In the early 1900s, Sarah Kleeh sat in the upstairs window seat watching the wealthy ladies across the street point to her home at 810 Main. She knew they were talking about the two bathrooms in her house — the first in the state of West Virginia to boast of such a thing. She and her family came from New York in 1905 and moved into the Eckhart house when she was just a child.
It was her great-grandson who stopped by in 1996 to take some photos and video to share with Sarah Kleeh Lichtenstein, who graduated from Mount de Chantal long ago. By the time her great-grandson stopped for a visit, Sarah was 96.
Just this past October, four direct descendants of George W. Eckhart Jr. — fourth and fifth generations — came from Marion and Chillicothe, Ohio, to enjoy tea at the Old Town home, after having come across the house online. George was Judy Eckard Hickok’s great-great-great-grandfather; she noted that her maiden name has a different spelling than the home’s builder. Hickok brought her two daughters and sister-in-law with her to enjoy tea and to tour the home.
These are just a few of the thousands who owners Joe and Gretchen Figaretti have welcomed into the lovely 1890s home. So many visitors have enjoyed tea, a tour and some shopping at the Eckhart House in Old Town, just north of the Wheeling Tunnel, over the past few decades.
Gretchen is as gracious a hostess as you’ll meet, with her sweet smile and gentle voice. Joe’s got a bit of an ornery streak— especially when he puts on that black top hat. He’ll teach you the proper way to eat a scone — or at least the way he does it. “I take the entire scone and put a whole bunch of jam on top of it, and then stack the cream on top of that, so when I bite into it, I got a dollop of cream on the end of my nose.”
TEA: A THREE-TIERED REPAST
But, before you get the whipped cream all over your nose, you must start with the bottom tier of the serving tray. There, you’ll find tasty tea sandwiches and savories — most likely cucumber and cream cheese on a triangle of bread and tiny chicken salad sandwiches. On the middle tier are homemade scones — sometimes plain, sometimes raisin or maybe blueberry-lemon or apple-cinnamon. Don’t forget the jam and lots of cream. The top tier is reserved for confections — a selection of dainty tea cookies.
“One of our favorites is an apricot cookie. Another favorite is my grandma’s favorite, that she called an icebox cookie,” Gretchen said.
Gretchen bakes the scones and cookies ahead of time and pops them in the freezer; tea sandwiches are always made fresh the morning of the tea. Everything is lovingly homemade by Gretchen.
The tea is served in a lovely teapot, kept just the right temperature by a warming burner. Delicate teacups hold the brew. Seasonal teas are suggested — apple spice in the fall; holiday winter spice around Thanksgiving and Christmas; rose tea at the Valentine’s Day Tea — but guests are welcome to make their own selection from the variety of Metropolitan tea on hand. Cream Earl Grey is the house signature tea.
Classical or holiday music subtly catches your ear in the background while you partake of the goodies. The cozy tearoom bustles with conversation, punctuated by the clinks of teacups against saucers and the occasional “mmmmmmm” as guests nibble at the treats.
Tea, which has been an institution since the early 2000s at the Eckhart House, is truly a civilized luxury not to be missed.
Joe is a fount of knowledge — about Wheeling’s history, the neighborhood and the Eckhart House. He dons his top hat, grabs his cane and begins to spout history as if he lived it.
“The Eckharts were people who did not take ‘no’ for an answer. When Henry List, the richest man in town, found out that the Eckharts, George, was going to build a house next to him on millionaire’s row, he rebelled and bought up all the property on the $1 side of the street. But he didn’t buy it all up on the 50-cent side of the street. So, George, Eckhart that is, decided he was going to buy a duplex on the 50-cent side of the street, and make it special,” Joe shared.
“This is a very special house. It has very special amenities. As you can see in all of its 12 fireplaces, gas is being piped in. We do not burn coal or wood. We have A/C electricity, not D/C electricity — as Mr. Henry List had across the street , the gentleman we all recognize with his nose in the air. George built a ‘spectacular house of great consequence,’ as it was said. It was a house of ‘significant note’ as the newspaper article said,” Joe explained.
