Old Alley House: A Wheeling Treasure

The property description is very trendy these days.

Loft apartment, fully updated kitchen and bathroom, garage, a living space, an enclosed and shared courtyard, and bedroom walking distance from the downtown district.

Trendy, yes, but it’s a property that has existed in East Wheeling since before the Civil War. Sure, it’s different these days, especially since Dominick Cerrone’s alley house along Lane 13 got gutted during the winter.

“What I understand about this house is that it’s pre-Civil War, so they call it ‘antebellum,’ and it’s part of the main lot and was always intended to be just a back-of-the-property structure for whatever usage,” Cerrone explained. “And there were a lot of these kinds of properties in certain neighborhoods here in Wheeling, and the back structures were always owned by the people who lived in the larger, front home.

The second floor of the alley house features a living room, bedroom, and a full bathroom.

“On this lot, the original front home was demolished to make way for the house that stands here now, but the back structure was kept at the time that change took place. That was in 1915,” he continued. “That was the time when East Wheeling was experiencing a lot of change with the wealthy people moving in, taking down the original houses, and then building the ones they wanted. The back structure was either a revenue generator or a place for their staff to live.”

The Beltz family owned the lot while operating a very successful lumber and manufacturing business, and including the construction of the alley houses likely was for residents and not for storage.

“I suspect that when the Beltz family bought this lot and built both structures that the carriage house was used for housing for some of their workers at their lumber yard,” Cerrone said. “And it’s my understanding that a lot of the houses along these alleys in East Wheeling were used as worker homes because they would be able to walk from this area to where the industry was along Big Wheeling Creek and in Center Wheeling.

The shared courtyard is completely hidden away from Lane 13 that runs in front of the house.

“That’s why a lot of the lower end of East Wheeling was once full of these kinds of alley homes, and back then people didn’t need nearly the amount of space we require today and what the wealthy in the early 1900s wanted,” he said. “My family purchased this property in the 1980s, and the alley house was still two separate apartments, and each of them had the stoop to the door along the alley. Where the garages are now were the first-floor living rooms, and there were kitchens on that level, too. Upstairs was the bedroom with a very small bathroom.”

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With the shared courtyard between the big house and the two apartments, the residents must have interacted, right? That is something Cerrone has often contemplated.

“That’s because of how unique the alley house is I’ve always wondered about the relationship between the people who lived in the back units and the people who lived in the front house. For the Beltz’s, the alley house could have been used for staff because they were very wealthy and prominent in the city of Wheeling. But that’s something I don’t know.

“There are a few of these alley houses, and there used to be more than when I first moved here to East Wheeling with my family about 30 years ago. I do believe them to be something pretty distinctive to Wheeling,” he said. “You may see them, too, in some neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, and I think that’s because people were pretty squeezed together in areas where the industrial jobs were. The workers needed to live close to those areas because there were way fewer cars than there are today.”

The kitchen has been completely remodeled and is situated on the first level of the historic building.

Cerrone has been “landlording” for the past two decades, so when the opportunity arose to renovate the space into something similar to the downtown, loft apartments that have welcomed renters the past few years, he jumped at the chance. He plans to market the apartment later this summer at what is considered the market rate for the area.

“What we did this past winter was open up those two apartments to make it one larger, two-floor apartment by taking down the divide on the second floor to create a living area, and bedroom, and a full bathroom,” Cerrone reported. “The entire unit is larger than you think because, along with everything else I explained, you also have a laundry room and the two garages. Without including the garage areas, it’s about 800 square foot.

“We pretty much demolished the interior in the fall, and then totally renovated it after the holidays, and we finally completed it in May. We didn’t just do that for the revenue, but also to preserve a building that was constructed here in East Wheeling before the Civil War. There’s a lot of history resting there,” he explained. “You always hear that people wish that something very old could talk so you could hear those stories, but with this alley house, I just wish I could see everything that it’s seen over the 150 years it’s been there.”

(Photos by Steve Novotney)