If you have driven up Mount Wood Road to bypass the recent interstate construction project, you’ve likely noticed the unique property. It appears to be the foundation of a castle-like structure, mysteriously left unfinished.
Local legend has it that it was going to be a hospital. Or a palatial home for a long-forgotten doctor who was building it for his lovely young bride who then died an untimely death. Or was it perhaps for the doctor’s mistress? Utterly scandalous! So many rumors abound. Let’s begin by separating fact from fiction.
THE TRUE STORY
According to an article on the Archiving Wheeling website, the Wheeling Castle was built by Dr. Andrew J. Harness, a well-respected local physician. Harness and his wife Mabel set about purchasing the land in what was called the Charles Landmeyer Addition. This addition encompasses the area of the current overlook and the homes surrounding it. Over the course of 1921, the Harnesses purchased most of the lots in the addition. No one knows for sure, but it is believed that Harness planned to build a large live-in clinic. Harness was devoted to his patients and likely would have been drawn to the idea of living and working in a single building where he could quickly and easily give them his immediate attention. Of course, having come from humble beginnings, Harness was probably also happy to be able to give himself and his family a home that reflected the success he had managed to achieve. Construction on the site progressed until 1925 when Harness was indicted on two counts of illegal drug sales.
Harness, known for his kindness and generosity in helping patients who lacked the funds to pay him, was approached by two separate patients in need of pain-relieving drugs. He sold each of the patients narcotics, as they lacked enough money to buy them through legal avenues. It turned out that the two “patients” were actually federal narcotics agents enforcing the Harrison Narcotics Act that imposed taxes on the distribution and sale of narcotics. Harness’s crime was selling the drugs “under the table” to patients he thought were in need and thus avoiding the required taxation.
He was sentenced to 18 months in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, but was granted early release for good behavior after serving just over a year of his sentence. He never did finish the castle intended for his wife and their daughters Myrtle and Louise. In fact, the family relocated to southern West Virginia during the good doctor’s time in prison and did not live in Wheeling again following his release.
In recent decades, Mount Wood Overlook had become a bit neglected and overrun with weeds. It’s a popular hangout for many area residents, not all of whom are simply enjoying the commanding view of the downtown area. Illicit drug use was all too common in the tall grass and bushes at the base of the castle as evidenced by needles often discarded in the brush.
It also was and likely remains a common haunt for underage drinkers. In addition, the space is a popular canvas on which graffiti artists hone their craft. It became apparent that the area needed some TLC, so the city helped to coordinate an effort to spruce up the structure and add some fun murals.
City Director of Parks and Recreation Jesse Mestrovic is a big fan of the castle.
“The Overlook is an underappreciated park and the Wheeling Overlook. The history of the place is remarkable. For as long as I can remember, the area has always been blighted with graffiti and litter and is a place for mischievous behavior. Our goal was to bring life back to the area, clean up the area and show that the place is loved. I remember bringing friends home from college, and the Mount Wood Overlook was one of those Wheeling destinations that I got to show off our hometown,” shares Mestrovic.
Artist and West Liberty University instructor Brian Fencl was engaged to provide the mural design.
“The project started with the City of Wheeling Park’s Director Jesse Mestrovic and Wheeling Heritage’s Alex Weld reaching out and starting a conversation about the site,” Fencl says. “I think in their minds, that area is not utilized properly for the community, and they had ideas about how to start to transform it. I think this is how Orrick became involved.”
Orrick, an international law firm whose Global Operations & Innovation Center is located on Main Street, happened to be planning its annual Pride in Wheeling Day. This yearly June service event is designed to give Orrick employees and their community partners an opportunity to spruce up some areas of the city while raising awareness of LGBTQ issues during Pride Month.
“Brian had the idea of giving it a fresh look and utilizing his mischievous characters. The city partnered with Orrick and gray-washed the area to give it a fresh start. We picked up litter, pulled weeds and just gave it a refresh,” Mestrovic says. “Brian worked tirelessly to add his flair to the site and project. He spent many days in the sweltering heat. Some of his creativity can still be seen and appreciated. We left an area for creative expression in the attempt to encourage an outlet in a controlled area but … that didn’t work. The area, unfortunately, returned to what we see today. Without surveillance, improved lighting, maintenance and routine police patrols, we will probably continue to see the use that has been going on for decades. However, just like before, it is an opportunity to enhance one of our parks. We are open to any and all ideas. I just want a place that we can all be proud of where I can take my grandparents without being embarrassed by the profanity.”
