Don’t Mind the Dust: Wheeling Residents Share Experience Renovating Older Homes
WHEELING — When an attempt to flatten the hillside that snugs Woodsdale’s northern edge into a mixed residential and commercial development failed in 2020, it might have signaled something more than one historic neighborhood’s campaign to stay as is.
The highly publicized slug fest could be a development bellwether.
Will large-scale groundbreakings — not to mention the raze-and-rebuild developments or the concentric spreads of new construction more commonly seen in America’s flatlands — prove unlikely to impossible in the Friendly City? Will Wheeling’s residential future instead unroll in a largely European style — with historic facades wrapping interiors of every sort?
Three city residents — an architect who’s been re-imagining his Woodsdale home for 30 years, a millennial whose antebellum home in North Wheeling is now geared for a modern family and a preservation expert deep into restoring an East Wheeling Victorian of her own – shared their takes on the subject.
Vic Greco appreciates a beautiful building, new or old. As principal architect with Wheeling’s Mills Group and the owner of a historic Woodsdale home, he’s often personally involved.
“I’m hearing that we need more up-to-date, new homes,” Greco said of one drumbeat in the city’s undeniable renaissance. “But, they’re just not being developed.”
He offered three basic reasons for the lack of new construction – although he sees them more as deterrents rather than blockades.
Two are specific to Wheeling, with the first as set as literal stone, he said. Because it is a city with a long residential history and a river-valley topography, much of Wheeling’s easily developable land is already in use. It fans out like fingers that can be easily counted down.
Bulldozer-based efforts to build on new land, such as the proposed Woodsdale Hill flattening, are technically possible, Greco said. But, developments like Arbordale near Wheeling Park are probably a more realistic model of what new housing could look like.
Rather than planning houses on grid-like streets, Greco said Wheeling’s future builders could work with the natural contours of the land, keep drainage at the forefront and create houses with multiple levels that fit the spaces in question.
A second issue inhibiting new construction in certain areas, Greco said, is that what housing that is already here is often too valuable to demolish for a rebuild. While such value has a subjective element, he noted it is an important factor to consider when looking at the viability or even desirability of new development.
“In today’s world, anything over 50 years is considered historic,” Greco said, estimating 65 to 70 percent of city homes fall into that category.
These include antebellum houses in North Wheeling, Victorians scattered throughout the city and the varied architectural styles of the early 20th century that comprise large historic districts such as Woodsdale. They even include mid-century-modern homes that some might not perceive as “historic” but “still tell a story of time and place,” he added.
Adding up all the styles and eras, Greco said Wheeling’s residential architecture rivals anything he has seen in his travels, which have included major European cities such as Rome.
A third factor working against local new construction is a national one, he added. New builds are generally expensive. And, low interest rates aside, a COVID-driven breakdown of the materials supply chain has recently pushed such costs through the proverbial roof.
Such financial factors play out more loudly in cities such as Wheeling, Greco explained. It’s all about “price point.” That refers to the fact a regional builder can generally get a better financial return constructing homes on the I-79 corridor to Pittsburgh – where housing prices are higher — than can be made locally.
Given this accumulation of circumstances, Greco suspects there will be some new construction, but Wheeling homeseekers may need to think more like those in European cities. There, the development model is to “respect and aggressively protect” facades that may have been around half a millennium, but allow and even encourage interior redevelopment that can be decidedly modern.
He says such do-over thinking already has hold in this city, where large-scale redevelopment of commercial properties has become a very visible norm.
North Wheeling has a dedicated group of homeowners that are preserving those vintage houses, Greco said, nodding especially to brick homes in the Victorian Old Town micro-neighborhood. “There seems to be another wave of young folks in East Wheeling that are buying and restoring old homes. You need more of that.”
Wheeling will also need a more diverse contracting sector if much of its housing future depends on a revival of historic properties, he added.
“The housing contractor stock in town is more acclimated to building new than to restoration or renovation.” This can sometimes make it quite difficult for homeowners to find someone who can repair a chimney collapse or open up a floor plan, for example.
He can feel their pain.
“If you’re not handy and you live in Woodsdale, you’re going to have to hire someone to do every little thing,” he said, noting that he has been personally reworking his home in that neighborhood room by room. He has opened up the layout and brought in more natural light among other details.
“It’s specialty work. It’s intensive work. It demands a lot of time and their (contractors’) costs get higher,” he said of what may discourage some contractors from work that is “sympathetic to an older building.”
Homeowners also have to make a commitment on that cost factor, he said. New construction is pricey and homeowners should expect the same with restoration and renovation. This is particularly true if replacement parts have to be manufactured.
