Adaptive reuse – the process of adapting old structures for new purposes – is becoming increasingly popular in the major cities inhabited by the expatalachians staff. Wine bars are opening in Pittsburgh-area churches, and former industrial buildings have been transformed into luxury apartments in Columbus and Raleigh. While such projects in booming cities are often seen as trendy and even linked to gentrification, the reuse of buildings in Appalachia’s towns and cities is often a necessity to stave off dereliction in the face of a changing and shrinking population.
Regardless of their location, one commonality between most adaptive reuse projects—particularly those involving historic structures—is the strength of the original building’s construction. The types of buildings often targeted for redevelopment (churches, schools, and industrial buildings) were built of stone, brick, and steel. While such solid construction is usually an asset, in Appalachia and the Rust Belt, their longevity is beyond their intended original use, which can contribute to blight and decay.
Too expensive to demolish (and often too significant to tear down), those structures must be renovated for a new purpose or remain cold and empty, taking up valuable space. Unlike the timbered boomtowns of the Mountain West, the built environment of Appalachian towns were constructed to last—they won’t rot away. That creates a problem, but also an opportunity.
In the region’s larger cities such as Asheville, NC or Charleston, WV, adaptive reuse can mimic the projects happening in the peripheral metropolises. A hallmark of downtown renaissance, former office towers and commercial buildings are being transformed into luxury apartments. Bringing new residents into Appalachia’s downtowns has also led to an increase in the demand for restaurants, bars, and stores that have begun to pop up in empty storefronts.
In contrast with the hip homages to the region’s past that downtown redevelopment tries to capture, in more rural communities, reuse is a necessity. One example is the Schoolhouse Grocery in Fairpoint, Ohio. A combination bar and grocery store, the business fills a commercial void in the hamlet.
“We saw the need in the community,” owner Tom Scott said. “I’ve kept it open since 2002; without this place, there wouldn’t be anywhere to buy the basics.”
Originally built in 1921, the Wheeling Township School served the students of northern Belmont County for nearly six decades. Today, those students attend classes in nearby Saint Clairsville, which without the Schoolhouse Grocery would also be the closest place to purchase a bag of chips or toilet paper.
Much like the consolidation of public schools, churches also easily fall victim to population decline. Unlike office buildings, however, places of worship often have floor plans and designs defined by their use. Older churches in particular tend to follow a cruciform pattern with long naves and dual wings; while difficult to adapt into living space, the floor plan lends itself well to restaurants or bars. One especially popular example is the Cathedral Café in Fayetteville, WV. A longtime favorite of the outdoorsy crowd that converges on the New River Gorge each summer, the eatery is situated in a Methodist Church built in 1905. In addition to the dramatic vaulted ceilings, the main dining area is enriched by the original stained-glass windows.
Another hallmark building in many small towns in Appalachia is a railroad station. Particularly in the early 20th century, trains were a necessary form of transportation for even short journeys; yet today, only a few Amtrak routes cross Appalachia, leaving the majority of the region without passenger rail service. Many former train stations have been converted into welcome centers or museums, as they were specifically designed to be welcoming to travelers. Unsurprisingly, many former railroad stations are situated near new rail-trails. Capturing the popularity of those routes, which are examples of adaptive reuse themselves, some stations are being converted to serve the influx of cyclists.
While smaller stations are somewhat easy to convert for new purposes, the grand spaces of terminal buildings can be more difficult to fill. Indicative of its importance as the original terminus of the Baltimore and Ohio Railway, the B&O Terminal in Wheeling, WV was much grander than those built in cities of similar size. Following the cessation of passenger service in the 1960s, the building was renovated for use as the main campus of West Virginia Northern Community College, a use that continues today.
Much of Appalachia’s built environment conveys the wealth, population, and future hopes of the region’s heyday. If lost, the buildings that dominate the urban skylines and symbolize smaller townscapes will never be rebuilt. If the original use of these structures is obsolete, we must strive to find creative ways to fill their halls and give them new purposes. Whether it is a downtown office block or a rural church, once Appalachia loses its buildings, they are unlikely to be replaced.
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Nick Musgrave first became fascinated with West Virginia’s history while growing up in Parkersburg. He continues to read, research and write on the Mountain State’s past from its birthplace in Wheeling. For more neat history and some political snark, follow him on Twitter: @NickMusgraveWV.