Orphy and Mary Jo Klempa are not part of the new wave of “downtowners.”
It was about six years ago when they left their out-the-pike Edgewood neighborhood home, when none of the now-renovated places were available — the Boury Lofts, the Flatiron, the Stone Center, the McLain Flats.
So why downtown for this couple?
Orphy was thinking about retiring, and they wanted to downsize with fewer household responsibilities. Travel was high on their list of priorities, so they wanted to be able to just lock the door and walk out to wherever their adventures would lead them.
Condo living made sense, but so many were too new for the couple. Mary Jo liked “old” and “high ceilings,” so the modern condos just didn’t cut it for her.
Also, Orphy, as a former county commissioner, had to live within a certain jurisdiction.
“When we looked, there weren’t a lot of options,” they noted.
They decided on the Virginia Apartments. It’s the U-shaped brick building on Main Street, just south of the Wheeling Tunnel. Designed by architect Edward Bates Franzheim and built in 1901, the place is full of historic details — dark woodwork, fireplace mantels, a truly impressive stairway, to name just a few.
The building has always been apartments, they explained.
The building was constructed in 1901 by the George E. House Improvement Company on land purchased from J.E Stifel, and, until 1884, was the site of the J.E Stifel & Son’s Calico Print and Dye House. The property also consisted of a livery stable to the east and a lumber company to the south. The building was a grander approach to city living, and the location was marketed to the upper-middle class. The original building was to be only three stories but, when finished in 1902, became four. The units were originally intended to be rental units with the wings being 2,300 square feet with a maid’s quarters in each and the center “bachelor units” at 1,500 square feet, according to Jeanne Finstein of the Friends of Wheeling.
In 1921, the developer, the George E House Improvement Company, chose to sell the building. Many of the residents at the time decided to take advantage of a newly enacted federal tax law and created the Virginia Apartment Owners Inc., which is the oldest co-operative still functioning in the state of West Virginia, Finstein said.
“We’re a co-op. We own shares, and the shares allow us to have an apartment, basically. All the shareholders are a corporation, so we own the whole building; we’re responsible for the whole building,” Orphy added.
“As a shareholder, you own everything from the ‘paint in.’ The rest of it is owned by the corporation. If the roof blows off, there’s a pot of money from a monthly fee. There’s a board of directors that operate the building — all shareholders,” Orphy explained.
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The building is inhabited by people in a variety of walks of life and ages — a firefighter, an attorney, a banker, from 20-something to 70s — Orphy and Mary Jo explained. One resident has lived in the Virginia Apartments for around 18 years.
“We worked real hard to make this place as authentic as the original,” Orphy said.
The windows are made of very old glass. He actually took the bottom panes — that had cracks in the corners — and he switched them with the top panes. He put new glass in the top panes so the “rippled” old glass was in view on the bottom.
Being a carpenter — Orphy had been in the construction business for decades — has been quite helpful to life in a century-old building. Orphy put in a new kitchen, bathroom and storage/laundry room. He was a journeyman, a foreman, a job superintendent and then, in 1994, he was elected as the business agent for the Carpenters Local 3, and did that until his retirement. Mary Jo is retired from Ohio Valley Construction Employers Council.
“He matched all the baseboards to match what was original in the hallway,” Mary Jo said. He also rebuilt pocket doors and replaced the hardware with authentic reproductions, and put in new tin ceilings.
The ceiling fan in Orphy and Mary Jo's living room is an authentic-looking reproduction.
Their doorbell was hand-made in England, Mary Jo said, and is similar to one used on the "Downton Abbey" television show.
These light fixtures came from Orphy's son's house, but work perfectly in the Virginia Apartments.
Orphy put in a brand-new kitchen.
The updated bathroom fits right in with the historic look of the place.
The Klempas switched out a small bedroom for a laundry room and added storage.
While missing the crickets and the front porch swing of their Locust Avenue home where they lived for 10 years, and having to get used to some noise and dust, they love downtown living.
“We like the idea of being able to walk to everywhere in town. … And we don’t have to worry about parking,” Mary Jo said.
“We walk to the Vagabond,” she said. “[But] we get our pizza delivered — we tip them good because we don’t have an elevator,” Orphy said. The third-floor walkup keeps them trim — from all the pizza they have delivered!
“When I can’t walk up the steps, I’m moving to Elmhurst,” he said. Elmhurst is close to Orphy’s heart, as he worked on a remodel at the House of Friendship, he said.
The best part of living downtown for Mary Jo is that “it’s close to everything.” She likes the proximity to the trail and the fact that downtown feels very safe. She loves to take the grandkids to the playground near the Wheeling Heritage Port, and both Orphy and Mary Jo walk and bike on the trail. (Although, Orphy broke his ankle skydiving a few months ago, so that was on hold for him for a while!)
They go to all the festivals throughout the summer, saunter over to The Capitol Theatre for shows and love to watch the fireworks from the Suspension Bridge.
“I really like the idea that if we decide we want to go somewhere, we can just lock the doors,” Orphy said. “You don’t have to worry about somebody checking on the house,” Mary Jo said. “or someone breaking in.”
“Or the roof blowing off,” Orphy noted.
Neither could really find any negatives — well, except the aforementioned lack of porch swing and those crickets.
Though some retail would be nice, Mary Jo admitted.
“City council and the mayor and everybody are working really hard to make downtown more friendly,” Orphy — always the diplomat — added.
• Having spent nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigalnowserves as Weelunk’s managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.