The Fort Henry Building to get tenants, new life by 2023
WHEELING — The Fort Henry Building already has tenants anxiously waiting to move in as an $8 million renovation of the historic structure is expected to be completed by December.
The Steptoe & Johnson law firm has signed on to be the building’s anchor tenant, and plans call for the firm to occupy the second and third floors of the four-story building. The West Virginia Department of Rehabilitation Services, meanwhile, is set to move in on the first floor. It has already been operating on the second floor of the Fort Henry Building.
The building’s owners, McKinley Architecture and Engineering, will take over the fourth floor and create a “show place” design room in the building’s ballroom. McKinley Architecture and Engineering will be moving out of a downtown building it already rehabilitated – The Maxwell Center.
“Someone will find a fine new home in the Maxwell Center,” said David H. McKinley, chairman of McKinley Architecture and Engineering.
McKinley said $3 million already has been invested in the restoration of the exterior Fort Henry Building, located at 1324 Chapline St. The next phase is expected to cost an additional $5 million, with work to focus on the interior.
McKinley expects the project to be completed by Dec. 1.
“We’re going to be crunching it,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of action going on in the next six to seven months.”
Much of the challenge will be maintaining the history and architectural detail that still exists in the 36,000-square-foot building, according to McKinley and Christina Schessler, historic preservation architect for McKinley Architecture and Engineering.
The ceramic tile floors will remain, as well as the plaster detailing and the building’s original staircase.
An Historic Structure
The Fort Henry Building was originally built as the James Fitzsimmons residence in 1850, according to information from the Ohio County Public Library. The townhouse later would be purchased by Allen Howell.
On August 6, 1890, an initial organizational meeting of the Fort Henry Club took place in the Howell Mansion. The club would be incorporated as the Fort Henry Club on Sept. 4, 1890. The Howell Mansion was then converted to an exclusive men’s club and after extensive renovations, the Fort Henry Club opened Dec. 23, 1890.
The club served three meals a day and had a chef on duty around the clock, according to the library’s information. Businessmen from Wheeling and all over the country kept their memberships so they would have a place to go when in the city. Famous guests included Charles Lindbergh, Herbert Hoover, and Babe Ruth.
But after decades of economic and population decline in Wheeling, the Fort Henry Club was forced to close by the late 2000s.
It was first purchased by St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, a neighbor of the Fort Henry Club Building. McKinley Architecture and Engineering first became involved with the project, then took ownership of the property in September 2013.
A Long Wait For Renovation
The renovation of the Fort Henry Building is personal for McKinley. He said he just recently viewed some family photos snapped inside the building many years ago.
McKinley explained his firm waited to begin renovating the property for a number of reasons, he said. The company first faced a challenging economy that existed in the 2010’s. Then came 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were concerned what the COVID environment would bring, and what the economy would look like after it,” he said.
But McKinley said the interest expressed in the building by the community “reflected optimism and confidence” for the future.
He credited the The West Virginia Department of Rehabilitation Services for being the first tenant to sign a lease in the building six years ago, and giving his company encouragement to continue with renovations.
“(WVDRS) was the very first tenant of the building, without whom we could not move forward,” McKinley said. “They shared the vision of what the building could become while respecting the restoration of West Virginia’s history.”
The renovations will comply with the United States Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines for historic preservation and restoration, according to information provided by McKinley Architecture and Engineering.
The office credits the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office as the driving force behind the rehabilitation of the building with guidance, expertise, and grant funding for the building.
Schessler, the historic preservation architect, said she has actually been working on the project since 2009 before McKinley purchased the building, and it is a big part of her career.
“For us, saving the Fort Henry Club building is the goal,” she said. “The club and the building have played an important part in the history and traditions of Wheeling.
“Most people do not know this, but some important and impressive people have walked these corridors. Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Jimmy Stewart and President Herbert Hoover are just a few of the names we found in the local history books covering Wheeling. All these people have influenced our national history, and they all stopped at the Fort Henry Club.”
Excitement To Move In
Among those anxious to work each day in the Fort Henry Building is attorney William Wilmoth with Steptoe & Johnson.
“I love history,” he said. “And having an old historic building repurposed makes me happy.”
Wilmoth noted the Fort Henry Building is centrally located between the City-County Building at 1500 Chapline St. and the Federal Building at 1125 Chapline St, and this makes it convenient for the attorneys at his firm.
“Since the early 1990s when the firm opened its Wheeling office, Steptoe & Johnson has been committed to the City of Wheeling and the surrounding Ohio Valley,” said Ben McFarland, Wheeling Office Managing Member for Steptoe and Johnson. “Our move into the renovated Fort Henry Building represents that ongoing commitment to our community, which we intend to carry forward for many years to come. Our new office will allow us to serve local and regional clients in a collaborative manner and provide them with the highest level of client service.”
Kurt Zende, president of the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce, termed the Fort Henry Building “a shot in the arm” for Wheeling.
“It will lead to more development over time,” he said. “COVID led to changes in how we do business, but now we are coming out of it and going forward.”
Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott welcomed more private investment in the City of Wheeling
“McKinley Architecture and Engineering has a particular expertise in the areas of historic rehabilitation and adaptive reuse, and Wheeling is a city loaded with such opportunities,” he said. “Historic preservation may be challenging and expensive, but if done right, the results can really enhance a city’s authentic sense of place and economic viability.”
Elliott is leading Wheeling’s Downtown Streetscape project – a structural and cosmetic overhaul to the downtown traffic arteries in Wheeling that will bring new street surfaces, sidewalks, curbs, lighting and other updated features.
“With this project happening, we have to make sure there are buildings here behind those streets,” McKinley said. “We want to be part of the renaissance of Wheeling.”