A West Side landmark designed by a pioneering Black architect and owned by developer Tighe Bullock has finally found a tenant.
Bullock and Legal Aid of West Virginia Executive Director Adrienne Worthy said the free service will inhabit the first three floors of the old Staats Hospital building once renovations are finished. Work on the Washington Street West structure is estimated to take 14 months.
Bullock said the open, airy fourth floor — featuring a high ceiling and 8-foot-tall windows — will serve as offices for his family’s firm, Gaddy Engineering. The project, expected to cost $5.6 million, is financed by Wesbanco and historic tax credits.
For Bullock, the agreement with Legal Aid ends a long odyssey to find a use for Staats. BridgeValley Community and Technical College indicated that it might move into the building, but that deal fell through. Two years ago, Bullock had signs in the glass storefront that promised condominiums, but that project also hit obstacles.
“We’re looking at next year,” Bullock said of the projected Legal Aid completion date. “You’ve got [internal] demolition, stabilization, a lot of trucks. There will be a lot of busy, busy, busy out front.”
Worthy said Legal Aid hopes to remain in its current location, at 922 Quarrier Street, until moving into Staats.
“We don’t want to move twice,” she said.
She said the organization, which provides free legal assistance to West Virginia’s most vulnerable clients, had been looking to move from the fourth and fifth floors of its downtown office.
“We are very much hidden down there [downtown],” she said. “The idea of having a service-focused, nonprofit, street-level space in a vibrant community, to us, is really exciting.”
Bullock owns about a dozen buildings in the Elk City area on the West Side, where Staats is located. That area of Charleston has been slowly gaining momentum the past few years as a business district, but finding a tenant for Staats has always been seen as a key to its success.
Bullock bought the building in 2014, with the help of the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority. With CURA’s assistance, he installed a new roof on the 1921 structure. Water had done extensive damage.
“The building, to me, kind of represented the neighborhood,” Bullock said. “If it were torn down, I could see it just being another parking lot and having a domino effect.”
Bullock said the Staats purchase is memorable to him because it spurred his decision to finish law school but enter historic redevelopment as a career. He felt a passion for the latter.
“I had an existential discussion with myself,” he said.
John C. Norman is the first Black registered architect in West Virginia. In addition to Staats, his work includes homes in the Luna Park area of the West Side and a now-demolished community center on Wertz Avenue. Staats is modeled in the Classic Revival style, its distinctive front columns commanding attention.
The Knights of Pythias was the building’s first occupant. The structure originally included a theater on the first floor and a large auditorium on the fourth. In time, the fraternal organization gave Dr. Harlan Staats, an owner of the building and a lodge member, two floors for hospital use.
Its most recent partial occupation was a doctor’s office, until somewhere around 2010. It took up only the first floor. The rest of the building above had deteriorated. Bullock said his crew emptied 20 dumpsters of trash from the building upon acquisition.
The fourth floor resembles an airplane hangar, with a curved ceiling and 8-foot-tall windows. It served as the original auditorium and is the future home of Gaddy Engineering.
“That floor’s got one of the great views, in my opinion, of any place in Charleston,” Bullock said.
When he showed Worthy the room for the first time, a red-tailed hawk had gotten inside and kept swooping around their heads.
For Legal Aid, moving gives it a space to be tailored specifically for its purposes.
“We can have education classes to do clinics, a kids playroom, a good private space to interview clients,” Worthy said. “It will be a very different workspace.”
Bullock’s $5.6 million in financing includes “new market” tax credits. Wesbanco sells the credits to ventures looking to lower tax liability and, with the proceeds, issues low-interest loans.
Historic tax credits and about $400,000 in low-interest CURA loans have been integral to Bullock’s rise. He takes older buildings, gains the credits through an application process and uses them to lower income taxes. For this project, he said, he must enlist an equity partner, if he wants to use the historic credits.
Bullock said he gets criticism for using the credits and CURA help. Few people would want to take on an old, dilapidated building with no incentive, he said.
Credits are negative spending, meaning the government forgoes revenue in exchange for a developer willing to take a risk few would. Studies have shown that tax credits pay for themselves in 2 1/2 years, Bullock said.
“The government has made a decision to incentivize the private sector,” he said. “We’ve identified that as a societal policy. Instead of me paying taxes five years directly, I take that money and put it in the building.”
The West Side’s gain is the downtown’s loss. Legal Aid’s move will further add to multiple vacancies between Leon Sullivan Way and Capitol Street. Worthy said Bullock’s deal on rent, which neither disclosed, was too good to pass up and the organization needs more visibility.
Worthy said Legal Aid would bring about 50 employees, providing more foot traffic to the area, which is home to several unique businesses, including a dress shop, a handful of restaurants and a tattoo parlor.
Worthy said she is anxious to make the move.
“Legal Aid has been in West Virginia since the 1950s,” she said. “Our services have been around a long time. The idea of being in a historic building is exciting.”
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