Final Tea Times at Historic Eckhart House in Wheeling
The Eckhart House, located at 810 Main St., has been a crown jewel among gems in the Victorian Old Town row of North Wheeling. Built in 1892 by wealthy banker George W. Eckhart Jr., the three-story Queen Anne town home immediately made a public splash for its eye-popping architecture and charm, which continue to dazzle visitors today.
A local landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, the doors to the Eckhart House have been open to the public in recent years for afternoon Victorian teas and children’s tea parties, for special historic tours of the home and the neighborhood, and to its unique Gift Shoppe.
The Figarettis have owned and lived in the Eckhart House for more than three decades, serving not only as meticulous caretakers of the home itself but also as caretakers of its history — and passionate preservationists of important chapters in Wheeling’s history.
“I’ve never missed a house that I’ve moved from — I think I’ve been in maybe five different houses in my life — but I might miss this one,” Gretchen Figaretti said. “It really is a special house. We’ve been here for a long time, and we have a lot of great memories.”
The Figarettis are both in their late 70s now, and they indicated it’s not a challenge for them to keep up with the huge house after all these years. The challenge is dealing with all of the possessions and merchandise inside, which they want to tackle themselves now instead of someday leaving the task for their children.
“At the age of 79, it’s time,” Joe Figaretti said with a smile. “We’ve lived here for 32 years, and we’re moving out to a condo out by Wheeling Park. We’re going from 18 rooms to six.”
Gretchen Figaretti added, “We still feel well, and we want to do a little bit of traveling and enjoy life. Not that we don’t enjoy this — we love it. We just don’t know how much longer we would be able to do it.”
The Figarettis have been pondering a full retirement for about the past 10 years, they said. Recently, it was announced on the website www.eckharthouse.com that, “We regret to announce that the Eckhart House Gift Shoppe, Tea Room and tours will be closing.”
While the last official Victorian tea is scheduled for this weekend, the Eckhart House will still be available for private tea parties by appointment, and the Gift Shoppe will be open with items on clearance from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday until further notice into early summer. Items are also available through an online store on etsy.com.
“We love what we do,” Gretchen Figaretti said. “We love having the teas, especially. It’s so rewarding because people get blessed with the charm of the house, and they really enjoy coming.”
The Figarettis’ sale of the house will be closing on May 26, but they plan to continue living there through the end of July as part of their agreement with the future owner, Steve Coon. Also owner of a large and impressive Victorian home next door, Coon has become one of the premiere historic preservationists and developers in the region, particularly in Wheeling.
Presently, Coon is working on the $30 million renovation of the tallest building in the city to transform it into an apartment complex, the Historic Wheeling-Pitt Lofts. He has also been praised for his work in renovating the Capitol Theatre in Wheeling, the Clarendon Hotel in St. Clairsville and a number of projects of historic sites throughout Ohio, including the Terminal Tower in Cleveland.
An Ohio-based developer, Coon has publicly touted the unmatched treasure trove of historic structures in Wheeling, and the Figarettis said they are happy that such a well-respected and successful businessman — one who has a true passion for preserving historic architecture — will be taking over ownership of the Eckhart House. The new owner wants the furniture, too, Joe Figaretti said.
“We think it’s the first house in the United States to have AC electricity,” Joe Figaretti said, noting that electric pioneers George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla used the Eckhart House as a demonstration site for how safe AC systems could be.
When it was first built, it “lit up like a Christmas tree” compared to the other mansions with flickering lights across the street along the Ohio River at the time. In somewhat of a competition to boast among the other wealthy Wheeling elites, Eckhart “built one of the most in-your-face, bodacious Queen Anne-style houses in the country,” Joe Figaretti said. “There’s as rich a history here in Wheeling as you will find anywhere in the United States.”
While the dazzling architecture is sure to be preserved, what will be leaving the Eckhart House is the wealth of knowledge of Wheeling’s history that the Figarettis carry with them. Joe is a walking encyclopedia of Friendly City history, and in fact, still conducts historic tours of the city that enchant history buffs for outings that last two to three hours.
“He just loves to talk about it, and people love to hear about it,” Gretchen Figaretti said.
The couple praised local leaders such as Betty Woods “Snookie” Nutting for sharing their passion for history and preservation, and for helping convince them to buy the Eckhart House years ago in the first place.
The Figarettis said they would love to see even more local people get involved and put their effort into historic preservation, especially new generations of go-getters with vigor and passion driving them to take on new projects.
“Young people should buy one of these old homes in Wheeling, restore it and live in it,” Joe Figaretti said.