They dressed up when they went for dinner at Zellers’ Steak House, and the men likely shined their shoes, too. It was a chance for class in downtown Wheeling that offered much more for the common folks than what the white-collar Fort Henry Club represented during the World War II era in the 1940s.
Zellers’ was fancy, yes, and the menu was rich with dishes chock full of protein and carbohydrates, but it was welcoming to those who could pay at least $4.25 for a filet, strip, or porterhouse cut of beef or oysters, lobsters, or scallops, and many of the customers included associates in the same business as Bill Lias was.
“Big Bill’s” business included illegal gambling, prostitution, stolen goods, and tax evasion, but to this day he is known for his compassion to the poor and the hungry. Lias was born in 1900, and when prohibition was implemented in West Virginia in 1914, he established a career as a bootlegger, and that was the beginning of the Friendly City’s “Wide Open Wheeling” era.
Now there is someone who wishes to revive a part of that on the same ground where Lias roamed.
“What we want to do is take the framework of all three buildings, get the roof secured, clean them out, and redevelop them into both commercial and residential,” explained Andrew Yetter, a real estate developer native of western Pennsylvania. “The first step then would be to take the first floor and have a portion of it operate as one restaurant, but have three different storefronts with the restaurant in the middle as its entrance.
“The other two storefronts would also be food items, but what those would be is something we do not know at this point. I would not want to operate those, so we would lease those spaces to other eateries,” he continued. “But the restaurant would be the rebirth of Zellers’ Steakhouse, a business that once operated in those buildings a long time ago.”
The 35-year-old Yetter graduated from McGuffey High School in 1998, and he and his wife, Christi, have discovered much about the city since choosing Wheeling Country Day School for three of their four children. The fourth will also attend the school, he said, when she is old enough. Yetter graduated from the Nazarene Bible College in Colorado Springs and worked in the development of youth programs in Oregon before opting to return to native ground and enter the industrial construction business his family started several years ago.
One of those discoveries, Yetter confirmed, is the mobster activities in the Friendly City.
“I believe reviving Zellers’ is perfect because of all the great history there is with the mob in Wheeling, and I only found out about it because of the story series on Weelunk,” Yetter explained. “I’m not from Wheeling, but I have always heard this and that, but that series really put it out there for everyone to learn so much more about it.
“And then I had the chance to walk through it, and I realized then that it is still sitting there. Much of it is still intact and could be restored to just the way it was when ‘Big Bill’ Lias owned it because there have been so few changes made although a few different businesses were in it after Lias closed it,” he said. “A lot of times you hear about the history but the only thing that is left today is a plaque and a parking lot.
“But Zellers’ is still there, and there are records of numbers rackets in boxes up on the fifth floor. It’s right there, and the red door is still in the back alley, and the fact that the word ‘demolition’ has been used for a few years is terrible. If we can save and preserve the true story, it is an opportunity that needs to be taken advantage of.”
There are members of the Wheeling area community who wish for such history to fade with the years since the criminal activities were fairly accepted by the citizenry, but also there are individuals who have expressed a belief the Northern Panhandle and East Ohio regions were better off when Lias and Paul “No Legs” Hankish governed.
“History is history. Wheeling isn’t Wheeling without what happened in the past. Acting like those things didn’t happen isn’t going to help anything. I think it adds to the richness of Wheeling’s personality,” Yetter said. “I don’t think anyone who read that Mob series said that they would never go to Wheeling. I’m willing to bet it’s brought people into the city because it made them very curious.
“People love mob stuff. It’s really that simple. They love it, and they are intrigued by it, and I obviously believe that bringing back a small part of what it was will be very popular with the local residents and the tourists, too,” he said. “And talking about the history does nothing but help Wheeling, and that’s because the city dates back much longer than most of the cities in the country.”
The history of these structures precedes Zellers’ Steak House and has housed several more once the mobster’s eatery closed in 1948. According to the research conducted by Wheeling historian Jeanne Finstein, Charles Newman was the first resident of 1429 Market St., and his confectionery business evolved into clothing and shoe repair until the building was bought and transformed into a saloon in 1901 by Charles Bauer.
With the addition of the Bader & Mauer Hotel on the upper floors in 1905, the bar business remained active on the ground level until Prohibition was enacted in the Mountain State in 1914. Seven years later the Crystal Diary Lunch & Restaurant was opened on the first floor, and two years later the building was purchased and renamed the Washington Restaurant, and the hotel became the Manhattan.
The eatery changed names a few times until it fell vacant again in 1940. In 1941, Lias purchased the space for Zellers’ Restaurant. William J. Zellers was named the vice president, Cecil Greiner the secretary and treasurer, and Harry T. Clouse was the first manager, Finstein discovered. Zellers’ closed near the end of 1948, and the structures have since housed a plethora of restaurants and taverns, including the multi-level Tin Pan Alley, O’Reilly’s Irish Pub, and the G&G Restaurant & Bar.
By the time Wheeling City Council approved the purchase of the three buildings for $155,000 in August 2015, only the Sportsman’s Club was operational, but it was closed following the property transaction. City Manager Robert Herron has said repeatedly the buildings were not bought to demolish, and during a recent council luncheon with media members he mentioned speaking with Yetter about his idea during his remarks.
Yetter would not attempt to duplicate the menu from the former Zellers’ but instead use the food, beverage, and management models from a project with which he’s been involved with Mark Kennison, a developer in Washington, Pa., who opened the Presidents Pub last year on North Main Street in that city.
