Island Landmark Now in Jeopardy

The city-owned former Gene Long Community Center – where Wheeling Island long has chronicled the Ohio River’s might through a litany of high water marks scrawled on its facade – could become the latest historic building in Wheeling to fall victim to age and neglect.

City workers Monday morning erected a temporary barricade around the vacant building after several bricks fell from the top of the structure to the sidewalk below on Sunday afternoon. Wheeling Director of Economic and Community Development Nancy Prager said the city is working on putting a chain link fence around the building and officials have yet to decide whether the building will be repaired or demolished.

Public Works Director Russell Jebbia said he got a call about the partial collapse from central dispatch about 1 p.m. Sunday. There were only six to eight bricks on the sidewalk when he arrived on scene, but he said the situation is dangerous for pedestrians.

The building dates back to 1868. A sign in the window bills it as “Wheeling Island’s Own Town Hall,” where community members once gathered in a restaurant and dance hall inside.

Though it’s vacant today, the building’s most unique enduring feature is the “flood wall” at the northwest corner, which records high water marks from various flood events throughout Wheeling’s history. Above them all, the mark of 55.5 feet from the devastating flood of March 19, 1936, is recalled simply as “The Big One.”

If it’s ultimately demolished, it would become the second building on a list of properties targeted for preservation to be destroyed since that list was released in October. There are seven properties on the list, only four of which had buildings on them at that time.

One is the former Imperial Pools building that was demolished in January. Loss of the Gene Long building would leave the former Tom’s Pizza building next to Braunlich’s on Main Street and the former police precinct building on 15th Street in East Wheeling as the only structures on the list left standing.

A plan developed by a special committee on preservation that Mayor Andy McKenzie appointed last year aims to get those properties back into productive use by selling them to interested developers at low cost in return for rehabilitating them in a timely manner. The plan has received the backing of the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission but has yet to be presented to City Council for final approval.

Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. Executive Director Jeremy Morris, who leads the mayor’s committee on preservation, said he was out of town over the weekend and had not seen the damage. But he hopes city officials will not rush to tear down the building before finding out if there may be someone interested in saving it.

“I think we need to see what the extent of the damage is … and let someone in the private sector at least have a shot at it,” Morris said. “It’s a very prominent building for the Island, and I would hate to see it go.”