Oglebay Mansion Museum Survives the Great Depression and Now a Pandemic
WHEELING — There is something to be said about history repeating itself. Just ask the folks who tend the Mansion Museum at Oglebay Park.
This gorgeous piece of Wheeling history has long been a sought-after tourist attraction since it opened to the public in 1935. Today, it is decorated in its finest holiday decor and is open daily for visitors.
However, when the Mansion served as home to Earl W. Oglebay, tragedy struck during the influenza epidemic in 1919. Both Oglebay and his son-in-law Courtney Burton Sr. came down with the much-dreaded flu.
Holly McCluskey, curator at the Mansion Museum, explained how today’s COVID-19 pandemic and the flu crisis of 1919 were alike and different, too.
“In those days, the older population fared better than those who were younger. Mr. Oglebay survived, but Courtney did not. He died at the age of 38, leaving a young wife, Sarita, and 6-year old son, Courtney Jr., behind.
Unlike the flu of 1919, the COVID-19 virus has shown greater consequences for the older population “It was a heartbreaking time for the family. Eventually, Sarita remarried Albert Russel in the Formal Gardens on the grounds next to the mansion, where so many weddings are held today. Camp Russel bears her name.”
McCluskey said it’s also interesting to note that attendance at the Mansion has been very steady during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“As we are all forced to stay close to home, we have noticed that many folks from the Wheeling area are visiting the park and the Mansion.
It is similar to the earliest days of the Mansion Museum, when attendance was at a remarkable high considering that it opened to the public during the Great Depression.”
During the earliest years of operation as a museum, the Mansion was open only from late May until Labor Day with limited days of viewing.
At that time, 210 women volunteered as hostesses, who worked in three hour shifts.
Despite being open for only for only four months, and during the height of the Great Depression, 26,700 people from 40 states and 11 foreign countries visited the Mansion in 1935. Admission was 15 cents per person. In today’s money, that would have been $2.85.
McCloskey said attendance at the Mansion continued to increase to 41,118 visitors in 1938.
This trend dropped off dramatically during the war years when attendance slipped to an all-time low in 1943 due to gas rationing and wartime travel restrictions.
While today’s changing numbers of people with COVID, the Mansion remains cautious when the public visits.
Social distancing and other precautions are in place.
The Mansion Museum, operates under the auspices of Oglebay Institute, and each holiday season since 1973, the Mansion Museum, has been trimmed for the holidays by professional decorators and talented amateurs around a holiday theme. These talented decorators carry out the theme in the Mansion’s 13 period rooms, hallways and staircases, using their own unique vision to create stunning results for visitors to enjoy.
The decor ranges from simple elegance to the extravagant, and visitors will find decorating inspiration to take back to their own homes.
Sponsored by Panhandle Cleaning and Restoration, this year’s holiday decorating extravaganza is titled “Holiday Fantasy.”
Featured rooms and decorators include: Dining Room, Joan Berlow-Smith and Samuel Posin of The Jeweled Bird and Emily Rouse and Keegan Zacharie of Edgington Studios; Empire Sitting Room, Betty Ann Jasper of Michael’s; Federal Bedroom, Lynn Maguire and Jeanne Guyer of the Kruger Street Toy and Train Museum; Victorian Bedroom, Mary Beth Hughes of Hughes Design & Gift Gallery; Pioneer Kitchen, Debi Smith of That George Bailey! at Antiques on the Market; Hallways and Staircases, Scott Klinkoski and Dick Taylor; Game Room, Lisa M. Schmitt of Robinson & McElwee PLLC; Oval Sitting Room, Emily Lamberti, Brandi Waligura, Ty Thorngate and Michael Hires of Wheelhouse Creative LLC.; Mr. Oglebay’s Office, Mary Fahey of the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce; Sewing Room, Tom and Judi Tarowsky of The West Virginia Storytelling Guild; Library, Michelle Runkle; Empire Bedroom and Child’s Bedroom, Museum Staff; Victorian Parlor, Jennifer and Rhiannon Christmas of Nicky’s Garden Center.
“We are so grateful to our corporate sponsor, the volunteer decorators, our staff and the Mansion Museum Committee members who make this event possible,” Museums director Christin Byrum said.
“They invest so much time and money to transform the Mansion Museum for the holidays for thousands of visitors to enjoy. This exhibit is a wonderful example of the power of volunteerism and corporate philanthropy.”
Byrum said decorating a historic building is quite a challenge. Decorators not only have to incorporate design elements around the holiday theme but also create period-appropriate trimmings for the Mansion, which was built in 1846, as well as take special precautions so that period antiques are not damaged.
“It is a balancing act to ensure that the decorators are provided the means to express their creative vision and fulfill our professional responsibilities as stewards of a historic home and the collections within,” she said.