By Lee Chottiner
Beth Patsch delivered the perfect answer when asked about the acoustics at the Blue Church.
“Phenomenal,” she replied in normal speaking voice from clear across the sanctuary.
“As you see,” added Patsch, an AmeriCorps worker at the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation (WNHAC), “they carry.”
Acoustics are just one reason why WNHAC purchased the East Wheeling building at the corner of 12th and Byron streets. Its rich history is another and its particular architectural style is a third.
“It’s a pre-Civil War Greek Revival church,” said WNHAC Director Jeremy Morris. “In town, there’s only a handful of them, and if we’re not careful, we’re going to lose a lot of them.”
That warning was especially true for the Blue Church, which the WNHAC purchased last year from the Church of God and Saints of Christ amid fears that another buyer might demolish the 179-year-old building and turn the site into a parking lot.
Now, the Blue Church is being billed and prepared to become one of the leading performing arts venues in the Ohio Valley. Acoustic guitarists Jacob Thomas Jr., Gordon Vincent and Joshua Lee played there on June 9. Indie rock band Ona took the stage (formerly used as a pulpit) on July 3; and DJs will spin dance music there at the July 18 “House Party.”
Concert information is always available at the Blue Church’s Facebook page.
But the church isn’t just for music. Bill Hogan exhibited his artwork there. Planetary Scientist Chuck Wood held a stargazing event from its front steps this week, and spoken word events are expected to be held there this fall. West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman is part of the planning process.
“I want it to be a performance venue, primarily music, but other performances as well, Morris said, “and also a place where we can have other discourse.”
But before the Blue Church realizes its full potential as a community art center, it needs repairs—lots of them.
Work to be done
The repairs the old church needs, just to prevent further deterioration, are extensive. WNHAC is raising money right now to replace the roof and box gutters, hopefully before the end of the year.
My tour of the church brought home just how much rainwater had damaged the building, including its ceiling and ornate plaster molding, when the old box gutters failed.
The church must also have its stained glass windows restored; the entire exterior needs to be repainted; chunks of plaster are missing from the massive columns that stand at the entrance; and no one knows for sure the condition of the outside steps, which are currently covered by a makeshift wooden stairway.
Nevertheless, Morris said the church is structurally sound.
“We have had architects and structural engineers through it; we have had Wheeling code officers through it,” he said. “It’s a sound building; it just needs some TLC.”
The WNHAC has applied for a matching grant from the West Virginia Historic Preservation Office to replace the roof and box gutters. WNHAC also is soliciting donations at its website, wheelingheritage.org. It has set $135,000 as its goal.
Separately, the National Park Service has already awarded a grant to WNHAC to work with Partners for Sacred Places—an NPO that assists owners of older religious properties to make the most of them—to identify and secure revenue streams for the project.
Additionally, volunteers from the Wheeling Young Preservationists (WYP) help out on designated “Blue Church Work Days” such as one this week to assemble and hang acoustics panels on the walls.
“A large number of our members are folks who graduated from the Building Preservation and Restoration Program at Belmont College,” said Liz Paulhus, a co-founder of WYP (formerly known as the Ohio Valley Young Preservationists), “and so we have run a couple workshops that people are taking part in.”
The plan, she said, is to hold these workshops with master craftsmen on various areas of building restoration, such as one already slated for the stained glass windows, and then have the classes assist the craftsmen with the work.
“It’s simply going to take time to get the building secure, so it doesn’t take on water and stays dry; none of these things happen over night,” Morris said. “We’re going to chip away at this one and turn it into a good venue.”
History to unearth
Built as St. Mathew’s Episcopal Church in 1836-37, the Blue Church is steeped in history.
“All the upper echelon [of Wheeling society] went there, and people of note, like authoress Rebecca Harding Davis,” said WNHAC Historian Rebekah Karellis.
But there are gaps in the church’s history, which the WNHAC is still trying to fill.
For example, the church once sported an impressive cupola from which one could probably see much of the city. WNHAC officials don’t know what happened to it.
Then there’s the story of the so-called “slave benches”—planks of wood nailed together and attached to the walls of the sanctuary balcony. Though original to the church, little else is known about them. The story goes that slaves owned by members of the church sat on those spare benches, but the WNHAC cannot confirm that.
What it does know is that slaves did live in Wheeling and members of the church likely owned slaves. If they did, they may have brought their slaves to church, and they probably sat upstairs with other servants and people of lesser social or economic standing. Where they actually sat, though, no one can say.
“Honestly, we don’t know much about the church and its history,” Karellis said. That’s why she has studied the papers of the First Baptist Church, which called the building home for nearly 100 years after St. Mathew’s moved downtown, and she is working with St. Mathew’s officials to access its own archives.
One interesting nugget of the church’s history occurred while it housed the Baptist congregation: Don Knotts. The comedic actor who rose to fame on The Andy Griffith Show, married his first wife there. His new then father-in-law was the pastor.
But much research remains to be done. WNHAC, for instance, is trying to identify the names that appear on the stained glass windows, Patsch said.
“It has a lot of history that has yet to be told,” she said of the church. “I have a feeling that, as we go on, more of it will come out. It’s a phenomenal place.”
The next chapter
When Paulhus learned in July 2013 that the Church of God and Saints of Christ planned to sell the building, she knew there was no time to lose.
“I had heard from a couple reliable sources that that a man had just been through the building to give a demolition bid,” she said. “In a state of panic I started texting Jeremy [Morris], saying we absolutely cannot permit another building in Wheeling to come down.”
So they arranged to see the building. Paulhus recalled the first time she saw the vaulted sanctuary: “Literally, my jaw dropped. This was not what I expected to see at all.”
After that, fundraising to purchase the church began in earnest. Two foundations and hundreds of donors stepped forward to raise enough money for an offer.
“I think I literally sent emails to everyone I ever came in contact with in my life [asking for money],” Paulhus said.
She believes there were two other bidders, one of which may have been higher, but Paulhus credited church officials, especially Deacon Melvin Williams, with selling to WNHAC.
“Deacon Williams [and] the congregation love that church,” she said, and really did not want to see it demolished, so we lucked out. A different owner may have taken the first offer that came in, so they certainly play no small role in this story.”
Now comes the next chapter: the church’s change to a community arts center with performances in the main sanctuary and instructional space in the basement. WNHAC has a rendering of what the restored church might look like on its website.
Some questions remain: Should the church be painted white, which is the traditional color of Greek Revival architecture? The church was long ago painted blue and locals have since called it the Blue Church. WNHAC continues to brand the venue that way; it even designed a Blue Church logo, copies of which are strung across the sanctuary.
“It was one of those local names that stuck,” Paulhus said.
Even if the church is repainted white, Paulhus said options are being considered to acknowledge the blue hue that gave the church its name. One idea is to bathe the exterior in blue lighting.
She is excited by the way the church has ignited interest among Wheeling residents, many of whom have volunteered to help at the venue or have just shown up for its shows.
And she personally feels connected to the building she had a hand in saving.
“I feel in some way that the Blue Church is my building,” Paulhus said. “It is very near and dear to my heart.’’