WV's old ‘skyscrapers’ converting from office space to downtown living

While they’re not exactly skyscrapers by the standards of, say, New York or other big cities, West Virginia has a number of high-rise office buildings. Significantly, many of the state’s tall office buildings were built in the 1920s or ’30s or even longer ago.

In recent years, with a sharply decreased demand for downtown offices and prospective tenants favoring newer buildings, a number of the state’s oldest high-rise buildings have been mostly vacant.

Given their age, breathing new life into those historic structures can be challenging.

Residential conversions have been proposed for several high-rise office buildings around the state. Some have proven successful. Others remain on the drawing board.

Huntington’s tallest building

The 15-story West Virginia Building on the corner of 4th Avenue and 10th Street is the tallest structure in downtown Huntington. When it was erected in 1924, it was the tallest building in the state.

It was built as the Union Bank and Trust Building, with the floors above the bank filled with offices for busy doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals. When the bank went bust in the Great Depression, its former first-floor lobby was remodeled to house a Walgreen Drug Store, a store that would be a fixture in downtown Huntington for decades.

In 1943, the former bank building went into receivership and was purchased by a group of Huntington businessmen, who renamed it the West Virginia Building.

Over the years, the building went through other ownership changes, and the vacancy rate steadily climbed.

When local businessman Huey Perry purchased the building in 1981, it was in sorry shape. “We had to rebuild the inside and fix the outside,” he said. “Windows were falling out. The heating system was gone.”

And, along with his renovation efforts, Perry began the process of replacing office tenants with residential tenants.

In 2007, Huntington real estate developer Alex Vence tried to buy the building from Perry.

Vence said he’s always been interested in the building. He recalled playing in the building’s hallways when his grandfather, Dr. J.E. Sadler, owned the building. His grandmother served as property manager, and “before I was born, my mother ran the elevator.”

Vence’s initial effort to acquire the building failed when Perry got a better offer from a New York investor who bought it so he could put cellphone towers on top of it.

But Vence cultivated a relationship with the new owner, and in 2013 was able to convince the owner to sell him the building.

Starting in 2014, Vence has pushed forward a floor-by-floor conversion of the old building into luxurious rental apartments.

“We’ve done about half the building in the past five years and hope to do the rest in the next five years,” he said. “All of the building’s interiors walls are non-load-bearing, so we’re able to take them down and turn the old cramped office spaces into three or four spacious apartments.

“Every unit offers spectacular views, lots of year-round sunlight, washer/dryer hookups, a fireplace and wood-grained Italian porcelain floors,” he said. “The kitchens feature dark wood cabinets with brand new stainless steel appliances, quartz countertops and backsplashes. The bathrooms feature Carrara marble floors with 3D subway tiles and glass accents in the showers.”

Vence said all of the building’s renovated apartments are currently occupied. He notes that only two office tenants remain in the building.

Inspired by what he saw while visiting New York City, Vence has installed atop his building a colorful lighting system made by the same company that lights the Empire State Building. Working at his office computer, he can easily change the colors of the display.

St. James goes condo

The second tallest building in Huntington is a 12-story structure on the corner of 4th Avenue and 10th Street. It has been a downtown landmark since it opened its doors in 1914. In its century-plus history, it has housed four different banks. Today, it’s home to the downtown branch of the First State Bank of Barboursville.

For decades, the bank building’s upstairs offices were coveted spaces, but over the years their occupancy rate steadily declined.

In the 1970s, floors 6 through 12 were developed into one- and two-bedroom rental apartments. Christened as the St. James, the units subsequently went condo, a step that’s proven popular with young professionals and retired couples who favor the idea of owning their own place in the heart of downtown.

Coal Exchange Building

Huntington’s third tallest building, the 14-story Coal Exchange Building at 4th Avenue and 11th Street was sold at a public auction in August. The winning bid of $500,000 was submitted by Joe Barta, who owns the city’s former Pullman Plaza Hotel. After $7 million in recent renovations, the hotel is now a DoubleTree by Hilton.

Realtor Frances McGuire, who represented Barta at the auction, said the new owner of the long-vacant Coal Exchange Building plans to use the ground floor as commercial space and renovate the upper floors for residential use.

“You won’t see much activity for several months, but Joe Barta plans to completely renovate the structure,” McGuire said.

When it opened in 1924, the Coal Exchange Building boasted offices that were larger and finer than any others in the city at the time. Not surprisingly, the building rapidly filled with tenants — doctors, lawyers and, of course, coal companies.

The Coal Exchange Bank occupied the ground floor, but the Great Depression resulted in its closure and forced the building’s owners into bankruptcy, too. As a result, the building was sold at auction at the Cabell County Courthouse in about 1933, and it’s thought that’s when it was chosen by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway for its engineering department and other offices.

At that time, the structure was renamed the C&O Building. But several years later, when the C&O moved out, the building’s name was changed back to the Coal Exchange Building. Many longtime Huntingtonians remember when the former Kaiser Drug Store occupied the building’s ground floor.

Prichard’s fate uncertain

Another tall building in downtown Huntington, the 13-story former Prichard Hotel, stands on the corner of 6th Avenue and 9th Street. Long vacant and neglected, it recently changed hands and may be in line for a happier future.

Real estate developer Fred C. Prichard built his hotel in 1925. A native of Grayson, Kentucky, Prichard came to Huntington after making a small fortune in the coal business in Fayette County. He also built another Huntington landmark structure, the Robson-Prichard Building.

His grand hotel had guest rooms, each with its own bath, a rarity in hotels of that day. It also had 14 private dining rooms, a restaurant and a ballroom.

