Much of Wheeling is experiencing a season of renewal. Both historic renovations and new builds can be seen in various areas of our city, sparking excitement among citizens who are eager to see what’s ahead for the Friendly City.
Ritchietown Renaissance, Inc. is a new preservation group that was recently established to help save historic structures in South Wheeling, originally known as Ritchietown. The group’s President, Debbie Griffin, is a transplant to our area from California. Initially, she came to the Ohio Valley to attend Belmont College’s Historic Building Preservation/Restoration program. After graduation, she stayed on and eventually became employed as a Senior Preservation Specialist at Heritage Architectural Associates, an architectural firm that specializes in historic preservation projects in West Virginia, Ohio and several other states.
Griffin has been charmed by old homes and buildings since she was a young girl, and this interest, as well as her education and experience, combine to make her a great fit for leading Ritchietown Renaissance to success. She shared a brief history of South Wheeling with Weelunk.
Ritchietown’s Early Days
According to Griffin, John Ritchie and Samuel Sprigg first laid out the area that would become Ritchietown in 1835. In 1851, Ritchietown was renamed South Wheeling, but was maintained as a separate community from Wheeling proper. It wasn’t until twenty years later that South Wheeling became part of the city.
The area developed as a working-class industrial community that attracted many immigrants and children of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Poland, Croatia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and other countries. The proximity to raw materials and access to transportation drew entrepreneurs, who were then followed by skilled craftsmen and factory workers from overseas as well as from other parts of the United States. These early residents found work in industrial plants such as Wheeling Pottery/Tile, Schmulbach Brewery, LaBelle Nail and Bloch Brothers.
During those years, the glass-making industry was also one of the biggest commercial enterprises in the area. John L. Hobbs and his son John H. Hobbs, along with their partner Charles Brockunier, operated J.H. Hobbs, Brockunier & Company glass works at 36th Street east of McColloch Street. For years, John L. worked to find a less expensive method of producing glass, and in 1864, company chemist William Leighton, Sr. perfected a formula utilizing lime instead of lead. This new formula was a major advancement in the glass industry and put Hobbs Brockunier on the map as a major international glass company. One of their signature products was Wheeling Peachblowglass, known for its distinctive graduated colors ranging from red to amber. Pieces of Wheeling Peachblow and others made by Hobbs Brockunier can be viewed at Oglebay’s Glass Museum.
Many employees of Hobbs Brockunier went on to start their own glass companies such as Fostoria, Hazel-Atlas and others.
The Loss of the Hobbs House
During the heyday of glass manufacturing in South Wheeling, the John L. Hobbs’ family residence was a beautiful home located at 3530 Eoff Street. In 2022, a group of South Wheeling preservationists led by the South Wheeling Preservation Alliance (SWPA) tried in vain to save the historic Hobbs home. “Unfortunately, we were just too late to the game. We need to be able to catch this stuff earlier in the process,” Griffin said regretfully.
However, we all know that new beginnings sometimes spring from sad endings, and that’s just what happened in this case. The creation of Ritchietown Renaissance is a direct result of the inability to save the historically-significant Hobbs house. Griffin said that the group was able to get their start thanks in part to a generous grant from Wheeling Heritage, for which she expressed her gratitude.
Ritchietown Renaissance is now officially designated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit tax-exempt organization complete with officers and an all-star Board of Directors that includes SWPA founders Ginger Kabala and Brother John Byrd. Other Board members are Friends of Wheeling (FOW) President Jeanne Finstein; FOW Board members Judi Hendrickson and Peggy Niebergall; Ken Sexton, who was recently appointed to Wheeling’s Historic Landmarks Commission and is also a FOW Board member; Steve Avdakov, preservation architect and principal of Heritage Architectural Associates; interior designer Lisa Schmidtke; and ex-officio member Betsy Sweeny from Wheeling Heritage. “We have a terrific Board made up of community members in South Wheeling, leaders of FOW, and historic preservation professionals,” said Griffin. “As a group, the Board offers broad-based experience in advocacy and historic preservation as well as a passion for saving buildings.”
