WHEELING - The imposing sight of Doric columns on what many have come to be known simply as "the blue church" has been a prominent feature of East Wheeling since the presidency of Martin Van Buren.
The building is for sale - but two local preservation groups want to make sure it remains for future generations to enjoy.
The Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. and the Ohio Valley Young Preservationists group are teaming up to raise funds in hopes of purchasing the 1837 building at the corner of 12th and Byron streets and rehabilitating it for use as a community arts center.
Photo by Ian Hicks
The old church at the corner of 12th and Byron streets is for sale by its latest owner, Church of God and Saints of Christ. Two local preservation groups are raising money to buy the building, erected in 1837.
Several months ago the building's current occupant, Church of God and Saints of Christ, told city officials they are looking to sell the building.
WNHAC Executive Director Jeremy Morris said there's some concern that other potential interested parties may plan to demolish the building - something he believes would be a significant loss for Wheeling.
"It's one of the best examples of Greek Revival architecture in the city," Morris said. "It's one of the oldest church structures in Wheeling."
As it turns out, support for the effort has come from a few unlikely places.
"Donations have begun to come from all over the country as Wheeling 'ex-pats' and various preservation bloggers have learned about the project. We even have received donations from people in Canada and France," said Elizabeth Paulhus, a founder of the Ohio Valley Young Preservationists.
Wheeling features a small, more intimate performance space in Oglebay Institute's Towngate Theater, and a large-scale venue in the 2,200-seat Capitol Theatre - but not much in between. Morris believes the old church could be perfect to fill that void, particularly for choral music.
"It's a beautiful performance space," he said.
Morris said anyone interested in donating to the effort should contact him at 304-232-3087.
Checks should be made out to the Wheeling National Heritage Area Foundation.
Church of God and Saints of Christ's plans after selling the building are unclear. In July, church leaders asked the city to sell or lease them the public park at Tank Field, allowing them to improve the recreation facilities there and build a new structure for community outreach events.
A message left for church officials seeking comment was not returned.
Morris said he's not sure how long it would take to fix up the building and convert it into a performing arts center.
"At the very least, we need to get it purchased and get it watertight," Morris said.
In addition to being one of the oldest churches still standing in Wheeling, the "blue church" has some fascinating history behind it.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the building was home to St. Matthew Episcopal Church. The church rector, the Rev. E.T. Perkins, was a Confederate sympathizer - an unpopular opinion in Wheeling, which would soon become the center of the movement that resulted in West Virginia's creation. Fearing for their safety, Perkins and his family fled town to Richmond one night that year, leaving behind many of their belongings.
At some point he apparently was asked to return. He agreed, on one condition - that he be permitted to omit prayers for President Abraham Lincoln during worship services.
The parish vestry declined the offer and eventually found a new rector.