People often ask what the hardest part of rehabbing the McLain house is, or if there have been any unwanted/unexpected surprises.
Typically, I respond with a rehearsed speech about the importance of due diligence and low expectations, and generally try and emphasize pragmatism when pursuing any historic project.
But the real answer is, the hardest part about rehabbing my 3,400 square foot, 128-year-old, thirty odd years vacant house…is documenting it.
I’m pretty good at project management. The construction projects at the McLain have all stayed on schedule, and anything I slowed down or sped up was by choice not necessity, but the one thing I vowed to do when starting this project- Blog about it, has been sorely neglected.
And while I feel some disappointment for not chronicling every step of the process in real time (check out Instagram stories if that’s what you’re looking for) I do feel grateful that the winter season provides some time to catch up. It’s been a big six months for the McLain House.
So, in an effort to hold myself accountable, or maybe to create my own McLain House Wrapped, I’m committing to catching you all up on what’s been going on before the end of 2020.
Until then, here’s a how it started and how it’s going pic of the old girl. Next, I’ll explain why that blue band at the top of the house is so damn significant.
One of my favorite things about living in an old house is knowing that I am just a piece of the history of that place. While I don’t live in the McLain house yet, I am constantly struck by the generations that came before me. With each room or space that I work on, I wonder how it was experienced in the 1890s, the 1950s, and beyond. This is not the first pandemic my house has witnessed. It has seen countless presidential elections, births, deaths, holidays, bad days and good days. It has also been home to many vibrant, interesting families.
Now being an architectural historian, you would think that I would pour over the historic documents and do extensive research about the history of the house. But alas, I am both lazy and busy, and lucky to have a local preservation organization, The Friends of Wheeling, that has done almost all of that work for me. The history that follows is a condensed version of a report compiled by the Friends’ president, Jeanne Finstein.
The House was probably built for Thomas B. McLain around 1892. McLain (1842-1924) was born in Warren, Ohio and came to Wheeling with his parents, John G. and Eliza Ellen Baird McLain, when he was 2 years old. His father was a printer and publisher of the Wheeling Argus, one of the first newspapers in the city, from 1844 until his death in 1849. (Thomas would have been about 7 years old at the time of his father’s death.)
Thomas’s brother Robert began the family’s first drug store in 1856 in a building owned by Dr. Robert W. Hazlett at the corner of 38th and Jacob Streets in Ritchietown (South Wheeling). Thomas worked there as a clerk and errand boy. Around 1860 the McLain brothers established a penny post office in their store. This “proved to be quite remunerative to them and a great accommodation to the townspeople who took advantage of it. People who wanted their mail brought down from the city signed an order to the postmaster to have their mail put into the penny post box, and every morning it was carried down to the drug store, distributed into the proper boxes, and delivered when called for at a charge of a penny for each letter or paper. During this time, the younger brother [Thomas] boarded and lodged at the family residence on North Main Street, between 8th and 9th Streets, and walked to and from the little drug store stopping on the way at the post office for the penny post mail.”
Thomas and his three brothers, Henry B., Robert B., and John G. McLain later opened the McLain Brothers Drug Store in Washington Hall, at the northeast corner of Market and 12th Streets. It was described as one of the most up to date in the city. When Washington Hall was torn down, the McLain Drug Store moved across the street.
By 1890, the three older McLain brothers had retired from the drug business, and in 1893 Thomas, under his physician’s advice, disposed of the drug business. That was around the same time that the house at 115 14th Street was built. Then Thomas and his son James formed the McLain Dental and Surgical Supply Company, located on the 2nd floor of the “McLain block,” corner of Market and 12th Streets. The company kept a “large and varied stock” of artificial teeth and instruments used in dentistry; surgical instruments; and sick room and hospital supplies such as hot water bottles, ice bags, air pillows, bed pans, syringes, sterilizers, and food warmers. “They also made a specialty of renting rolling chairs, invalid beds, air mattresses, chair commodes, and surgical operating tables. A specialty of the firm was truss fitting…They also supplied appliances for deformities of the body, artificial eyes, limbs, arms, and hands…along with instruments to aid the hearing, such as mohair conversation tubes, London hearing horns, hard rubber audiphones fans, black metal ear trumpets, and invisible ear drums.” Every time I take down a wall or pull up a floorboard, I expect to see a glass eye staring back at me. So far, no eyeballs have been discovered.
