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Mountain State Tours: Charleston, West Virginia, a downtown walking tour


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Charleston, West Virginia is the capital and the largest city in the Mountain State. Located at the junction of the Elk and Kanawha Rivers in Kanawha County, it has a population of over 51,000 with a metropolitan area of 304,000.

Downtown Charleston, West Virginia.


The growth of Charleston accelerated after the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad was completed westward through Charleston to Huntington in 1873, followed by two other railroads. Early industrial growth was centered around the salt industry, but with the advent of World War I brought a demand for chemical products, such as chlorine and sodium hydroxide which could be manufactured from salt brine. Coal was also vital to the war effort. During World War II, the first and still largest styrene-butadiene plant in the United States opened in Institute, which provided a replacement for rubber that was critically needed. The U.S. Naval Ordnance Center was constructed late during World War I in South Charleston and was not used, but reopened and saw major use during World War II, and was vital for the production of rockets, torpedo flasks, gun barrels and munitions. It employed nearly 7,400 by 1944, and eventually became home to the Park Corporation, a defense contractor. The facility was then leased to the American Motors Corporation for stamping body parts, and then Volkswagen. With the rise on industrial, commercial and political activity, Charleston underwent a commercial and residential building boom that peaked just prior to World War I. By 1920, Charleston was nearly 40,000 residents large, continuing to grow until it topped off at 85,000 in the 1960s. Today, Charleston is home to a diverse industrial and commercial base, the headquarters for many utilities, hospitals and government entities. It is also home to the minor league baseball team West Virginia Power and the West Virginia Wild minor league basketball team, along with the Capitol Market and the bustling small business-oriented Capitol Street corridor.


I started a walking tour of downtown in the late evening with two urban planners at the last stop of the Mountain State Tour series. Charleston was a natural conclusion, as it was the largest city of the state and one of the most underrepresented. It’s visually appealing from nearly every angle, as the interstate highways that approach it wind their way through the steep valleys and across rivers before popping into a densely populated core that is comprised of historic buildings, skyscrapers and tucked away gems. Parking along Capitol Street, I take in the flavor of the local stores and restaurants that line the street. The streetscape is nice, with well maintained blonde and red brick sidewalks and granite curbs, and appropriately scaled lighting. A dense canopy of trees provide great shade, and barriers to the street and its traffic include bike racks, bushes and vending boxes.

Taylor Books is a popular, local bookstore and coffee shop.






At Capitol and Virginia is the Kanawha National Bank Building, and its sister, the Frankenberger Building. Both were constructed at the same time, from 1912 to 1915.


Designed by Cincinnati, Ohio architect John S. Adkins, the 12-story Kanawha National Bank Building featured white glazed terra cotta tiles and Classical detailing. The southern elevation featured a terra cotta design to mimic rusticated stone on the first two stories. The Frankekburger Building, immediately to the north, featured large windows on the first four levels, with near identical facade of the Kanawha National Bank Building above that.



The 20-story Kanawha Valley Building was built in 1929 for the Kanawha Valley Bank. It was West Virginia’s tallest building for 50 years. The 20-story Kanawha Valley Building was designed by noted bank architect Alfred C. Bossom and associate architect Charles A. Haviland and was constructed from 1928 to 1929. The site previously held the former state capitol. The exterior was finished with brick, sans the first four stories which were finished with cut stone block with decorative valustrade and urns, with windows that featured decorative lintels and keystones. The building was designed to draw attention to itself and at the time of its opening on September 16, the building was West Virginia’s tallest. In 1976, the bank moved to One Valley Square, which was constructed from 1974 to 1976. One Valley Bank was acquired by BB&T of North Carolina in 2000.



A trio of skyscrapers, with the Kanawha Valley Bank building to the left.


One Valley Square was constructed from 1974 to 1976. The 18-story glass and aluminum skyscraper was designed by Gerald D. Hines of Houston, Texas and S.I. Morris and was built for the Kanawha Valley Bank, later becoming One Valley Bank and then BB&T. The octagonal exterior featured a window wall of bronze glass and bronze anodized aluminum mullions and spandrels, with an interior of octagons, down to the planters, rugs and boardroom table. The plaza featured a rough-cast bronze sculpture titled Cabriole that depicted three male dancers suspended over a shallow pool at a 45-degree angle. You couldn’t contrast the old brick skyscraper anymore with this.



The Kanawha Banking and Trust Company, at 105-107 Capitol Street, was constructed in 1918 and is a 12-story Neo-Classical Revival skyscraper.