“We would bring in the same menu, drink options, and the management style so there really wouldn’t be anything new to learn for those involved,” he explained. “Mark has accomplished so much in Washington that it makes sense to me to partner with him on this project here in Wheeling. His developments have truly transformed an area of the upper downtown that a lot of people were avoiding.
“His first project was a brick-oven pizza shop called the Upper Crust, and then he continued with a couple of other buildings and businesses, and now that area has seen even more economic development,” Yetter continued. “Ten years later, Mark has sold those three businesses so he could concentrate on the Presidents Pub, and now we’re ready for the next project.”
Yetter’s resume also is crowded with successful ventures, beginning with the renovation and preservation of an estate in Claysville, Pa., that included a four-story barn, a carriage house, and a large residential structure. From there he moved to a former 10,000-square-foot tire factory in Claysville, as well as the Main Street Café, a former three-story house featuring the eatery and loft apartments on the second and third floors.
Before Yetter began his work on the Presidents Pub, he also renovated a three-story structure on Claysville’s Main Street, and the building now offers a first-level retail space and loft apartments above.
“I know I am really weird because, as a kid, I dreamed of buying big buildings and making them better, and what’s been really cool is that I’ve been able to buy some of them and do actually what I wanted to when I was that young,” Yetter said. “Our house in Washington is an example of that. I just thought it was a really cool house because it was built in 1863, and it has a ton of history.
“And I just recently bought the Cotts House on Market Street in North Wheeling, and that house has a ton of history to it, as well,” he said. “We have just contracted a painter for the outside of the house, and we’re going to get to work on the inside in the near future.”
The When and The How
The Presidents Pub & Grille is open for lunch, dinner, and drinks, and Kennison selected the name in honor of his alma mater, Washington & Jefferson College that is situated a short walk away. But the building at 88 North Main St. once housed Ernie’s Freestyle Bar, a successful watering hole for several years until illegal activities attracted the attention of city officials and police department leadership.
The establishment was raided by law enforcement in late 2013, the doors were chained, and the business was deemed a nuisance.
“But Mark made the decision to take on that project despite the impression a lot of people had, but in just over a year it was completely renovated and now has a beautiful bar and restaurant on the first level, a meeting room and office space above, and the outside has a large patio with a waterfall and two gas fire pits for outside dining,” Yetter reported. “The Washington community has really rallied before the project and now the business, so things are going very well.
“The buildings in Wheeling were pretty much in the same situation as the Freestyle was, and that’s why the city purchased them,” he said. “But it can be turned around along that area of Market Street, and the Presidents Pub is definitely proof of that.”
Yetter’s vision is establishing a new destination similar to Centre Market, but not only by developing a new version of Zellers’ Steak House. Just as he has accomplished with the Claysville buildings, he sees first-floor commercial with residential living above.
“I think it would be more powerful to have three dining options along that row in the downtown,” Yetter said. “That way it becomes more of a destination than the alternative. I just don’t think something like a tax prep place on one side and a lawyer’s office on the other is as powerful as a row of restaurant options.
“With the expansion of West Virginia Northern Community College, the renovation to Independence Hall, and the loft project at the Boury Building, a lot of great things are taking place in the downtown district, and our project would be a great addition,” he continued. “That’s why I have spoken with (assistant city development director) Tom Connelly and with the city manager so they know of our interest in them.”
Yetter has also enlisted the assistance of Jake Dougherty, the director of ReInvent Wheeling, an organization now under the umbrella of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp.
“When I spoke with Jake Dougherty from ReInvent Wheeling, he told me that the options for the properties are wide open and that the city’s ears are open to ideas at this time,” Yetter said. “And from his perspective he thinks our idea is a viable plan, so he’s on board with it, and he also said he’s not aware of any other plans for those properties at this time.
“Plus, it was Wheeling National Heritage who funded the engineering study on the buildings, and that’s a huge step that’s already been taken care of for us. We know what to expect before getting started, and that’s a big first step,” he continued. “There are still a lot of steps that we need to take, but we feel we have a solid idea for downtown Wheeling.”
So when? That’s the question everyone is asking at this point, especially since so many other development projects are moving forward along Main and Market streets at this time.
- C. Ventures, a local real estate development firm, hopes a new eatery will open along upper Market Street by July;
- Earl Brown, owner of the Victoria Theatre, has continued his interior renovation project that he initiated in the middle of 2015;
- The façade renovation on Wesbanco Arena is expected to be complete by the middle of this summer;
- The first loft apartments within the Boury Lofts should be ready to lease in October;
- Flat Iron Building owner Kevin Duffin owns a November goal for the completion of first-floor retail and apartments on the four floors above;
- And the construction on the new Health Plan headquarters is expected to begin this summer.
For Yetter and Kennison, though, gaining grant monies, tax credits, and the necessary financing remain ahead before Zellers’ feeds that first hungry patron.
“All of the work that we have done in Claysville and Washington happened with no grants involved. It was all private investment. With the Market Street project, I expect to get involved with state grant and tax credit programs because of the preservation that would be involved,” Yetter explained. “Once the financing is put into place, the street level could be open in 18 months, but we are talking about a total investment of around $10 million. That’s a ton of money and that’s why really no one else is interested in those three buildings.”
“It’s also too small for big investors and too big for small investors, but I think it’s just right for us because we can do a lot of the work ourselves as contractors while we phase it out,” he added. “Because we can do so much of the work ourselves and with people we have already worked with, we can decrease that $10 million investment by several million.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)