Digging Through Steel History

Before Coon Restoration and Sealants can turn Wheeling’s tallest building into a $20 million apartment tower, West Virginia Division of Culture and History officials hope preserve many records, reports and maps that were simply left behind when RG Steel closed the doors.

Walking through the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel building on Market Street, one seems as likely to find a 2012 calendar on the wall as they are to find a old pair of shoes that an employee left behind when the steelmaker completed its bankruptcy.

“It’s a little weird that they just left everything in here like this. It’s a great building, though,” said Debra Basham, archivist with the state office. “We really have no idea what we may find on some of these floors.”

After exiting the building’s only operational elevator onto the 13th floor, one is standing on the highest enclosed floor in the city. But because this is the attic, a casual observer could easily mistake it for the basement, as it is dark with a slightly musty smell.

In the attic, Basham and her fellow archivist, Mary Johnson, sort through roll after roll of unknown documents.

“There are so many maps, meeting minutes, earnings statements,” Basham said. “It’s really something.”

Basham marvels at the marble, brass and wrought iron throughout the building.

“I don’t know if you could build something like this again, at any price,” she said.

Taking the stairs down to the 12th floor, one finds the former executive offices and boardroom. There is some slight water damage to the ceiling in certain places, which has further led to some damp carpet.

Still, when Basham looks out the window on the Market Street side, she sees a vista which includes both the Wheeling Suspension Bridge and the brand new headquarters of The Health Plan.

“It’s a good mixture of new and old, I guess,” Basham said. “It’s certainly a spectacular view.”

While Basham admires the treasures inside the building, as well as the structure itself, she is determined to record as much of the steelmaker’s history as possible. The distinguishable Market Street building began in 1905 as the headquarters of the Schmulbach Brewing Co., but the former Wheeling Steel acquired the structure in the 1940s. In 1968, Wheeling Steel merged with Pittsburgh Steel.

For decades, the steelmaker thrived with mills and plants at multiple sites along the Ohio River, including Wheeling, Steubenville, Mingo Junction, Yorkville, Martins Ferry, Benwood, Beech Bottom and the coke plant in Follansbee. After closing mills in Wheeling and Benwood, the company continued operations at the other sites until its 2006 acquisition by Esmark Inc.

In 2008, Esmark sold the assets to the Russian firm, Severstal. While under the ownership of Severstal, the Mingo plant went cold.

Finally, in 2011, RG Steel acquired the remaining assets. This firm filed for bankruptcy only one year later, while employees left the structure completely vacant by early 2013.

More than five years later, Jim McCue, who serves as project manager for Louisville, Ohio-based Coon, knows his firm has plenty of work to do.

“There is just so much in here,” he said. “We’re going as fast as we can.”

McCue said Coon officials had been planning the project for some time, but waited until January to submit an application to the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office for the state rehabilitation tax credit. On Jan. 1, the amount of the credit jumped from 10 percent to 25 percent.

McCue said there would be both one and two-bedroom apartments. Although he could not commit to a time frame, he said the construction phase would be up to two years, once the work actually begins.

To accommodate the apartment project, Wheeling leaders are working on a new parking garage to build across the street. The cost, estimated to be as much as $10 million, could be funded through a tax increment financing project, according to Mayor Glenn Elliott.

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