Designed by Dennison and Hirons of New York City, The Kanawha Banking and Trust Company Building was constructed from 1917 to 1918. The design consisted of a two-story base of ashlar granite laid in rusticated courses, with an eight-story shaft and capital of buff brick. The granite was sourced from Mt. Airy, North Carolina, cut stone from Chicago, terra cotta and tile from Atlanta, and ornamental iron from Brooklyn. A three-story addition, designed by C.E. Silling Associates, was constructed to the south from 1967 to 1969. It consisted of a 30-foot marble arch and a sculpture titled “The Family Is the Keystone of the Community” that was commissioned in 1968 and finished by Milton Horn of Chicago. The addition is actually conforming to the original tower. From 1997 to 2000, the building was rehabilitated to provide first floor retail, two levels of offices, and residential condominiums on the upper floors.


One Commerce Square, home to Huntington Banks and other offices, is located at 900 Lee Street. Designed by C.E. Silling Associates, the building was completed in 1970, and is 210-foot tall, 16-story glass and metal tower with some solid granite elements. It was once the site of the Old Capitol Annex that was designed by Harrison Albright and constructed in 1902. The building features a convoluted 12-foot by 10-foot bronze sculpture by Milton Horn affixed to the granite exterior above eye level. The label reads: “Man Wrests from the Earth Its Natural Resources to Build Pathways to the Stars.”


You can’t say much more than that for an International-styled tower. But compared to the next skyscraper, One Commerce Square actually interacts with the street level.


The Charleston National Plaza was completed in 1969 as one the city’s first urban renewal project. The Charleston National Plaza was constructed for Charlestion National Bank, which later merged with Bank One and then Chase.


One of Charleston’s first urban renewal projects, the Charleston National Plaza was designed by Washington D.C. architect Vlastimil Koubek, with C.E. Silling Associates serving as an associate architect for Charleston National Bank. The 17-story office International Styled tower, low-rise bank, garage and second-story landscaped plaza was constructed between 1965 and 1969. Initially, a water filled moat was to surround the complex, but an abstract aluminum mural was installed in the two story bank. The mural was designed by Jordi Bonet, a Spanish artist, and portrays his impressions on the region’s natural beauty.



What is terrible about this is its use of an elevated platform a story above the street level for a park, especially as there is a riverfront park immediately to the south.


The United Center is a bit cleaner, and was built from 1983 to 1984 at 500 Virginia Street East. Designed by Odell and Associates for United Bank, the 12-story, 205-foot tower features a plaza with a sculpture titled “Aspirations” that was created by Berlin, Germany artist Alfred Kloke. The plaza was designed by Paul Friedberg and Partners of New York and landscape architect William Whyte.



The Verizon Building is an Art Deco-styled building at 816 Lee Street that was built around 1930. While it is often overlooked, the multi-story tower was once a gem in Charleston until several floors were added and the windows bricked up around 1960. In the photograph below, it is dead center – and you can make out the lighter colored brick with the addition.


The Terminal Building was constructed in 1910 and is an eight-story Beaux-Arts style skyscraper featuring a limestone-clad first story with a curved corner entrance, and plate-glass display windows facing Capitol Street and Kanawha Boulevard. The building featured a Classical-style cartouche and corner gable, and an ornate terra cotta parapet.





That other tall beauty along the Kanawha River is the Union Building and was designed by architects Harding and Upman of Washington, D.C. The 13-story Neo-Classical Revival tower was built on 32 concrete piers that supported a steel frame resting on solid rock, with the piers extended downward 64 feet through 18 feet of quicksand. Construction took two years beginning in 1909. The first two stories featured a rusticated stone facing, clad in granite, along with stone lintels, keystones and sills. The cornish was embellished with decorative brackets and dentil molding built of copper. The entrance along Kanawha Boulevard featured decorative acanthus leaves and egg-and-dart molding, along with a classical triumphal arch. The building was finished on all four sides since it was such a visible building.


At the time of its completion in 1911, the Union Building was the tallest in the state and a symbol of the city’s early banking and business prosperity. It was originally named the Alderson-Stephenson Building in honor of businessmen Charles Alderson and Samuel Stephenson who financed the construction of the building. The Union Trust Company was the main tenant in the building, and was later converted into a general office tower. Between 1938 and 1940, Kanawha Boulevard was constructed along the Kanawha River, separating the Union Building from the remainder of the business district.



The Daniel Boone Hotel is a Classical Revival 10-story structure that provided upscale lodging amenities. The hotel was constructed on land that was home to the first state Governor’s mansion and the “paste-board Capitol” that was built in 1921 in just 42 days after the State Capitol Building diagonal to the hotel had caught on fire. This temporary building also caught on fire in 1927 and burned to the ground.


