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Top-O-Rock inspires oral history, design project

RACHEL MOLENDA | Gazette file photo
Top-O-Rock, the iconic Charleston residence that has fallen into disrepair, has inspired a new oral history and design project run by West Virginia State University.

Although Charleston’s once beloved glass house on the hill has had its windows shuttered with sheets of plywood, some still see potential in Top-O-Rock.

Sarah Halstead, of the West Virginia State University Economic Development Center, is helping launch an oral history project and design competition focused on the building and surrounding properties.

“Almost everyone, myself included, has a story about being inspired or being curious about the building Top-O-Rock,” Halstead said, “or we have stories about meeting Henry Elden or the Elden family.”

In May, the Charleston building commissioner discovered that the iconic house had been severely vandalized. Many of its floor-to-ceiling glass windows had been broken, graffiti covered the walls and windows, and much of its interior was stripped down and damaged.

The site was secured in June, following community outrage at its condition and the possibility that it might be torn down.

Elden, a well-known architect, completed the home’s construction in 1968. The house, perched on a hill so that it overlooks the entire city, winds around rock and tree, integrating the earth into its design.

“When you actually study like Frank Lloyd Wright, his organic architecture philosophy, you see that, on an academic, philosophical and technical level, Top-O-Rock is magnificent,” Halstead said.

She said she believes that vision is worth celebrating and preserving.

Those who were admirers of Elden’s work, along with colleagues and friends of the architect, may visit WVSU’s Development Center on Charleston’s West Side to share stories, photographs and insights related to his life and work.

“It’s going to capture those really important stories and kind of demonstrate across the board how valuable Top-O-Rock, and Henry and the Elden family, all were to this community,” Halstead said.

The project also is a learning opportunity.

Students in a group called the Auteurs — a leadership and civic engagement program — will edit and post collected stories online.

“This information’s going to be digital and multimedia and easy to access,” Halstead said, “and it’s going to be preserved as long as there is an Internet.”

While the oral history project begins Monday, Halstead said she is trying to work out the details of the design and business plan competition.

“It’s a competition of ideas, which is going to be transparent, but it will appeal to the people who, I think, care about land use and planning and sustainability,” Halstead said.

The competition could create “a refreshing conversation” for the state and the city of Charleston, Halstead said.

“It’s going to bring that economic component to it,” Halstead said, “where the designers and the collaborators are going to prove at least initial viability of a big-vision plan.”

Competitors can enter designs in education, business or public benefit. They also can choose to submit plans that encompass all three categories.

Judges will represent a variety of organizations, including the American Institute of Architects and the U.S. Green Building Council’s West Virginia chapter.

Designs can address only Top-O-Rock or the entire 13 acres that include the house next door, which was designed by Elden’s son, Ted, and the adjacent Lyle Clay property. All the properties are owned by Dr. Mitchell and Kamilla Rashid.

The Rashids, who purchased the house for $400,000 in 2011, have not commented publicly on Top-O-Rock, but Halstead said they are supportive of the projects.

“This is with Mitch’s blessing,” Halstead said.

For more information on the oral history project or the design competition, contact Sarah Halstead ,at shalstead2@wvstateu.edu, or follow the project online, at www.wvsuedc .org.

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5102 or follow @rachelmolenda on Twitter.

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