Thomas McLain lived at 115 14th Street for about ten years. By 1903-4, Wheeling City Directories show his residence as Echo Point. He later lived at 80 North Front Street (1905-6), then 303 South Penn Street beginning around 1907, followed by 416 Richland Avenue (Warwood) beginning around 1919. When he died in 1924 at age 81, his residence was listed as 127 Edgwood Street. His obituary called him “one of the city’s pioneer businessmen and most highly respected citizens.” He was survived by his wife and three children – Mrs. J. Ralph Boyd, Mrs. D.A. Burt, and James L. McLain. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
Bernard Horkheimer and his wife Estella are listed at 115 14th Street in the 1903-4 City Directory. Horkheimer (c. 1853-1906) was a German immigrant who was in the wool-buying and grocery business with his own brothers and the Baer brothers. The Horkheimer family was very prominent in the Wheeling Jewish community at the time, and two of his nieces (daughters of Morris Horkheimer) married local rabbis who went on to some renown in their later lives. Bernard’s death certificate states that he was “accidentally killed by being crushed between [railroad] cars. He is buried in the Jewish section of Mt. Wood Cemetery. Horkheimer’s widow remained in the house until around 1910.
I have a particular affinity for the Horkheimers for some reason. Estella is one of my favorite names from my favorite classic, Great Expectations, and I get the sense that some of the early design decisions in the house were actually from this time period, not its original construction. I haven’t experienced anything paranormal in the house yet, but I do occasionally ask Estella what she thinks of my choices.
After the Horkheimers, the next resident was Frank C. Swift, whose occupation was shown as broker and then as traveling salesman in the 1917 and 1920 City Directories. I think Frank C Swift is the best name for a travelling salesman possibly ever, and for that reason I am also fond of him. Swift was followed by Rev. Pliny Brokan Ferris and his wife Alice. Ferris was the pastor of 2nd Presbyterian Church. Deed records indicate that church trustees owned the property during this period. When the Second Presbyterian church was demolished in the 2010s, windows from the building were salvaged by the Wilsons and installed in the dining room.
Subsequent residents/owners included veterinarian Leon Reefer (and his wife Josephine), who apparently used the house as both an office and residence from around 1928 until his death from pulmonary tuberculosis on January 1, 1935. Daniel H. and Edna Manners were the next residents (1936-1946). Manners worked as office manager for Hygrade Food Products and later as a purchasing agent for the John Wenzel Company, meat packing.
The Antonucci family then lived at this address and 115 ½ (or 115a and 115b) from 1946 until the late 1980s. The split address came from the rooms rented on the second and third floors. Owners Carl and Mary did not have children, and converted the first floor to their living quarters, and rented space upstairs. Carl Antonucci was a millworker at Wheeling Steel. Mary was a talented cook and baker, and worked at a local bakery. They both walked to work, and never owned a car. East Wheeling during this period was heavily populated with Italian immigrants, and the family of Mary Antonucci occupied 113 (next to the McLain House) and 126 ½, just up the street. Mary and Carl were well known throughout the neighborhood for their gardens and Sunday dinners.
The Vacant Years
From the 1980s on, the McLain house appears to have been vacant. The inheritor of the Antonucci’s is not well known, and never lived in the house. Neighbors remember a few owners who never occupied to house, and then a long stretch of vacancy. While much of the historic fabric of the house remains, it was during this time that the stained glass transom windows on the front of the house were removed.
Brian and Stephanie Wilson owned the McLain house from 2013 until I purchased it from them in May 2020. The Wilsons saved the McLain house from demolition, and began the restoration process with extensive structural repairs to the basement, updating systems, and acquiring the lot next door. Both trained at the Belmont Restoration Program, the Wilsons are true preservationists that brought the house back from the brink. They also saved the tiny house from demolition, relocated it to the back yard, and incorporated several pieces of local salvage into the design. I am so grateful for the time and effort they spent on the house, and consider them both friends.