The Wheeling Intelligencer did a full-page spread on the home when it was completed in October of 1892.
“The most important thing the house … it was one of the first in the country to be wired for A/C electricity. … So, in 1893, when the Chicago Exhibition opened, utilizing Mr. Tesla’s A/C electricity, this house was vindicated. Because they said A/C was too dangerous, Well, I can assure you 130 years later, the A/C electricity has not killed me yet. It’s come close, but it’s not killed me yet.
“So, A/C electricity, gas in our fireplaces, telephone — Oh, my! We also had city water. But we all had city water in 1892 because Wheeling was the first city west of the Allegheny Mountains to have city water. That went back to 1834. And the gentlemen from the water department that fixed the leak on Eighth Street just this week, I had to go and explain to them how historically significant these guys were. You see, the pipe that runs up that hill to those reservoirs was put in in 1834 — that was seven years before New York City had city water. ”
That cast iron pipe is still in the ground — made in Wheeling, Va., in 1834, Joe said.
“This house is significant. This house is one of the most important historic houses in the country. It is in the Library of Congress fully documented,” he said.
The woodwork is made from wood indigenous to the area. Hand-painted oils on the ceiling and walls are original, as are the chandeliers.
A banker, Eckhart wanted to show off his wealth, by building such a spectacular home. Despite List’s attempts to stop it, Eckhart succeeded in building a house that caused his neighbor, they say, “to not come out of his basement for two weeks.”
Joe continues his talk and shares his litany about neighbors, the neighborhood, the “spectacular” house built in 1891-92, Wheeling’s primeval virgin hardwood forest, the town’s millionaires (in the 1890s, Wheeling had more millionaires per capita than any other major city in the U.S.), the German serving girls, the Allegheny Mountains, transportation, natural resources. … He could go on for hours.
Joe shares an interesting tale in an entertaining way. Maybe it’s the top hat.
ECKHART HOUSE GIFT SHOPPE
The gift shop and tours preceded teatime at the Eckhart House, which the Figarettis purchased, restored and moved into in the early 1990s. Joe and Gretchen helped manage bed and breakfast inns and the Victorian Wheeling Landmarks Foundation tours for a while, and they owned some rentals in Old Town.
Eventually, the house was one of several Victorian homes on the Landmarks Foundation tours in Old Town. As people passed through the many spectacularly decorated rooms, they wanted to buy some of the décor and furnishings. It just made sense to add retail items.
Now, the entryway and the ladies’ parlor and gentlemen’s room overflow with greeting cards, jewelry, candles, wall décor, furniture, bookmarks, coasters, teacups and teapots, children’s tea sets, soaps, scarves, music boxes, puzzles, holiday decorations. … The selection is extensive, and all on clearance.
The biggest purchase one can make — not just yet, but perhaps in the spring — is the wonderful home itself. Joe and Gretchen plan to close the tearoom and gift shop by the end of May. They hope to have all of their shop inventory sold by then, and then sell the historic, 12-room house.
“Somebody could have a really prosperous business here,” Gretchen said. “We do an amazing job with the tearoom now (15 buses are expected for holiday teas this month, and reservations can often be hard to come by). For a retirement business, we’ve done well.
“It’s fun work. The gift shop is fun. The tearoom is fun. People are in that are happy and excited to be here. What’s not fun about that?” Gretchen said.
“This is a special house,” Joe said.
“It is special,” Gretchen agrees. “I’ve enjoyed living in this house. It’s so beautiful here. I thank God every day.”
The Ekhart House Gift Shoppe is open from noon to 4 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. The Figarettis will be hosting holiday teas through the end of December. They will close for the month of January, and reopen in February with a Valentine Tea, followed by Shamrock Tea, Spring Tea and Mother’s Day Tea, as well as teas by appointment throughout the spring. Teas are by reservation, and private weekday teas can be scheduled for six or more guests. Advance notice of a few weeks is appreciated, but at least three days is required. The Eckhart House is located at 810 Main St., Wheeling. Call 304-232-5439 to reserve your space at a sumptuous tea. Visit www.eckharthouse.com for more information.
• After 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 Sigal has joined Weelunk as 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.