The ten-story building featured a blond brick exterior and extensive use of terra cotta. The interior was no less lavish. The hotel was designed by W.L. Stoddard of New York City with Charles A. Haviland of Charleston with A.G. Higginbotham Co. of Charleston acting as the contractor. The hotel was expanded in 1936 and again in 1949, providing a total of 465 rooms, a large ballroom and three parlor meeting rooms. The hotel was closed in the 1970s. In 1984, the Daniel Boone Hotel was renovated into an office building that included converging the original walls inside the U-shape into balconies, enclosing it so that it looked down into a ten-story atrium with two glass cab elevators, a two-story waterfall and fountain and a glass roofed meeting room.


Nearby is the Laidley Tower, an 18-story glass tower designed by Sherman Carter Barnhart that was completed in 1985. It is pretty much a sleeper.



The Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse was completed in 1997, and is named after Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia’s then-eight term United States senator. First proposed in the late 1980s to replace and antiquated federal courthouse on Quarrier Street, federal appropriations of $60.1 million paid for the land, design and construction of a much larger federal courthouse in downtown, bounded by Virginia, Quarrier, Truslow and Goshorn streets. The Skidmore, Owings and Merill firm of New York designed the new courthouse, which incorporated Neoclassical, Egyptian and Art Deco designs into the structure.

The building was originally planned to be ten stories tall, topped with a silver, perforated steel dome that was to be larger than the West Virginia State Capitol, but after construction bids exceeded the original estimates, architects eliminated one story and the steel dome. Construction on the courthouse began in 1993 and was completed four years later. The 440,000 square-foot, 11-story building, dedicated on May 28, 1998, is 778.68 feet tall. It was the first courthouse to use new federal design guidelines that required separate and secure corridors for judges, prisoners and the public.

The structure received the 1998 Best Development of the Year award from Charleston Renaissance and the 1999 New Construction Award in the government and public works category from Building’s magazine.

I thought I had more photographs of the building, but apparently not – so here is just one from a parking deck. It’s scale and mass dwarfs even many of Charleston’s skyscrapers.


Constructed in 1893, the four-story Masonic Temple, designed by H.L. Rowe, was constructed at the corner of Hale and Virginia streets. In 1914, a lighting-caused fire caused serious damage to the building and a new Gothic Revival-style facade was installed, designed by architect H. Rus Warne and associate David Dick. An additional level was added for a new lodge room. I remember going inside the Masonic Temple years ago when a furniture business occupied the first level.



Constructed in 1911 as a U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, this Neo-Classical three-story building graces Capitol Street. In 1943, a new post office was constructed, but the structure remained in use as a federal courthouse until 1965. A year later, the building was reused as the Kanawha County Public Library after the Old Capitol Annex, built in 1902 and converted into a library, was burned and subsequently demolished.

As part of the library’s relocation, a fountain sculpture was designed by New York sculpture Robert Cronbach and installed on the plaza.




The Diamond was the largest department store in the state of West Virginia at one point, and was located at 350 Capitol Street. From 1927-1928, a five-story department store, designed by Charles Haviland, was constructed on the site of the old state capitol that had burned in 1921 mid-block on Capitol Street. A two-story with basement addition was completed at the corner of Capitol and Washington in 1941, and five floors were added in 1949 at a cost of $1.25 million, bringing up the total number of floors to seven. The Diamond featured first story storefronts that were later enclosed with polished black stone panels, and an aluminum frieze and awnings. The entrance was framed with an octagonal clock enclosed with polished stone panels. The only windows other than the first floor were nine small openings on the second and seventh floor. Between those floors are buff brick, broken into seven terra cotta fringed panels. The interior featured three elevators and a pneumatic tube system to carry cash and receipts.

The Diamond showing the original building to the right, the 1941 corner addition with the five-story expansion to the top.


The Diamond's 1963 addition is to the left.


Features in The Diamond included a discreet wig booth within the beauty salon for those with thinning hair, a photography studio, book store, bridal assistance, a luncheonette on the first level and a cafeteria on the fifth. In the 1970s, Hickory Farms was added in the basement. In 1956, Associated Dry Goods acquired The Diamond, and constructed a $1 million addition along Washington Street in 1965. The Diamond prospered and was West Virginia’s largest department store with 180,000 square-feet of retail space. It’s one and only branch was at Grand Central Mall in Vienna that was completed in 1972. But the completion of the Charleston Town Center led to a quick demise for The Diamond and it closed in 1983. In 1988, The Diamond building was renovated by Charleston developers Bob Reishman and Brawley Tracey for state offices.


The Charleston Town Center was the largest indoor mall in an urbanized area east of the Mississippi River.

The Center was first proposed by Charleston Mayor John Hutchinson, who envisioned a shopping center that would keep downtown the retail hub of the region. The “superblock” was mostly put together by the early 1970s, but by 1977, the project was in stalemate as a suburban mall with a federally funded access road to Interstate 64 was being contemplated. Hutchinson was the catalyst who put together a federal Urban Development Action Grant and a $10 million general obligation bond issue that passed 87.2% in February 1978 that would help leverage a shopping center and a hotel. With the assistance of state Representative John M. Slack, Jr., Hutchinson was able to persuade officials that a downtown mall would preserve the city’s tax base and that a suburban shopping center was not needed. In addition, both the downtown and suburban mall developers could not line up anchors for their respective malls, and in 1979, joined forces to develop a downtown shopping center.

