This Group is Preserving South Wheeling, One Building at a Time

Ritchietown Renaissance, a newly formed nonprofit dedicated to preserving South Wheeling’s historic resources and heritage, recently received a rather large donation from Kepner Funeral Homes—the funeral home itself! Located at 36th and Jacob Streets in South Wheeling, this property was nearly on the demolition chopping block following serious water damage, but was saved by the goodwill and good faith of some visionary neighbors. 

Established in 2022, in response to the dramatic increase in neighborhood demolitions, with the direct catalyst being a private demolition of the historic Hobbs House, Ritchietown Renaissance organized a small coalition of residents, preservationists, and neighborhood historians to imagine a different approach.

Historic Landmarks Commission member and preservation expert, Betsy Sweeny, helps illustrate the value of community involvement in this bureaucratic process. “This whole sequence of events around the Kepner building is a perfect example of how a local government and a group of engaged community members can work together toward neighborhood preservation— and if not for the preservation ordinance [2021] Ritchietown, would not have been alerted to or had the tools to consider taking a project like this on.”

  • Photos from The Friends of Wheeling's Tour of the Kepner Funeral Home building.

Rather than fighting the city and private property owners independently, the organization decided to work in a different capacity by acquiring the buildings themselves. Built in 1852 by Augustus Handlan, The Kepner building represents one of the neighborhood’s largest structures—amassing over 12,000 square feet. 

The original occupant was a dry goods and grocery company operated by D.L. Radcliffe & Co groceries in 1884. After decades of use and various owners, including use and expansion by the Cooey Bentz company in 1897. The building was ultimately converted to a funeral home in the early 1900s and sold to Kepners in the 1940s who remained the sole occupant until the devastating winter of 2021 caused serious water damage. A sprinkler system failure, as a result of extreme weather, caused water to pour into the building for approximately two days before a nearby resident called 911 after noticing ice accumulation on the windows during a walk with their dog. 

Upon further inspection, there was nearly 7 feet of water in the basement, and following extensive mitigation and cleaning by Panhandle Cleaning and Restoration, Jim Kepner, president of Kepner Funeral Home, decided to abandon the structure and acquire a demolition permit. Because this building and many like it are deemed “contributing” structures to the South Wheeling Historic District, according to the Historic Landmarks Commission as well as the State Historic Preservation Office, they face unique firewall protections from immediate demolition. 

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This is the moment when Ritchietown stepped in. “As in any real estate transaction, there were some challenges, but we were able to work with the Kepner family to achieve a positive result. In fact, it is a “win-win-win,” according to Debbie Griffin, Ritchietown Renaissance president. By donating the building instead of razing it, the Kepners will be able to claim a tax deduction and also have avoided the cost of demolition. Griffin continues, “It is a win for Ritchietown Renaissance because we received a building with great potential. It is a win for the South Wheeling neighborhood because an important commercial building in the South Wheeling Historic District has been saved from demolition and can be repurposed to continue to serve the community.  We hope that this serves as an example of how parties can work together to save historic buildings in Wheeling.”


South Wheeling residents describe a newfound energy emerging in the neighborhood. New housing, small businesses, increased home purchases, and city parks and recreation investments have all contributed to a sense of excitement and optimism for the future of the community. 

Although early in the process, Griffin is optimistic about the possible uses for the space.“If we have an artist workshop [on the first floor], we would love to rent spaces. There will also be common areas for tenants and visitors.”

Despite the water damage, the bare structure is strong and ready for development. There is electricity and water access currently in the building, although the boiler system needs some maintenance. Ritchietown Renaissance’s goal is ultimately the “preservation of buildings, either through our own actions or by providing assistance to others in their preservation efforts.” 

As we enter the new year, Ritchietown Renaissance is accepting concepts and ideas for the space and is currently accepting donations while actively applying for matching grants. To support the project, you can contact Debbie Griffin at for more information. You can also learn more about this group by visiting their website and following them on Facebook and Instagram

• Rosemary Ketchum is a member of the Wheeling City Council representing Ward 3. Rosemary’s work in community organizing and politics has been featured on TODAY, MSNBC, CBS, and CNN.