And then there was Me
The first time I saw the McLain house was Labor Day weekend, 2019. My friend Stephanie was visiting from Virginia, and I was taking her on a walking tour of the architecture of Wheeling, because I am an insufferable host that relentlessly imposes my interests on anyone around me. I had never really noticed this house before, so we stopped in front and I said how much I liked it, and I wonder who owns it. My now neighbor Donna overheard me, and immediately filled me in on the situation. Brian and Stephanie and I had many mutual friends, so a facebook message later we set up a viewing.
I walked through the house for the first time over Thanksgiving, again over Christmas, and then began a long process of due diligence and financing. Throw in a pandemic to slow things down a bit, it was a long process. I closed on May 28th 2020, and started work in the next month.
The longer I own the house, the more people and memories surface. It’s been wonderful to hear the recollections of neighbors and descendants, and I only hope this fountain of knowledge continues.
Why Worry About Gardening?
I closed on the McLain house on May 28th, 2020. Spring was inching into summer, and I had a whole season of work ahead of me. So, what was the first project I tackled? Window repairs? Raccoon eviction? Waterproofing? None of the above. The first project I tackled at my 3,400 square foot, three level, ivy covered monster of a house wasn’t even about the house. It was about gardening
And not just any garden. Pretty, raised, painted garden beds. I wanted decorative finials on the corners, and to feel like Ina Garten in the Hamptons, picking heirloom tomatoes, instead of regular Betsy picking mint because it’s the only thing that grows, in East Wheeling.
And while those romantic gardening fantasies were an influence, why I really chose to make container gardens my first project instead of countless other, more pressing tasks, was because I wanted to make a statement. I wanted people in the neighborhood to walk by and see something was different.
This was important to me because The McLain House is in East Wheeling, a neighborhood that has historically been underserved and underappreciated. It’s a neighborhood that suffered the effects of Urban Renewal, and the decimation of community in favor of roadways in the mid-century. It’s a neighborhood where historic homes have fallen into disrepair, and raze or repair orders have become all too common. My own side yard once contained a historic Italianate brick home that raised countless generations. Sometime in the mid-2000s that home was demolished, leaving an empty lot, later parceled in with the McLain house.
I wanted my neighbors to know something different was beginning to take place. The empty lot beside my vacant house was empty no more. And it is a yard, with mowed grass and garden beds, not an empty space owned and cared for by no one. This was no longer a short cut from 14th to the alley, it was a place where someone was doing something (although you’re still welcome to cut through my yard anytime and stop and say hi).
How I Made Them
The dirty little secret about container gardening is that its not *that* cheap. Buying dimensional lumber and soil and plants and so on can easily turn a simple project into an expense on par with an actual weekend getaway. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend my extra cash on weekend trips with cocktails and a hot tub, not compost and treated lumber. Disclaimer about this approach: you do get what you pay for. I got attractive, functional garden beds that will not be featured by any woodworking magazine anytime soon. If cedar that will last forever and hand chiseled joints are your jam, that’s great. I however, want cute, manageable, and a project I can actually finish and not agonize over.
So first, I found some salvageable wood. I am extremely fortunate that my boyfriend also bought an old building in Wheeling, that just so happened to have been a cabinet shop, where salvaged materials are abundant. But if you are not in that position, simply begin wood hoarding, and you’ll soon have your own supply. Seriously, dumpster dive, look for people gutting houses, you name it, people are always throwing away perfectly good lumber. Take it, hoard it, thank me later.
I managed to find sixteen pieces of six-foot-long by about 10’’ wide boards, and a handful of square-ish pieces to nail to. The process was simple: Stack two boards, screw into a square vertical piece on the interior used for support, then repeat until you have a square. Once I had a square, I added some decorative finials from woodpecker supply to the corners, painted the entire thing with the heaviest white exterior paint I could find, and called it a day. One of the two beds got a divider running down the middle initially for support, but later I found this helped keep plants in their rightful spots.
