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Feature

Putting an Old House to a New Use

By Sara E. Wilson | HUMANITIES, May/June 2000 | Volume 21, Number 3

A grand, historic residence that was once used to house wounded Civil War soldiers has been saved from demolition and will now be put to a new use. The West Virginia Humanities Council purchased the Hubbard House in Charleston, West Virginia, last year and has begun an extensive preservation project designed to restore the building to its former glory. Once the work is completed this spring, the council will make the Hubbard House its new home.

The Hubbard House was built in 1836 and is one of very few buildings of its age still standing in Charleston. Although additions were made in the 1920s and 1940s, much of the house remains as it looked when Norris Whitteker built it one hundred sixty-four years ago. Norris and his brother William designed and built several houses in early Charleston, including Rand House, which stood next door to the Hubbard House for more than one hundred years before it was demolished earlier this century. Designed in the classical revival style popular in the United States from about 1820-1860, the two-story brick Hubbard House recalls a classical temple, with four Doric columns and a triangular pediment.

The oldest extant photograph of the house dates from the 1910s, before any renovations were made, so the architects have a good idea of its original appearance. To be certain, they have engaged in "detective work," according to David Marshall, one of the two architects on the project. "We measure the building, investigate it, try to evaluate changes made that need to be brought back to the original. We try to determine if the materials are original," Marshall says.

Aiding the architects in their investigations is Emory Kemp, an engineer and historian from West Virginia University. "I specialize in industrial archaeology," Kemp says, "and we're strong believers that the artifact is evidence if you know how to read it." Kemp's philosophy is especially applicable to the Hubbard House because traditional historical evidence, such as photographs, drawings, or written descriptions of the building, are scarce.

The mysteries of the Hubbard House are slowly being discovered as Kemp, Marshall, and others examine the building. Many are being revealed only as the renovations take place. Recently, an electrician discovered a secret compartment in the attic. Found inside was a jug of wine wrapped in newspapers from the 1920s.

Kenneth Sullivan, executive director of the West Virginia Humanities Council, speculates that the room was specifically designed to hide the owner's secret stash, given that alcohol was outlawed by Prohibition in the 1920s. Ironically, one of the newspapers found with the wine contains a front-page story about a bootlegging investigation. Another secret space, a wall mirror that lifts up to reveal hidden shelving, was probably also used to hide bootleg liquor.

Although knowing the original appearance of the house is important in historic preservation work, this project, in the parlance of preservationists, is not a restoration, but rather an "adaptive reuse." Marshall explains: "Restoration is revitalizing the exterior or interior of a building to what it was originally. Adaptive reuse is when you take a building originally designed for one use and make it useful for another." Sullivan reports that the council is limiting the changes being made to the house, only performing those necessary to shore up the building, make it useful as an office, and bring it into compliance with local, state, and federal regulations (such as the addition of a ramp to provide access for the disabled). To the extent possible, these changes are hidden or are being done in a style compatible with the house's original design.

In addition to studying the house's structural history, the council is gathering information about the history . "We are gradually building a historical file on the house," Sullivan says. Unusual for a Southern home of its size and style, the house was never formally given a name by any of its owners. The council is referring to it as the Hubbard House in honor of Elizabeth Hubbard, whose family owned the house from 1941 until her death in 1997. She left it to Charleston's First Presbyterian Church, with the hope that it would continue to be used as a residence. The church tried to comply with that wish. John Mitchell, a West Virginia Senator, planned to live there, but when he determined that the cost of repairs to the home would be much higher than he expected, the church released Mitchell from his contract. That is when the West Virginia Humanities Council stepped in, saving the house from possible demolition.

Only four families have occupied Hubbard House since its construction. A merchant named Henry McFarland first purchased the house from the builder in December 1836, four days before his wedding. Upon the death of McFarland in 1845, the house came into the possession of the Ruby family. Three generations of Rubys lived in the house over the next seventy-seven years, briefly vacating the house during the Civil War.

Southern sympathizers, the Rubys departed Charleston early in the war, probably in 1861 when the city was occupied by Union troops, and returned shortly after the end of the war in 1865.

West Virginia became a state when the citizens of the western counties of Virginia objected to Virginia's secession from the Union. Although many of its citizens were supporters of the federal government, West Virginia, like other border states, had its share of Confederate sympathizers.

"Generally, West Virginia below the Kanawha Valley was sympathetic to the South," Sullivan explains. "About half the soldiers from Kanawha County were soldiers in the Confederate Army. So, it was not surprising that citizens of Charleston, like the Rubys, especially citizens of their class, were sympathetic to the South."

During the Battle of Charleston in 1862, the Hubbard House was struck by a cannonball, probably accidentally. The council has the cannonball and intends to display it in the public rooms of the building.

According to Ruth Woods Dayton's 1947 book, Pioneers and Their Homes on the Upper Kanawha, the house was briefly used as a hospital for Union soldiers. Renovators are hoping that hospital-related or other Civil War artifacts will be discovered when work begins on the grounds, the last phase of the preservation project. All funds in the current campaign are earmarked for the house itself. The council will maintain the grounds in the meantime, but must raise additional funds for the garden renovation.

The Rubys' Southern sympathies do not seem to have affected the family's fortunes. John C. Ruby II and his sons were successful businessmen, making their living in both grocery stores and real estate. The Rubys sold the house to John B. Crowley, who owned a candy factory and who also made a considerable income in real estate. The Crowley family lived in the house from 1922 until 1941, when they in turn sold it to Elizabeth Hubbard's father. The Crowleys made most of the existing renovations, altering the front portico, adding a sunroom and porte cochere, and installing modern conveniences, including electric lighting. The Hubbards made some additional changes in the 1940s.

Although it will not be maintained as a single-family residence as Elizabeth Hubbard hoped, the house will become a showplace home of a different sort for the West Virginia Humanities Council. The move will give the council space necessary for exhibits, lectures, book discussions, receptions, and meetings, as well as offices. A reception to celebrate both West Virginia Day and the council's annual Humanities Festival is scheduled for June 24 at the new headquarters.

Fund-raising, including a challenge grant of $150,000 awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, has been going well, with over two-thirds of the $900,000 goal already promised.

"We're still active, still optimistic, and plan to continue with the sort of fund-raising we've done to date," Sullivan adds. "We've approached foundations, businesses and government bodies. We've been very successful with local foundations and have done pretty well with individual gifts."

The members of the West Virginia Humanities Council board are so enthusiastic about this project, they have personally donated more than $100,000. The State of West Virginia has already awarded nearly $40,000 and is considering the council's request for additional funds.

The $150,000 challenge grant awarded by the NEH will be disbursed over a three-year period. To be eligible for the yearly disbursement, the West Virginia Humanities Council has to demonstrate that it has received three times as much money, $450,000 , in donations from other sources.

The public can witness the progress of the preservation work on the West Virginia Humanities Council's website (www.wvhc.com). The council hopes to come out with a video on historic preservation using the Hubbard House as a case study. The council has involved the public in other ways, including bringing schoolchildren to the house and hosting a workshop for the West Virginia State Historical Preservation Office.

"In addition to being worthy of being preserved because of the historic character of the building itself, the house deserves to be preserved because it celebrates the commercial and industrial base of the Kanawha Valley because that's how its owners made their money," preservationist Kemp says. "I supported the council's decision to purchase the house because it seemed to me it would be a symbolic gesture to house the humanities council somewhere that it had a central role in preserving. I also believed that the council's use won't require nearly as much modification of the house as use by a corporation would have. It's a very good marriage."

About the Author

Sara E. Wilson is a writer in Arlington, Virginia.