Finstein Lauds Positive Trend

Times have changed, and in a good way, for Friends of Wheeling’s annual Preservation Forum.

Jeanne Finstein, Friends of Wheeling president, noted the contrast as she opened this year’s event held at the Ohio County Public Library Tuesday night. She recalled that when the Preservation Forum was launched eight or nine years ago, most of the reports concerned historical structures that had been lost or were endangered,

The mood in those days was “a real downer,” but it has become more positive, Finstein remarked. Now, she said, “It’s become more of ‘someone’s doing this …'”

Finstein said the major losses, from a historic preservation standpoint, of the past year were the demolition of the former Kirk’s building downtown and the current removal of the “witness tree” on the grounds of Monument Place.

The former Kirk’s arts supply store stood vacant for about a decade and sustained so much structural damage from neglect that razing the building became inevitable. The good news, Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott pointed out, is that the city is giving the property to the state to extend the green space adjacent to the restored Soldiers and Sailors Monument on the lawn of West Virginia Independence Hall.

Cutting down the “witness tree” on the grounds of Osiris Shrine’s headquarters also became unavoidable. Finstein noted that three expert arborists examined the sycamore tree, estimated to be 300 years old, and found that it was “essentially hollow” and could not be saved.

On a bright note, Finstein said the Shriners have started a few saplings from the old tree.

Regarding the history that the sycamore tree “witnessed,” she said the tree would have been about 50 years old when the first settlers arrived in the area; it would have been nearly 150 years old during the Civil War and 200 years old by the end of World War I.

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Ginger Kabala, president of the South Wheeling Preservation Alliance, also spoke at the Preservation Forum and described the group’s projects to identify, preserve and promote “the spirit and history” of the neighborhood.

“The beauty is still there,” she said regarding South Wheeling’s attributes.

She said 212 of 321 buildings located in that section of the city were cited as contributing to a proposed South Wheeling Historic District. Jake Dougherty, executive director of Wheeling Heritage, said the State Historic Preservation Office is slated to review a nomination for the proposed historic district this month.

Kabala warned, though, that early industrialist John L. Hobbs’ former home at 3530 Eoff St. is endangered. The house was constructed circa 1850.

She said the Preservation Alliance would like to see the former Southern Theatre, located at 3301 Eoff St., be restored. The theater, built in 1913, is connected to the legacy of Wheeling native Eleanor Steber, a renowned soprano who became a star of the Metropolitan Opera.

In its heyday, South Wheeling firms produced a wide variety of goods, notably nails, pottery, tile, glass, beer and tobacco. Kabala said notable residents of South Wheeling included Hobbs; Michael Owens, who developed the first automatic bottle-making machine; Walter Reuther, famed president of the United Auto Workers union, and Irene Meagel, who donated $20 million to charitable organizations in the community.

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Congratulations are extended to all of the local residents involved in creating the Wheeling 250-related program on the African American experience in Wheeling. The excellent program was presented Tuesday for the Lunch With Books series at the Ohio County Public Library.

Ron Scott Jr., cultural diversity and community outreach coordinator at the YWCA Wheeling, narrated the presentation and contributed material to the program. Sean Duffy, the library’s programming director, wrote the script with research support from library staff member Erin Rothenbuehler and Wheeling historian Margaret Brennan.

For the multimedia presentation, Duffy and Rothenbuehler selected images from the library’s archives, readings from speeches by well-known African American residents and video clips from the library’s Wheeling Memory Project interviews with Wheeling natives Ann Thomas, a retired nurse, and William Burrus, a former international president of the American Postal Workers Union.

Linda Comins can be reached via email at: lcomins@theintelligencer.net

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