Everywhere you look downtown, improvements are being made. From the McLure Hotel, to the major infrastructure improvements happening beneath our streets, Wheeling is seeing more investment in downtown than it has seen in several decades.
To bolster these efforts, Wheeling Heritage and the City of Wheeling are working together to market two more potential redevelopments – The Blue Church and the 1400 block of Market Street. Both of these properties are challenging, but historically significant and important to their respective neighborhood’s fabric.
Wheeling Heritage purchased The Blue Church in 2013 to ensure that one of Wheeling’s oldest buildings could be preserved. The City of Wheeling owns the 1400 block of Market for similar reasons. Both sites are architecturally significant and provide a physical anchor for the neighborhoods they sit in.
Assembling the Right Team
So, what are we to do with these vacant buildings with a ton of potential? Wheeling Heritage and the City have teamed up to hire development and marketing firms, Steadfast City and Evenbound, to develop and distribute a request for proposals process for each of the buildings. Steadfast City’s motto is “develop better.” Their work focuses on economic development in cities working towards revitalization and connecting developers with the resources they need to do projects in those kinds of cities. Evenbound is a digital marketing agency that specializes in connecting property owners with real estate developers. Together, with the City of Wheeling and Wheeling Heritage, the team hopes to showcase the incentives and growth potential of the properties and reach new audiences that might not otherwise be aware of Wheeling.
The goal for this endeavor is to take a national approach. These buildings are fixtures in their respective neighborhoods. While the local community is well aware of these properties, there’s a finite group of people who have the means, desire and skill to execute such large-scale projects. There are many seasoned preservation developers across the country who are capable and eager to take on these projects, but they might not be aware of the potential here in Wheeling. That’s where the team at Steadfast City and Evenbound come in. This team is going to help us change that, and reach those new people!
Looking Toward the Future
Despite their challenges, both Wheeling Heritage and the City of Wheeling are confident that these sites can, and should, be returned to public use. Wheeling’s downtown vacancy rate has been halved since 2015, and the city is slated to see more investment in the next several years than the sum of decades past.
Those interested in viewing the RFPs for these properties can find them at wheelingheritage.org. Proposals will be accepted through the end of October, and the partners hope to select qualified developers in the new year.
About the Properties
The Blue Church
Consecrated in 1837 as St Matthew’s Episcopal, this Greek Revival church is one of the few pre-Civil war buildings remaining in Wheeling, making it one of the oldest buildings in our community. When St. Matthew’s congregation moved to its fourth home, the church was purchased by the First Baptist Church, whose members called it home for nearly 100 years. The building most recently was used by the Church of God and Saints of Christ.
When the Wheeling Young Preservationists and Wheeling Heritage heard that the church was for sale, they partnered to buy the building. Through generous donations from two local foundations and countless individuals from all over the country, the partners were able to raise the funds necessary to acquire the building and ensure its preservation.
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Wheeling Heritage has made substantial improvements to the building including the necessary roof, gutter and masonry repairs. “Mothballing” as it is called in the preservation community, means stabilizing a building to ensure its long-term protection, and often excludes superficial or aesthetic changes.
Wheeling Heritage continues to protect and preserve The Blue Church, but East Wheeling deserves more business activity. Through this RFP process, the goal is to select the best developer with the best proposal for reusing the space, while maintaining its historic integrity.
The 1400 Block of Market Street in Downtown Wheeling contains four buildings, all contributing to the Wheeling Historic District. Each with their own distinct architectural style, these four buildings maintain a high level of original historic fabric. The buildings’ addresses from left to right: 1437, 1433, 1429, and 1425 all present unique characteristics, and challenges.
1425 Market St., the former Sportsman Club, is the oldest of the four buildings. The Italianate building dates to the 1880s and was originally built for the Standard Cigar Works. It was then used as a saloon, a hotel, and finally a bar from the mid-20ths century until the recent closure of the Sportsman Club.
1429 Market St., the former Zeller’s building is perhaps the most striking, as it is one of the only examples of the Flemish revival style in Wheeling. It is also infamous for its connection to Bill Lias. But before Bill Lias, Charles Bauer operated a saloon, restaurant and hotel in the building around the turn of the century. The property changed owners several times, was a restaurant and hotel during prohibition, before eventually landing in the hands of its most famous owner, Bill Lias who famously had Zeller’s Steakhouse, complete with tuxedoed waitstaff and plenty of gambling and table games.
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1431 Market appears to be in the best condition of the four buildings. The first floor was used for various commercial purposes throughout the 20th century and the upper floors contained apartments. From 1919 through the mid 20th century, Wheeling Candy Kitchen operated out of this building. The building’s most recent use was as a bar.
Finally, 1437 Market St. is the last remaining building in the block with a current commercial tenant. Originally, the neoclassical building housed various saloons and restaurants until prohibition, when Harry Paradise operated the Mecca Restaurant, which featured soft drinks and cigars. Later, in the 1930s, the Fette family opened Fette’s News Depot, which remained in operation until the 1970s.
While the 1400 block buildings are in increasingly poor condition, their potential in terms of architectural integrity, and location, warrant their redevelopment. “We need to look at these buildings as non-renewable resources and think expansively in terms of adaptive reuse projects to save them, said Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott. “The City stands ready to work with any developer willing to look past the current condition of these buildings and see them for their full redevelopment potential in the heart of downtown Wheeling, barely more than 100 feet from West Virginia Independence Hall.”