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The mural work Fencl added is based on a pop surrealist body of artwork that he says he has been exploring for almost 30 years. “My idea was to create a cohesive body of work that incorporated the visual language that already existed on the walls. I also incorporated ideas from people I met while I was there working. I really wanted to respond to what is happening there, the history of the place and create in the moment. I saw it as a chance to work on a really large scale and contribute something interesting to the culture of Wheeling. I met some really nice people while working and they shared their stories with me,” Fencl relates.
Orrick employees Melinda Koslik and Nick Roxby “gray-wash” the flat upper area of the Castle as part of the cleanup effort. (Photo courtesy of Polinski Photography
Artist Brian Fencl’s whimsical characters can be seen on the walls of the Overlook.
The artist says he still gets feedback from people who visit the site. “Every once in a while I see the work used as a backdrop for photos or video projects. It has a life of its own, which is exciting!”
Once Fencl’s artistry was complete, new trash receptacles and picnic tables were added to the Overlook’s flat upper deck.
Nick Roxby, Orrick IT training specialist, was the Pride in Wheeling site coordinator for the Mount Wood Overlook renovation project. Roxby says he was on board immediately once he heard what was planned.
“I joined immediately as the committee was tackling two topics that were significant to me: raising awareness of LBGTQ issues and improving areas in the city of Wheeling. As a life-long resident of Wheeling, it brought me a sense of purpose and pride in my community to see individuals from Orrick and others from local businesses willing to volunteer their time and efforts towards the betterment of the community while also showing other residents of the area that we embrace the LBGTQ community,” he said.
“We cleaned up garbage and the overgrowth of weeds onsite before covering large areas of unwanted graffiti and preserving other areas of graffiti to be visually enjoyed. Seeing the transformation of the site throughout the day was just one of the many positive aspects of the event. It reminded me of the time, money and efforts put forth by the volunteers, Orrick, the City of Wheeling and local businesses including Cabela’s, Williams Lea, Ziegenfelder, WesBanco and Oglebay that made this all happen,” Roxby tells Weelunk.
“It was a joy to work with all of the volunteers that took time out of their day to help beautify this area that had been neglected for many years. Their teamwork and willingness to help inspired others that were walking by the site to sign up on the spot to begin helping instantly. It was very uplifting to witness,” Roxby adds.
Roxby shares that making a difference at that one site in Wheeling motivated him to join other organizations that impact our local community.
In the two years since the cleanup project was completed, folks from all walks of life have enjoyed the spruced-up space and Fencl’s whimsical artwork. Not everyone was pleased with the new Overlook 2.0 initially, however; there was a flurry of complaints noted on social media from residents who felt a personal connection to the graffiti that had been covered. Despite the fact that the turret-like stairwell of the Wheeling Castle had been designated as a free-art space where those with a desire to express themselves could continue to do so, some people were unhappy that their giant canvas had been reduced significantly in size.
“After gray-washing and adding the mural by Brian, I heard comments from the community about how they enjoy the graffiti,” recalls Mestrovic. “I just hope that we can continue to allow this activity as a form of expression but only add tasteful elements to the walls. Like I said before, I would love to see this place where all citizens can be proud of and be part of as the active community art project that is Mount Wood Overlook.”
Within mere hours of the refresh, new areas of graffiti had already sprung up on the overlook’s walls and decking. Though the final project was covered with an anti-graffiti coating which would allow unwanted images to be removed fairly easily, no on-going effort to do so has occurred. Wheeling’s Castle is a beloved community art space that truly belongs to the people in its realm.
• A lifelong Wheeling resident, Ellen Brafford McCroskey is a proud graduate of Wheeling Park High School and the former Wheeling Jesuit College. By day, she works for an international law firm; by night, (and often on her lunch breaks and weekends) she enjoys moonlighting as a part-time writer. Please note that the views expressed in her writing are solely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, including her full-time employer. Through her writing, Ellen aims to enlighten others on causes close to her heart, particularly addiction, recovery and equal rights. She and her husband Doug reside in Warwood with their clowder of rescued cats, each of whom is a direct consequence of his job as the Ohio County Dog Warden. Their family includes four adult children, their spouses and several grandkids.