Fort Henry Club Seeing Some Major Upgrades

Photo by Casey Junkins Ernest Dellatorre, president of McKinley and Associates, which owns the Fort Henry Club building, shows one of the front porch columns the firm plans to repair.

WHEELING — After spending years of work and more than $2 million on the Fort Henry Club building, officials with McKinley and Associates hope the historic structure at the corner of 14th and Chapline streets can serve as a bridge from Wheeling’s past to its future.

A $15,000 grant from the city’s new Facade Improvement Program will help fund renovations on the front porch area of the building, according to McKinley and Associates President Ernest Dellatorre.

“This is such a great building that just needed some work,” Dellatorre said during a tour of the 33,000 square-foot structure. “And with everything that is happening in Wheeling, with so many new projects going on, there is a lot of excitement.”

“Not only will this funding supplement considerable private investment in this property, but you will also end up with a dramatic improvement to a highly visible historic structure at the corner of 14th and Chapline streets,” Mayor Glenn Elliott said regarding the $15,000 grant to rehabilitate the building.

According to the firm, the Fort Henry Club building began as a private residence in the 1850s before eventually becoming the organization’s home in 1890. In its heyday, the building hosted legendary celebrity figures such as baseball great Babe Ruth, aviator Charles Lindbergh and President Herbert Hoover.

As with the rest of Wheeling, decades of economic and population decline affected the club. By the 2000s, dwindling membership cast doubt on the club’s viability.

When it appeared the club was struggling to stay afloat, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church – located across 14th Street – in 2011 acquired the building’s purchase rights to avoid a potential future sale at public auction.

The church at one point prepared to seek bids for demolition, Dellatorre said. This prompted the firm to step forward to spend more than $70,000 to purchase the structure from the church in 2013.

Since acquiring the building from the church, contractors working for the the engineering firm have installed new electrical wiring, a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, a new elevator, new waterlines, new restrooms and a fire sprinkler system. They also brought much of the structure into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Dellatorre said 30-35 people now work among the three tenants who have leased space in the building: the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services, the Goodwill Industries Inc. Panhandle Training Center and ComDoc, which offers copying and imaging services.

“Our goal is to fill the whole building, but we are glad to have the tenants we have,” Dellatorre said. “These things don’t usually happen overnight.”

Dellatorre said it would probably require another $2.5 million to do everything his firm would like to do at the building, which includes completely rehabilitating the front porch area, in addition to renovating the two upper floors.

Dellatorre said the $15,000 grant from the city will go toward the cost of rehabilitating the porch area that faces Chapline Street. He estimates the total price tag for this area to be about $275,000.

“It couldn’t happen without tax credits and grants,” Dellatorre said of the project. “We’re very grateful for this grant from the city.”

Dellatorre said the firm will redo the columns on the porch — and would like to eventually restore the original revolving door at the front of the building. The door is still in place, but has not been used in several years.

“We would ultimately like to see a small restaurant or a coffee shop occupy the front of the building. This seems like a great space for that because they could have some tables out here on the porch,” Dellatorre said.

The firm plans to renovate the ballroom on the fourth floor, while rehabilitating the skylight to provide daylight on the third and fourth floors.

“There is always risk with a project as big as this,” Dellatorre noted. “We’re making progress.”