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Unmasking a Hidden Gem: Developer Aims To Lift Shroud of Mystery From Scottish Rite Cathedral in East Wheeling

Photos by Eric Ayres The Scottish Rite Cathedral, located at 83 14th St. in Wheeling, was built like a fortress in 1916 after the first Scottish Rite building constructed at the site in 1908 was destroyed by fire in the spring of 1915. Despite a few tall columns and a majestic stone eagle on the facade, the largely nondescript brick exterior does not hint of the architectural treasures the building holds within its historic walls.

WHEELING — A historic gem in East Wheeling has operated outside of the public eye for more than a century, but under its new ownership, the Scottish Rite Cathedral is opening a new chapter in its rich history — and is opening its hallowed halls to the public.

Major renovations are underway in the 14th Street landmark, and a handful of public and private events have been taking place over the past several months in some of the eye-popping rooms of the building. Just last week, the Wheeling Rotary Club met in the marble-laden Rotunda room at the entrance of the Scottish Rite Cathedral — now owned by Roxby Development — with Roxby President Jeffrey Morris serving as guest speaker.

Rotarians also got to break up into groups and go on guided tours of the sprawling facility, which for decades since it opened in 1916 has only been seen and utilized by members of a West Virginia “valley” of Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, a council of Freemasonry often perceived as a very private fraternity of community leaders who conduct much of their business in private.

Rabbi Joshua Lief, president of the Wheeling Rotary Club, said the members were very grateful for Roxby’s efforts to construct a new future while preserving the treasured past of the historic Scottish Rite building.

“We care deeply about our role as stewards of the community,” Lief said. “When one can combine both historic preservation and economic development — and at the same time looking at our past and building for our future simultaneously — it’s a very exciting project. We wanted to be supportive by having our meeting here to see everything that they’re doing, and we look forward to the space opening to the wider public coming soon.”

The Scottish Rite building is just one of a handful of iconic Wheeling structures Roxby is currently working to renovate and revitalize. Roxby is also the new owner of the McClure Hotel downtown and the Mt. Carmel Monastery in Edgwood, both of which are undergoing major renovations propelled by exciting new visions for their future.

Historian Bekah Karelis, director of historic preservation for Roxby Development, shows the Egyptian-style embellishments around the theater room on the fifth and sixth floors of the Scottish Rite Cathedral in Wheeling. The room will soon host the next Wheeling Symphony Orchestra SoundBites event in November.

Officials from Roxby noted that as part of their agreement when they purchased the property last year, the Scottish Rite will continue to utilize rooms in the historic building, while more public and private events will also be taking place there, as well. Morris noted that an eye-popping theater that occupies the fifth and sixth floors of the building will soon be in use in the coming weeks.

“We have the ability to use it for special occasions,” Morris said. “We’re going to have the symphony here on the 20th.”

Roxby is presenting and hosting the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra’s SoundBites Vol. 3 opening night for its 2021-22 season inside the theater of the Scottish Rite Cathedral. The evening pairs chamber orchestra music with a multi-course gourmet meal and signature cocktail, along with a special guest performer — Grammy winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke.

Morris said Roxby has been working with the Wheeling Fire Department, which in the interim is expected to authorize limited crowd occupancy of around 350 for special events. Renovations will include upgrades and additions to the fire suppression systems and escape routes, which will open the door to events with a larger slate of guests.

“The eventual occupancy we want to get is 1,000 folks,” Morris said.

Events by local chambers of commerce have already taken place at the site in the Rotunda, and use is also being eyed for a number of eyebrow-raising rooms in the building. Last month, Wheeling Central Catholic High School held its homecoming dance inside the cavernous ballroom.

Racks of Marsh Wheeling Stogies boxes and other vintage cigar boxes contain bolts, screws and other handyman’s tools in the custodian’s workshop in the basement of the Scottish Rite Cathedral. The neatly organized workspace is being preserved as a piece of mosaic art that offers a unique peek into a sliver of local history.

Despite the cloak of “mystery” behind its largely nondescript exterior walls over the many decades, the Scottish Rite Cathedral has played host to some big events. The most noted was in 1927, a reception and banquet celebrating the non-stop trans-Atlantic flight of groundbreaking aviator Charles Lindbergh, who was the special guest.

Even smaller rooms in the building boast a wealth of history and character. The library is anchored by a fireplace and is surrounded by walls lined with dozens of oak cabinets full of vintage books. Roxby officials indicated that the library is one of the rooms available for use for meetings, receptions and other events.

There is also a ladies’ parlor, a first-floor kitchen and a full kitchen adjacent to the ballroom.

Historian Bekah Karelis, who for many years worked with Wheeling Heritage, more recently served as project manager for Adventures in Elegance before it merged with Roxby Development. She now serves as director of historic preservation for Roxby, is working on first-floor renovation projects at the Scottish Rite building and provided an insightful tour of the building to a group of Rotarians last week.

“We like sharing the building,” Karelis said. “It’s one of Wheeing’s gems.”

Karelis said Roxby plans to create a restaurant and bar in the area of the dining room — which is adorned with stained glass windows — to likely extend into the billiard room.

Some of the historic elements of the building provide snapshots into the past — so much so that there are plans to showcase many of them. From the bookcases to even the billiard shelves, the functional furnishings themselves serve as artifacts that highlight local history. A wall in the lower level maintenance room boasts a large rack of historic cigar boxes and containers of screws, nuts, bolts and other work materials that itself can be viewed as a mosaic work of art. Karelis said they plan to relocate the workshop rack and showcase it just as it was left by the buildings’ past custodians.

Also in the basement, the building’s huge, vintage electric control panel — installed by the Gee Electric Construction Company of Wheeling in 1926 — is still in service. An historic showpiece on its own, the power panel has recently been encased behind glass as a functioning museum-worthy tour highlight. The mammoth boiler in the basement also boasts echoes of hometown industrial might of the past as it is embossed with the label of its maker, the Schofield-Cowl Company of Wheeling.

Historian Bekah Karelis, director of historic preservation for Roxby Development, explains the history of the main power panel in the basement of the Scottish Rite Cathedral during a tour this past week by members of the Wheeling Rotary Club. The vintage electric control panel — installed by the Gee Electric Construction Company of Wheeling in 1926 — is still in service in the basement of the Scottish Rite Cathedral.

One room used by the Scottish Rite is literally covered in group photos from its member’s bi-annual “reunion” gatherings there. The building has served members from all around West Virginia, but the dwindling number of faces in the more recent photos tell an unintended sub-story — one that reveals why the hulking structure changed ownership last year. Black and white membership photos from decades ago are packed with scores of people, while the most recent color photos only show four or five members.

The larger numbers of active members in the past helped support the upkeep of the grand facility, but diminishing resources among the smaller group in recent years has necessitated a call for a helping hand.

Karelis said the agreement with the Scottish Rite not only provides for the Freemasons’ use of the facility into the future, it also provides needed rehabilitation and maintenance of the facility, as well as protection of the artifacts inside. And moving forward, much of it will be showcased to the public.

Karelis shows Rotarians the restored oak cabinets that line the library inside the cathedral. Thousands of vintage books are contained in the dozens of antique cabinets that surround the room.

Roxby has set up shop in the building and is using various rooms as workshops for not only the Scottish Rite renovations, but also other Roxby restoration projects. New ADA restrooms are currently being installed, and work continues to upgrade many of the spaces inside while maintaining the original character of the building — which over the decades has had great caretakers.

“They did such a wonderful job in maintaining this building,” Karelis said of the members of the Scottish Rite.

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