Traveling to other places gives one a different perspective on one's own place. For instance, in France this writer was awed by the beauty, the intricacy and the age of buildings in use for centuries. One baptistery in a hilltop church had been built in the year 800 AD and was still in use.
Moving to Oregon, she realized that much of the "American" history there began in the 19th century with Lewis and Clark, though other countries' explorers, trappers and the Native Americans had been there well before. There is a comfort in the Ohio Valley, a sense of a greater history: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Underground Railroad, the Western Reserve, European immigration, the Industrial Revolution and even space exploration. People who settled here weren't products of American history, they created it.
May is National Historic Preservation Month, and as this area's population increases, there is a growing trend to preserve, restore and integrate the historic with the current. Each year the National Trust for Historic Preservation publishes a list of "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places," and over 25 years, 97 percent of the 250-plus sites have been saved. However, preservation is more than just saving old buildings. The structures are tangible links that give present day visitors a glimpse of a past life. Bridges enabled settlers to move west and transport goods and materials to build businesses and towns. Anyone who has read Spoon River Anthology knows that cemeteries have intricate story lines.
Morristown residents say the Black Horse Inn
matters as a local and historic landmark. “This Place Matters Ohio Valley” is a campaign on Facebook spearheaded by the Ohio Valley Young Preservationists in conjunction with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Belmont County, on the Ohio River with the Historic National Road/U.S. 40 crossing straight through, has some notable efforts towards preserving buildings, places and American heritage. One nationally recognized effort literally starts with the bricks and mortar of preservation.
"This is a quest. Students come here interested in history, architecture or construction," says David Mertz, chair of the Belmont College Building Preservation and Restoration program. "Once they get into the program, it becomes not only 'what do I like,' but 'what am I good at?'"
The BPR program at Belmont College (www.belmontcollege.edu) is one of six in the United States and was the first of its kind when it opened in the fall of 1989. Mertz says students come from "all walks of life" - architects, doctors, lawyers, accountants, construction workers and high school graduates - but share concerns about and interests in authentic materials, craftsmanship and the value of historical structures. In two years, students learn at least the basics in masonry, stained glass, plastering, metal working and wood working and apply that knowledge in field labs, real-life, hands-on community or historic projects.
Every third year, one of these is a national site, for instance Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Pennsylvania; West Point; Fort Drum; the White House; the Octagon House in Washington, D.C.
Locally, students have worked on projects like the St. Clairsville Library, the old school house at Ohio University Eastern, the Sheriff's Residence and Jail next to the Belmont County Courthouse and, currently, the Swaney House in Morristown.
According to Mertz, they salvage whatever usable materials possible, but they may end up making their own materials or create something new from scratch. "The practice requires critical thinking. Every job is new," he notes. "By the time they finish BPR, students can do the research, understand the resources available and make the decisions on what's appropriate for the situation."
Graduates find jobs with the National Park Service, architectural firms, in the fine arts and in restoration services.
The program has brought in between $250,000 and $500,000 in grant money over the past 20 years, garnered two preservation awards this month from the Friends of Wheeling for window projects at the Capitol Theatre and the Tallman Mausoleum in the Greenwood Cemetery and sponsored a Building Preservation and Restoration Expo on May 3 to kick-off National Preservation Month.
Cathleen Senter, BPR instructor and leader of the Capitol Theatre project, thinks part of the interest in preservation is a response to more people living in cities than ever before. "People didn't do well with the sprawl in the suburbs."
She notes that 30 people attended a recent introduction to cemetery restoration at Mt. Wood Cemetery in Wheeling. The group will be embarking on documenting the graves, prioritizing the restoration needs and re-building the history and records. There are plans for an intensive how-to cemetery preservation workshop in June.
Gabe Hays, of Hays Landscape Architecture Studio in St. Clairsville, explains some of the interest as the "holistic effect" of people becoming more interested as they see the improvements and results. His firm regularly works on historically significant projects and spaces.
"Preservation is a way of honoring the past," he says. "It's also a big part of tourism, and we see preservation bringing life back to cities."
He acknowledges that sometimes people balk at the seemingly higher costs of restoration, but notes that there are tax credits and other monies available on these properties that aren't available for conventional buildings and improvements.
The group sponsoring the cemetery project is the Ohio Valley Young Preservationists (www.ovmp.org), formed in 2012 to raise public awareness about historic preservation and try to slow the "alarming" number and scope of demolitions in Wheeling.
Rebekah Karelis, historian for Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. and a founding member of OVYP, says preservation "touches a lot of people's hearts."
"We've found that people look for things to do in their communities," she adds. "People also look for stories in buildings, neighborhoods, families. Preservation adds to the quality of life and tells those stories."
For Valentine's Day, OVYP executed their "All We Need is Love" campaign by posting hearts and messages in vacant downtown Wheeling storefronts. Currently, Molly Grace Dickerson, of OVYP and BPR student, is coordinating the local "This Place Matters" project with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Folks stand in front of a historic site with a "This Place Matters" sign, take a photo and post it on the "This Place Matters Ohio Valley" Facebook page. So far, 37 local sites have been posted, and the page has received 234 "likes," according to Dickerson.
One of the posted sites is the Black Horse Inn in Morristown. The Morristown Historical Preservation Association (at www.morristownohio.org), formed in 1984, is active in preserving and promoting the town's historic sites and atmosphere. Morristown is on the National Registry of Historic Places thanks to the MHPA founders. Many of the homes and buildings pre-date the Civil War, including the Swaney House donated to the BPR program by Margaret Dankworth. Revolutionary War soldiers were laid to rest in Pioneer Cemetery. The town is older than the State of Ohio.
The Black Horse Inn is MHPA's latest project. Located on the original National Road, the Black Horse has been an inn, a tavern, a stopping place for soldiers in the War of 1812 and World War II, a nursing home, as well as, rumor has it, a brothel. An architect has deemed the structure salvageable right now, and the MHPA is fundraising to purchase the building to restore and preserve it.
Pamela McCort, of MHPA and owner of a home built in 1841, says that buildings like hers and the Black Horse reflect the culture and society that shaped today's towns and counties and cities, wherever the locale. The fact that they are still standing 150 or 200 years later is a testament to the strength, perseverance and craftsmanship of the people who built them.
The Ohio Valley is rich with preservation opportunities for every interest. The Belmont County Historical Society (see www.barnesvilleohio.com/belmontcountymuseum) has a full schedule of Victorian-era events this year at the Victorian Mansion Museum in Barnesville. The Underground Railroad Museum Foundation (www.ugrrf.org) in Flushing contains artifacts and displays from that time of transition when local homes and churches played a key role, making them architecturally and historically significant. In Bellaire, members of the Great Stone Viaduct Historical Education Society (www.greatstoneviaduct.org) are working to acquire and preserve the iconic railroad passage that was integral in opening up the western United States.
"When I see old buildings, I see people," McCort adds. "I believe we have an obligation to them and to future generations to tell their stories by preserving what they left behind."