(Cover photo by Wheeling resident Wade Augerbright)
And there it rests on a footprint stretching 96 feet deep and 300 feet along 15th Street in East Wheeling. It is the former Clay School, and it’s an 83,000-square-foot building that has welcomed students and teachers of all creeds and color from the most diverse sections of Wheeling.
If sold for a song by Ohio County Schools during the past few years as it was in the mid-1990s, the structure would be a valuable commodity simply because of its across-the-street proximity to the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park on the corner of 15th and Wood streets. Instead, old Clay has become a liability as it shadows the all-purpose playing surface with shattered and bullet-holed windows, a leaning front façade that’s closed a portion of public sidewalk, and flooding issues from the cracked basement and the leaky roof.
The owner, Darryl Baynes, insisted though, that “the bones are good” despite the building’s exterior and interior issues, but when he purchased it 12 years ago for $65,000, his vision of a science education center was clear and seemed possible. But Baynes failed in gaining the grant funding he was counting on to make his dream come true; it’s far from ADA compliant, and now, after the property has failed to gain any significant interest from a potential buyer since placed on the open market in 2013 for $249,000, its fate is more uncertain than ever before.
“The location of the building is fantastic when considering the worth of real estate, but, unfortunately, I just do not see it being saved because of the amount of money it would take to fix all of the issues,” said Missy Ashmore, a realtor with Kennen & Kennen of Wheeling. “I have walked prospective buyers through it three times, and each of those folks were local with a lot of hopes.
“At the end of those tours the people realized the amount of money it would take to fix everything that’s wrong, mostly on the interior of the building,” she continued. “In the beginning, when it was first closed as a school, a developer could have done a lot of different things with it by renovating it floor by floor, but now that so much time has passed I’m not sure anyone will come in and spend a few million dollars to do the work that’s necessary.”
Ashmore said about a year ago two prospects hoped to transition former the Clay School into a housing complex, and the other envisioned a children’s play center in the three-floor structure. She has not received a request for a showing since March 2015.
When Clay was open, that one roof covered more than 20 classrooms, a kitchen, auditorium, a library, a gymnasium, and those long hallways lined with lockers that thousands of former pupils can still recall clearly today. But the seeping ceilings have heavily damaged the entire third floor, and the saturation has caused cracks and crumbling on the two floors below.
“I wish I could have found him a buyer (because) Darryl has heart,” Ashmore said. “I give Darryl all the credit in the world because he really wanted to make his plans come true, but then it just became a monster project he didn’t know what to do with.
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“We were in that area over the Easter weekend for a soccer tournament at the new field, and our entire family was talking about the building and what could have been, but now I just don’t know. I wish I could tell you something wonderful about Clay School, but I can’t.”
Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie, whose mother attended Clay School during her childhood in East Wheeling, hoped the Baynes’ project would be completed in conjunction with the development of the one adjacent to the J.B. Chambers complex.
“It would have made perfect sense, and the owner had his vision for a sports and education center far before the idea of a sports complex in that area of East Wheeling was even thought of,” he said. “Unfortunately I believe the property is past saving, and it will probably have to be torn down, and that is very unfortunate for Wheeling, but it may be the only option. My mom and several family members went to Clay School, and the school was a major part of East Wheeling.”
The history of the property’s ownership is also troubling to Wheeling’s mayor because McKenzie feels the buyer’s intention for the property was not considered by the administration or board members of Ohio County Schools at the time the school was sold. In the fact, the 12-year veteran of the state Senate suggested a state code amendment to current West Virginia lawmakers.
“I believe that state law should mandate that anyone buying or taking control of school property must show they have the resources to invest and maintain the quality of the property,” McKenzie said. “While the current owner was not the first buyer, the original buyer did not do what should have been required to maintain the property.
“And now, I’m disappointed that the owner of Clay School has not kept the building up to code, and the property has been a major source of problems in East Wheeling that’s affected property values, quality-of-life issues, and safety,” the mayor continued. “We’ll continue to work with the property owner to solve these long term issues, but unfortunately he does not have the resources to do what needs done.”
Take another peek at the Wade Augerbright’s aerial photo of the area in question, and realize just how large a footprint Clay School owns at this time in East Wheeling. If removed via demolition, at least eight townhomes could be constructed, but so could a parking lot for 40-50 vehicles.
“If the property is either purchased or transferred to the city, then what? The best guess is that it will be torn down, but will the city attract a developer for townhouses? If that’s the case, great, because that’s what this city needs most right now,” Ashmore said. “But if they take it down and make it a parking lot, I will tell right now that’s not needed for the field. We’re doing just fine with the parking that’s available now.
“It’s a big area, and I’m sure most people don’t realize what a hole it will leave there if the building is demolished,” Ashmore said. “If housing is built, it will sell. That I can tell you.”