Thursday, April 16, 2009

A day in Charleston, West Virginia

I'm in Charleston for the Spring 2009 meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference, which starts tomorrow, but when I was making travel arrangements I decided to arrive a day early so that I could spend a little time exploring the city. I've been through Charleston countless times while traveling to see my mother's family in Mercer County, but I've never been to Charleston, and I decided to seize the opportunity to do so.

The conference hotel is on the banks of the Kanawha River in the heart of downtown Charleston, and I spent the morning taking an impromptu walking tour.

I first headed to the Kanawha County Courthouse, which was built in 1892 and sits on the corner of Court and Virginia Streets. Its masonry construction and Romanesque Revival style are common features of downtown Charleston's streetscape.

The much newer Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse is also on Virginia Street, roughly opposite the county courthouse. Senator Byrd has been a tireless champion of West Virginia, and has used his power and influence to bring federal dollars to the state. As a result, many, many things in West Virginia are named after Senator Byrd or his late wife; in fact, earlier today, Senator Byrd was in Huntington for the dedication of the Erma Ora Byrd Center for Educational Technologies at Marshall University.

The city's Municipal Auditorium, which has been restored to its Art Deco glory, sits on Virginia Street next to the Byrd Courthouse.

The gleaming domes of St. George's Orthodox Cathedral, which is on Court Street a few blocks away from the courthouses, fit quite well with the adjacent glass-box skyscraper.

Taylor Books is a really nice independent bookstore, gallery, and cafe situated on Capitol Street, in the heart of the Downtown Charleston Historic District. I pumped a little money into the local economy while here.

Capitol Street was home to the state capitol (which has moved around quite a bit) between 1885 and 1921, when the building burned to the ground. All that remains at the site is a piece of the stonework from the building's portico.

This sleekly modern Stone and Thomas building was on the West Virginia Department of History and Culture's 2005 list of the state's most endangered historic sites. The Stone and Thomas department store chain was a West Virginia institution, and it vanished in 1998 when the Ohio-based Elder-Beerman chain purchased Stone and Thomas and renamed all of the stores.

Downtown Charleston is home to many, many historic churches, but the mid-day sun made it difficult to get decent pictures of many of them. The First Presbyterian Church, which sits on Leon Sullivan Way (formerly Broad Street), was one of the few that I photographed well. If you would like to see pictures of these houses of worship, all of which are really lovely, check out the Wikipedia page devoted to the National Register of Historic Places listings in Kanawha County, West Virginia; another MARAC attendee is devoting himself to populating this page with images.

The Masonic Temple, which sits at the corner of Virginia and Hale streets, is a gleaming neo-Gothic beauty.

In the afternoon, I took a guided tour -- just for MARAC folks -- of the State Capitol and the West Virginia Cultural Center, which are situated a couple of miles to the east of downtown Charleston. I have countless girlhood memories of seeing the dome of the Capitol (then all gold) from I-77, and I'm elated that I got to see it up close.

The interior of the Capitol dome is as lovely as the exterior.

Unlike many state capitols, the West Virginia State Capitol is relatively devoid of murals and other artwork, which is confined to select areas of the building. As a result, the building, which was designed by Cass Gilbert, has an elegant simplicity that is really appealing. The hall leading to the Senate chamber exemplifies the understated opulence of the place.

A statue of U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd occupies a prominent position in the capitol rotunda. The head is disproportionately large. Is this some sort of sly commentary, or a sign of the artist's limitations?

As we were preparing to enter the Governor's press room in the Capitol, West Virginia's First Lady, Gayle Conelly Manchin, walked past our tour group and greeted us. A few minutes afterward, we went to the Governor's Mansion. The Governor and First Lady live in the upper floors of the building, but the first floor and part of the second floor are open to the public.

One of the most notable features of the interior is the double staircase leading from the Reception Hall to the second floor.

Our tour ended at the West Virginia Cultural Center, which houses the State Archives, State Library Commission, and State Museum. The State Museum is in the final stages of a mammoth renovation, and we got a behind-the-scenes tours of the new exhibits, which are slated to open on 20 June of this year. My pictures really don't do them justice, so I'm not posting any of them; however, the State Museum has an interactive update on the progress of the renovation on its site. The people of West Virginia are going to have a wonderful new museum.

One of the memorials on the Capitol grounds honors West Virginia's coal miners. It's a nicely executed statue, and one that resonates (even if there is a badly-placed lamp post behind it): my grandfather and two of my uncles were miners. However, later today, I learned that one of the plaques on the far side of the statue's base commemorates the mining technique known as mountaintop removal. It's basically strip mining on steroids, and it's widely used throughout Appalachia. The mining companies assert that mountaintop removal is the only economically feasible way to remove the coal from the earth, but many Appalachian residents bitterly oppose it because it destroys the landscape, contaminates wells, and may contribute to flooding problems.

I ended the day on the tranquil banks of the Kanawha River. Our hotel is opposite a small park, and there's a paved riverfront path that's at least a couple of miles long. It's the perfect place for an evening stroll.


Stanley said...


West Virginia's beautiful mountains, swirling rivers, and scenic countryside offer a welcome change of pace from the rush of everyday life. Here, too, you'll find friendly cities full of fun and nightlife. From wild to mild, from five-star resorts to rustic retreats,charleston West Virginia area truly has something for everyone.

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