When you take a tour of the West Virginia Independence Hall with site manager Travis Henline as your guide, you come to notice that he places a certain amount of emphasis on the word “west” each and every time he says, “West Virginia.”
The reasons for the inflection are obvious to those who hail from the country’s 35th state. On how many occasions have Morgantown or Wheeling or Huntington or Charleston been reported to be in Virginia? How many times have we all been asked how close Wheeling is to cities like Richmond and Norfolk?
“It’s frustrating, and we all know it,” said Henline, a graduate of Bridgeport High School and West Virginia University. “I find that most of us do the same thing, especially when we are out of town and out of state. One would think that the story of how West Virginia became a state would be enough for the entire country to teach it and remember it, but that apparently is not the case.”
Independence Hall, constructed and known as the U.S. Customs House at the time West Virginia became a state on June 20, 1863, was the site of conventions during which the secession from Virginia was planned and then orchestrated. Men like Francis Pierpont and Arthur Boreman led the contingent along the way, and West Virginia became the only state created from the end of the Civil War.
“It proves that West Virginians were savvy, and that they were damn smart,” he said. “Those folks accomplished something that was based on what helped form the country we have today. I’m not sure how many people realize that right now.
“What those men did more than 150 years ago right here in this building set a standard that was followed as the rest of the states were created and then recognized,” Henline explained. “What happened right here really gave the people the guts do what they did, and that’s something I believe everyone should be taught in this state and all the others.”
The Customs House, though, was abandoned by the federal and state governments as soon as the new federal courthouse was built and opened in downtown Wheeling. In 1907, this property on the corner of 16th and Market streets was sold to private ownership, and from then until the early 1960s everything from a bank, insurance offices, a drugstore, a restaurant, a nightclub, a tropical bar with fake palm trees – the “Hawaiian Isle” – and a few other businesses called the historic structure home. During those decades, a fourth floor was added for a business school, and an addition was built out to the street on the south end. By 1965, the exterior and interior of the Customs House were unrecognizable to its original self, and its condition was a concern to Wheeling officials.
“I think people realized it all along, but nothing was done about it until 1963,” Henline explained. “In 1963, the state was celebrating its centennial, and that’s really when the process of restoring it completely began. That’s what finally led to the showcase celebration we had for the sesquicentennial two years ago.
“A short two years later, in 1965, the city of Wheeling had determined the building to be dilapidated and that it was in danger of demolition. But the bones were still there, and the bones were still good, and the sandstone exterior – made from sandstone from the hillsides below Bethlehem facing the downtown – has always been there,” he continued. “That’s when a few concerned citizens raised enough of an issue with the city and the state about this building, and the state purchased the property in 1963 for around $100,000. And here we are today, 50 years later, and it is complete.”
The fourth floor was removed and so was the addition. Most of the building’s plaster had to be replaced, and the interior, based on historical documents, was reborn. The majority of the work took place in the 1970s.
“I doubt most people realize the amount of work that went into make this building what it is today because I often make the point to people that this is the most accurate restoration that’s ever taken place because of the amount of research that was conducted during the process. They were very careful,” Henline said.
“I have told people on many occasions that this is an example of how historic preservation should be done. What helped a lot is that they had the original architectural drawings. That limited the guesswork. And they did it right. This isn’t just an impressive building for West Virginia. It should be an example to people working on national historic preservation.”
The West Virginia Independence Hall finally was re-opened to the public in 1981.
“Former Gov. Arch Moore was a big fan of this building so the majority of the renovation work took place during the 1970s,” Henline said. “Everything on the inside had to be pretty much recreated, but there are some pieces that are original. For example, the iron shutters on the building are original and were manufactured at Eagle Foundry right here in Wheeling, and the iron columns that run through the building have always been here.
“And thanks to another $4 million worth of renovations that have taken place over the past six or seven years, this building now has a new roof, a new HVAC system, a fire-suppression system, and a few other things,” he said. “I can tell that today that courtroom is as close to its original appearance as it can be, and the post office located on the first floor was also preserved for all to see.
“At one time this building was in such disrepair that we’re lucky that piece of it didn’t start falling off onto the sidewalk. If that would have happened, who knows what the city of Wheeling would have done to protect the public.”
But today, Independence Hall offers its visitors the complete history of how the Mountain State split from Virginia and it also many artifacts from the Civil War itself.
“You cannot tell from the outside of the building what you will be encountering once you walk inside,” Henline said. “But once you are inside, the learning certainly begins.
“The Civil War Flag Display is representative of both the Union and Confederate sides of the conflict, and it has been here for six years now. That display was the culmination of a nine-year project,” Henline said. “There was a lot of fundraising that had to take place because those flags were not only found, but today they are in climate-control cases, and that is not a cheap thing to do.
“Initially, this was an initiative of the West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation effort, and then the state became involved about halfway through, and they worked together to get that done,” he said. “But to this day, I do not feel as if enough people walk through our doors. It depends on the time of year because we do get more school groups in the spring months. We probably get a couple of thousand folks in the door during those months, but if we’re talking about January and February, then we’re talking about maybe 20 people a week who come in here.”
In fact, the majority of the visitors to Independence Hall are not from Wheeling and not even West Virginia.
“The No. 1 group includes people who are out-of-state and who are Civil War buffs, or they came off the interstate because they saw one of the signs. You can look at the guestbook on the first floor,” Henline said. “When people from Wheeling walk through our doors, they are amazed. They know they’ve walked or driven past the building their entire lives, but when they walk in, it blows their mind. I think that’s when they realize that this is not only a gem as far as state history is concerned, but also a gem to national history of what exactly took place in this building almost 152 years ago.”
On June 20, this facility will receive another addition, but not one meant for its interior. A statue of Pierpont, rightfully respected as the birth father of the Mountain State, will be placed on the corner of 16th and Market streets. The ceremony will coincide with the Wheeling Arts Fest that will be staged across 16th Street on the campus of West Virginia Northern Community College.
“A big part of my job is meeting people and being an ambassador for our state, and the Pierpont statue will add to it” explained Henline, who has interpreted the Pierpont character on several occasions. “I get to demonstrate to them how very unique West Virginia is and how genius the men were while executing what they did to create the 35th state. I get to tell them how courageous it was.
“I also get to explain to our visitors how West Virginians were forward-thinking people,” he said. “I know there are plenty of stereotypes out there, but the story and the message that this building tells really lets people know that West Virginians were very brave and very smart people. When West Virginians are here visiting, they leave very proud.”
West Virginia Independence Hall is open Tue-Sat 9am-5pm.
photos by Steve Novotney