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Saving Additional South Wheeling Structures
Griffin stated that the group’s main hope, of course, is to save other structures in the future, either through their own actions or by assisting others in their preservation efforts. According to Griffin, the group is reviewing a couple of properties in particular and is in the process of discussing those sites with City leaders. But their mission expands well beyond physical preservation. The group plans to provide education on the benefits of preservation as well as the physical “how-tos” of the process. They also aim to assist South Wheeling residents in completing preservation grant/loan applications. “We want to educate and raise awareness as well. We want to help guide those who want to preserve their own properties. We can advise and steer them toward available resources,” she said. “There is so much interesting history here. We want to do anything we can to get that information out there.”
Ritchietown Renaissance also hopes to provide hands-on classes for folks who’d like to learn some of the basic skills needed for historic preservation. They also plan to help pair aspiring preservationists with properties in need of renovation. In addition, the group will be partnering with SWPA on their compatible missions. “SWPA supports historic preservation in their neighborhood. They operate community gardens and sponsor holiday decorating contests, among other activities,” Griffin shared. “Ritchietown Renaissance will be able to help people with the actual preservation process itself. There are a lot of exciting things going on in Wheeling right now, and there’s still a lot of historic fabric here to be restored and adaptively reused while maintaining historic qualities.”
South Wheeling Receives Historic Status
A few years back, an intern with Wheeling Heritage began the process of preparing a nomination to have South Wheeling placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The internship ended before the nomination was finished, and Heritage Architectural Associates eventually stepped in to complete the process. In 2020, South Wheeling was officially added to the Register. However, a celebration of the designation had to be put on hold due to the ongoing pandemic. Griffin shared that one of the events planned by Ritchietown Renaissance and SWPA in the coming months is a sign placement ceremony and overdue celebration for the South Wheeling community.
South Wheeling's historic district boundaries.
A page from the nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places shows Bloch Brothers as it appeared in 1931.
Support South Wheeling at These Upcoming Events
In addition to the sign ceremony, Ritchietown Renaissance plans to have an online architectural scavenger hunt for both adults and children as well as a holiday ornament sale. The ornament design has yet to be determined but is sure to feature something South Wheeling-related.
The group’s first event will be a South Wheeling/Wheeling trivia night which will be held on Thursday, April 20 at The Foundry, 3532 Jacob Street. The Foundry itself is situated in a beautifully-restored building owned by Rebecca Stone and her family, and Griffin expressed her appreciation to the Stones for their investment in the neighborhood. On the night of the event, both individuals and teams are welcome. Onsite registration will begin at 6:00 p.m. with play starting at 6:30 p.m. Griffin noted that if participants would like to do a bit of studying prior to the event, they can do so by visiting the Wheeling Room at the Ohio County Public Library.
Griffin also mentioned that SWPA has published an informational book entitled The Saga of South Wheeling. The book provides a detailed overview of the area’s storied history, complete with a large number of photos. Copies of the book are $30 and can be purchased by contacting SWPA via Facebook message or by calling 304-233-8917.
You are cordially invited to join the Renaissance! Memberships and donations to the group are now being accepted. Volunteer positions are also available. To join, donate or volunteer, visit the Ritchietown Renaissance website. For additional details on upcoming events, check out the group’s Facebook page. According to that page, Ritchietown Renaissance is “dedicated to preserving the physical historic resources of South Wheeling.” And that can only bring increased awareness and aesthetic improvement to the neighborhood. After all, as Griffin said, “A building sitting empty is of no use to anyone.”
• Ellen Brafford McCroskey is a lifelong resident of Wheeling and a proud graduate of Wheeling Park High School, where she discovered her love of writing as a member of the yearbook staff. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Human Resources Management at the former Wheeling Jesuit College. By day, she utilizes that degree at the international law firm where she is employed. After work, you can find her relaxing with family, friends, and her clowder of cats.