The three-story mall was designed by the Dallas, Texas office of RTKL Associates of Baltimore, Maryland and was constructed by Forest City Enterprises of Cleveland, Ohio and Cafaro Company of Youngstown, Ohio. Construction began in 1982. The 931,000 square-foot center was completed for $160 million with financing coming mostly from the developers, and along with a $14 million federal grants that paid for two parking garages totaling 4,000 spaces and the parking garage at the 352-room Marriott. The city obtained a federal Urban Mass Transit Authority grant to complete a walkway from the mall east to Capitol Street. The Charleston Town Center opened on November 3, 1983 in time for holiday shoppers. It featured a Kauffmann’s, JCPenny, Montgomery Ward and Sears as anchors. Later, Stone & Thomas opened next to Montgomery Ward, which then became an Elder-Beerman in 1998 until it closed in 2000.


The interior featured three floors of clay brick-tiled corridors with 130 stores and three department stores. Several restaurants were included, some that faced the street, and a food court called Picnic Place. The mall featured a three-story waterfall that flowed over granite in the courtyard garden, which was removed in 2005. Today, the Charleston Town Center continues to prosper with 2011 showing the best sales in the mall’s history. The opening of several high-end tenants geared towards women in 2012, including Coach, Sephora, Francesca’s and White House Black Market, also renewed focus on the mall.(6) A major renovation is also planned for the center, including new flooring and lighting, and restroom upgrades.




One of the last major additions to Charleston’s downtown is the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences.


In 1987, the late Lyell and Buckner Clay sold their family-owned business, Charleston Newspapers, along with several other media holdings, to establish the Clay Foundation. The goal was to give away as much as possible to organizations and projects that were deemed worthwhile, stemming from the last will and testament of the Clay’s father that read, “I express the wish that my wife shall contribute something from my estate to help the poor and needy, the sick or unfortunate, preferable through some worthy organization or organizations.”

To help run the organization, the Clay Foundation hired Charles Avampato who had previously worked for them in the newspaper business. Avampato, with the assistance of John McClaugherty, purchased a block of land on the eastern edge of downtown for a performance center that was the vision of McClaugherty. Planning for such a structure began in the early 1990s, and it was then estimated that the Clay Center project would cost between $35 million and $50 million to complete. A fundraiser that ran for four years was started and the design of the Clay Center was completed by Gates, Calloway, Moore & West.

Due to the generosity of the Clay Foundation, it was decided that the new structure would be named after Lyell and Buckner in 1999. But the estimated costs were far too low, and it soon became obvious that the project cost would be much higher due to a variety of factors. The Clay Foundation funded the increases in the construction costs. Other funding sources included a $22.5 million grant from the state.

Ground was broken on May 2, 1999 and the “topping off” ceremony was held on May 14, 2001. The new 240,000 square-foot Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences was officially opened on July 12, 2003.

Today, the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences is home to the Avampato Discovery Museum, which features a planetarium, art gallery, exhibits and a cafe, the Maier Foundation Performance Hall, a 1,883 seat theater that is home to the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra and the Walker Theater, which is a black box theater that can hold between 150 and 200 people.



I conclude the tour of downtown Charleston with parting photographs taken from the top of one of the skyscrapers.

A view north.


And west.



And east.


An aerial of Haddad Riverfront Park.


A view northeast towards Spring Hill.


A view of the Quarrier and Capitol corner.


The Wheeling, West Virginia chain, Stone & Thomas, was bought out by Elder-Beerman in 1998. This awesome downtown store has been vacant for many years.


Some marginal office buildings on the east side of downtown.


A view north on Hale Street to Lee Street East.


A view north on Hale Street.


The West Virginia State Capitol Complex will be profiled next, which will wrap up the Mountain State Tour series!

Further Reading

a. Charleston, West Virginia: http://urbanup.net/cities/west-virginia/charleston-west-virginia/

b. Downtown: http://urbanup.net/cities/west-virginia/charleston-west-virginia/downtown/

Under downtown:

Charleston National Plaza

Charleston Town Center

Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences

Daniel Boone Hotel

The Diamond

Kanawha Banking and Trust Company

Kanawha National Bank Building / Frankenberger Building

Kanawha Valley Building

Laidley Tower

Masonic Temple

One Commerce Square

One Valley Square

Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse

Terminal Building

Union Building

United Center

U.S. Post Office and Courthouse

Verizon Building

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