“They’re definitely a labor of love,” Greco said of the commitment needed to make an old house realistically livable in 2021 and beyond. “It’s easy to walk away from a project like that.”
Annie Howell, who with her police officer husband Doug has restored an antebellum home in North Wheeling’s Victorian Old Town, can relate to that.
When the couple were in the throes of renovation in 2017, Howell would come home from her work on the business side of the radio industry each day to check on progress.
“There were many days that I walked in and — just the dirt and the dust — and I’d think, ‘How is this ever going to be clean? How will this be livable?'” Howell said.
This was particularly true in an area of the brick house that is separated from Main Street by only a narrow band of sidewalk. An all-family construction crew headed by uncle Bobby Weir was making a 12-foot opening between the home’s original kitchen and a front room that was either a parlor or a formal dining room when the mid-1800s house was built.
It was messy. But, it did clean up. Well.
Now, the Howells’ young family can eat, lounge and entertain in a space large and open enough to feel comparable to any floor plan found in new construction but old enough to reek, or at least provide the occasional pleasant whiff, of the past.
“Where we smell it a lot is in the bathroom on this floor,” Howell said of the fragrance of tobacco leaves likely associated with the home’s first owner, who sold the stuff elsewhere in the city. “When it gets warmer, that smell comes out of the cupboard. We wonder if he stored some in there.”
It’s that kind of historic authenticity that lured the couple to buy the home, which served as a bed and breakfast in the 1990s and came with a jetted hot tub smack in the middle of what is now their master bedroom. “That was the first thing to go.”
It’s also what caused them to plunk down modernization costs that added up to half as much as the purchase price to the home’s total cost.
“I love the architecture,” said Howell, who is among the third generation of her family to preserve homes in the micro-neighborhood. “Growing up in a Victorian home, I learned to appreciate (it). New build feels uncomfortable to me. I want some woodwork and some cracks in the wall.”
Cracks in the stairway are another matter, she admitted with a laugh and an imitation of the wince any historic-homeowner would immediately recognize.
“I’ll see a crack and think, ‘Oh, Lord,'” but the balance to that is that she knows that, after more than 170 years, the house has already stood the test of time. “It’s settled. The stairway is how it’s going to be.”
That said, Howell didn’t feel hemmed in by all that history as the couple renovated. It was a viewpoint that went well beyond the open floor plan.
Were it not for the occasional view of a passing coal barge, the kitchen’s custom-built, marble-topped island could be anywhere, even in a 2021 house. Modernist elements like classically patterned wallpaper re-imagined in outsized turquoise and silvery form playfully meet an operational transom window in the double-door entryway. A second-floor sun porch is now a walk-in closet. A small hall became a second-floor laundry room.
“Down in the basement — it would have been such a hike we never would have had clean
clothes,” she joked of doing 2021 laundry for a family of four.
The home now also has three full baths, one on each of three floors of finished space.
That could come in handy someday, she noted, gesturing toward all the stairs that link four layers of 1,000 square feet each.
“My husband was worried about that when we get old, but we could make the (first floor) den our bedroom and just live down here,” she said of the street-level floor. “This is our forever home.”
Betsy Sweeny’s new home, built in 1895, falls between Greco’s Woodsdale digs and those of the Howell family in terms of age. The East Wheeling Victorian — a demanding renovation effort — could likely not be in better hands.
Sweeny is an architectural historian working as the director of heritage programming for Wheeling Heritage. That nonprofit group is chartered by the National Park Service to help keep the city – one of America’s 55 designated National Heritage Areas – livable in addition to celebrating its history.
She noted West Virginia has an unusual preservation-incentive program that may help Wheeling homeowners make the best of what housing is already here if they cannot find or do not choose newer construction. In addition to incentives for commercial restorations – something many states have – West Virginia currently offers a state income tax credit for 20 percent of the cost of qualified renovations to qualified historic homes.
That doesn’t just mean houses on the National Historic Register, she added. Homes in any of the city’s 14 historic districts may qualify if expenses are related to maintaining function (think such stuff as electrical, roofing, plumbing) and amount to 20 percent of the structure’s (not including land) assessed valuation.
For some properties, like her own Victorian, it might not take much to qualify for the tax credit. “My assessed value is like nothing,” Sweeny joked of the program’s breadth and the scope of her restoration project. “Pretty much putting in a light switch would do it.”
Not to say there aren’t limits. It’s all about maintaining livability, she qualified. “If you decide to re-landscape your backyard and put in a waterfall, that wouldn’t count.”
Homeowners who have questions about the preservation tax credit or need application advice or assistance can contact Wheeling Heritage through its website or by phone, Sweeny said.