchased by Wheeling resident Roger Kent and his real estate partner, Andre Fontain from the Washington, D.C. area, but they didn’t buy it to re-open it as a supper club.
“Right after I graduated from WVU in 1986, I made the decision to move to Leesburg, Va., to practice as a certified public accountant,” Kent explained. “But through a lot of my clients at the time, I discovered that I had a passion for real state development. So, after 10 years of me and my wife, Mindy, living in that area, we decided to move home when my daughter was just 5 years old.
“Once we moved home, my father and I partnered to construct about 70 rental units in the Wheeling area, and I built my CPA practice at the same time,” he recalled. “I literally knocked on doors of local businesses just to meet the owners and hope that they may consider my services. Since then, I’ve recognized a need for this kind of housing in this area.
The former eatery and reception hall has been transformed over the past two years into “Woodview,” a complex that includes more than 40 apartments that will be available soon to residents 55-and-older.
“I have been pretty particular about everything because I want everything to be exactly the way I’ve pictured it,” Kent explained. “Using a property that was once a very nice restaurant and banquet center and turning it into an independent senior living complex is not an easy task, but when it’s completed, we’ll have 42 units, including 33 two-bedroom units and nine of them will be one-bedroom.
“The two-bedroom units will start at $960 per month, and the one-bedroom units will be $825 per month,” he said. “We felt, in this area, there is a need for this kind of housing, and they will be non-subsidized, so there are no income limitations. We arrived at that decision after taking a real good look around the region to determine what the housing needs are, and this kind of complex is what we came up with.”
Kent, who has worked extensively with the state Fire Marshall’s office, reported that approximately 30 units will be available in a few weeks, while work on the rest of the structure continues. When all the work is completed, the remaining 12 units will be available, a kitchen and dining room will be operational, and a meal plan for residents will be offered.
“I also plan to have transportation services available, and the kitchen area will be available for our residents so they can have social activities in the space when they wish to,” Kent explained. “We want to make it feel like a home as much as possible.
“Each unit will have an assigned parking space in one of the two parking lots that we have here, and the grounds will be landscaped, too,” he said. “This property has not been very attractive for a lot of years, and we plan to change that once all of the construction work is completed. I know I have a lot of memories of Ernie’s Esquire as one of the most popular places in the area, and although we are changing it completely, we still want the beauty of the property to return.”
The condition of the former restaurant proved to be an immediate challenge. The dining room side, constructed and opened in the early 1950s, had suffered a lot of water damage because of the neglected roof, and the 17-year-old reception hall side was littered with debris.
“We scouted this area for about six months so we could find the best location that we could, and one of the first places we inquired about was the former Ernie’s Esquire,” Kent said. “I used the phone number that was on a sign, but I didn’t hear back from anyone for a while no matter how many messages I left. Then, after we were into our fifth month searching, I finally received a call back from Ernie’s wife, Mikie.
“And, after we had that very first conversation, we had the property under contract very quickly,” he continued. “Once we were able to walk through, we were very confident this location would work very well despite the damage and all of the work that was necessary. Bethlehem is a very nice area, the interstate is very close, and the plaza and businesses along Bethlehem Boulevard will be a big convenience for our residents.”
An auction was held in May 2015, and a few hundred interested individuals attended for a chance to purchase everything from artwork to restaurant equipment. Kent, though, has retained memorabilia that will provoke memories of Ernie’s Esquire, one of eight restaurant operations owned by Pandelos at one time.
“We have kept the original fireplace that Ernie had constructed on the banquet side of the building, and on the exterior, there are a lot of features that remain, too, because when the restaurant was still open, it was a very attractive place on the inside and on the outside,” Kent said. “Plus, on the restaurant side, we have left all of the windows in place on both floors because they really add to the lighting, and they remain very attractive, too.
“Also, we have a lot of memorabilia that we plan to place in the dining room area once it’s completed because there are a lot of people who can still remember the restaurant in its heyday,” he continued. “I plan to work with the family in the future to gain some more things, too, because the history is the history, and a lot of people like to remember that era of the Wheeling area.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)