Over the years the Prichard had some famous guests. In 1949, singing cowboy Gene Autry stayed there when he was in town for a show. His horse Champion slept elsewhere. But a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs was an honored guest in 1956 when the cast of television’s “Today” show came to Huntington. John F. Kennedy, his wife Jackie and his brother Ted all stayed at the Prichard during JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign.

Prichard lost most of his fortune in the Great Depression and was forced to sell his hotel. It ceased operation as a hotel in 1970. Over the years since, it has housed a variety of offices and apartments.

Huntington’s Christ Temple Church purchased the building and attempted to turn it into a place where people could go through a spiritually based program to recover from addiction. However, by March 2015 the building’s residential tenants were ordered to vacate their apartments because city inspectors found numerous plumbing and electrical code violations in the building.

The building has been empty for at least two years and has seen instances of glass windows falling out into the street.

Cornerstone Community Development recently purchased the former hotel from Christ Temple. The Huntington firm lists the building as a “current project” on its website but has yet to reveal what its plans are for it.

Charleston’s Atlas Building

Built in 1941, the eight-story Atlas Building at 1031 Quarrier St. may not be the tallest high-rise building in downtown Charleston, but its Art Deco design may qualify as the most distinctive. Various developers have attempted to refurbish the Atlas Building, but none of their plans came to fruition.

In June, the Kanawha County Commission approved an agreement paving the way for $9 million worth of construction creating more than 50 residential housing units in the historic building. The payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement with Atlas Building Lofts LLC freezes property taxes on the building at the current rate for the next 10 years, helping cement a financing pact with lenders.

Under the terms of the PILOT, construction has to be complete by the end of 2020. About 56,000 square feet of the building would be converted to residential use. A total of 52 units are planned — 23 one-bedroom and 22 two-bedroom condos and 7 studios. About 8,000 square feet would be used by retail, office and restaurant tenants.

Part of the Downtown Charleston Historic District, the building qualifies for state and federal historic preservation grants to help protect its unique historic features.

The building’s original curved Art Deco entry features a multicolor terrazzo floor with sweeping curves into the building that culminate in the center of the lobby with an encircled “A” in front of the Deco-style elevators. The lobby also retains the original snack bar. Two storefronts flank this center entrance. The first story is covered with polished granite while the upper stories display brick with decorative, Deco-style fleur-de-lis.

The Union Building

When it was built in 1911, the Union Building at 723 Kanawha Blvd. was the tallest building in the state. As Charleston’s largest commercial building, it was a symbol of the city’s early banking and business prominence.

Originally it was called the Alderson-Stephenson Building in honor of businessmen Charles Alderson and Samuel Stephenson, who financed its construction. Later it became known as the Union Trust Building, then finally as the Union Building. When Kanawha Boulevard was constructed in the 1930s, it was the only building left standing on the south side of Kanawha Street.

Over the years, the vintage building has seen a wide variety of office tenants come and go. Today’s owner, the Riggs Corp., has an ambitious plan to convert it to 36 rental apartments that might eventually be converted to condos.

The company also envisions construction of a riverfront parking garage adjacent to the building. The ground floor of the garage would be retail space.

The Goff Building

For decades, the Goff Building was a premier business location in the heart of downtown Clarksburg. Built by Judge Nathan W. Goff in 1911, the nine-story building at 321 W. Main St. was one of West Virginia’s first high-rise structures.

With shops on the street level and offices above, the building is U-shaped, an arrangement devised to give as much light and ventilation as possible. The brick-faced building has lavish stone trim. The bricks (all 982,000 of them) were kilned locally at the Glen View Brick Company. Thirty-two tons of Alabama marble was used to face the building’s interior.

In September 2018, the historic building was put up for auction and purchased by a St. Louis firm, Tristar Development, which announced plans for turning it into a “multi-use” facility that would include a restaurant, retail locations, office space and residential housing.

A year and eight months later, on Nov. 20, the building was auctioned off again when the St. Louis company found itself unable to continue with the project.

“When they found the project ... they were right in between two other projects,” explained Jordan Kiger of Joe R. Pyle Complete Auction and Reality Service. “Their business really started to grow and they just didn’t have the manpower to continue on the project here.”

Kiger declined additional comment, saying his auction firm is continuing negotiations with the winning bidder at the second auction.

Wheeling-Pitt Building

In 1904, Wheeling brewery owner and entrepreneur Henry Schmulbach built a 12-story office building at 1134 Market St. Several years later, the building was taken over by the Wheeling Steel Corp. Today — with the steel company now a memory — the building seems poised for redevelopment.

Steve Coon, president of Coon Restoration and Sealants in Lucasville, Ohio, has announced plans to convert the historic building into an apartment complex with about 110 market-rate housing units.

But Coon has said construction on the project can’t begin until there’s a firm commitment by the City of Wheeling to build a long-proposed nearby parking garage.

Earlier this month, Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron said the city is considering building the garage on properties to the north of the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Building, though nothing has been finalized.

James E. Casto is the retired associate editor of the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington and the author of a number of books on local and regional history.

FUNERALS FOR TODAY JANUARY 21, 2020

Campbell, Virginia - 2 p.m., Wallace Funeral Home & Chapel, Barboursville.

Fisher, Helen - 6 p.m., Cunningham - Parker - Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Johnson, Linda - 2 p.m., Highland Memory Gardens, Chapmanville.

Kessler, Carolyn - 5 p.m., Gatens-Harding Funeral Home Chapel, Poca.

King, Charles - Noon, Cooke Funeral Home Chapel, Nitro.

Pauley, Bernice - 11 a.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Sigman, Christopher - 2 p.m., Propps Family Cemetery, Summersville.

Williams, Archie - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.