Once the paint dried, I took the beds to the house, picked a spot where they’d be visible but out of the way of mowing, and plopped them down. I put newspaper down to deter weeds, then a good layer of sticks and miscellaneous vegetation, and then some compost. Luckily the back patio had several years of decomposing leaves available, so that was shoveled up and dumped in. This filled the beds about 1/3 of the way, and a truckload of dirt from a local landscaping company was enough to fill them the rest of the way, and top with mulch. I got my plants locally, from two wonderful organizations, Russell Nesbitt Services and Grow Ohio Valley.
Russell Nesbitt provides lifestyle opportunities to adults with disabilities, and their seasonal greenhouse provides skills training and employment opportunities for the individuals they work with. They grow the best starter plants, maintain a greenhouse in downtown Wheeling, and the proceeds go directly back into the organization’s programming. I bought tomato, pepper, brussels sprouts and herb starters from them.
Grow Ohio Valley is a local nonprofit organization rethinking the way we approach food justice and access to fresh produce and local groceries. They opened the Public Market last October, brining fresh, local food to downtown Wheeling and addressing a food desert. I purchased Zinnia and mixed wildflower seeds there.
Now, looking back over the past three months, I can’t say everything I planted was a success. I still contend with an enormous groundhog that lives under the mini house, and feasts on my tomatoes. I was able to enjoy fresh herbs all summer, making Mojitos right in the backyard with my mint. On several occasions I brought fresh floral arrangements as hostess gifts, and nothing made me happier than knowing my friend Jenna down the street picked herself a bouquet one day while she was out walking the dog. One day my neighbor Donna, who has lived on 14th street for nearly 50 years, told me she remembered the old Italian couple that owned the McLain house in the 1960s and 70s, growing huge, elaborate gardens that fragranced the whole neighborhood.
And that is why my container gardens are so important to me. They brought life back into a long quiet space. Friends picking flowers, neighbors remembering their neighbor’s grape vines. It’s about people in a neighborhood that often gets brushed off, seeing that their community is special, and that a piece of it will be tended with care.
Hi there, I'm Betsy. Welcome to my website/blog/portfolio/dog photo album. I started this blog because I bought a house. A big, old, falling apart house. And it seems like if you're going to buy a big, old, falling apart house that will nearly bankrupt you, you should chronicle it for the masses in the hopes of becoming a #lowespartner.
So how did I get here? Well, for as long as I can remember, I've loved old things. One of the greatest motivations in my adolescent life was simply to go beyond the velvet rope and see the upstairs of every museum. This fascination with the unseen parts of old buildings eventually led to my degrees in Anthropology, Art History, and Historic Preservation. I've been fortunate enough to work with Main Streets, History and Landmark Foundations, and one very impactful position at James Madison's Montpelier. In 2018, I decided to change pace, and relocate to Wheeling, WV.
Wheeling is a major character in this blog, because it is where, as Director of Heritage Programming for the Wheeling National Heritage Area, I am able to combine my love of technical preservation and cultural heritage interpretation. Seriously, it's a dream job. Wheeling is a small city with big amenities, undergoing a revitalization that I'm thrilled to be a part of. It is also where I've purchased the aforementioned big, old, falling apart house. Said house (second only perhaps to my perfect dog Marshall) will be getting a lot of air time on this platform.
But I hope this platform becomes more than just an old house blog. My intention is to create a space for those interested to read my thoughts and experiences in community development, and place-making, and heritage studies AND rehabbing a big, old, falling apart house. And also dogs and yoga and food and flowers. A lifestyle blog if you will, written by someone that hates lifestyle blogs.
So if that sounds like fun, come on in. I promise I'll never ask you to take your shoes off.
Hi there, I'm Betsy. I'm a historian, dog-mom, yogi, and preservationist. Join me as I navigate the field of cultural heritage, and rehabilitate my home in historic East Wheeling, WV