Last week, I gave you a history of the building, but I wanted to take some time to explain what that means. After all, without the bigger picture, it’s only a bunch of names and dates.
First, the building was built between 1850 and 1855 by Robert Mitchell and Griffith Thomas. Mitchell, as I’ve said before, was one of the few that remained following the collapse of Rev. Graham’s settlement in the Bend Area. Now, because the fort and homes from that settlement are long since gone, this building is the last remaining piece of Mason County’s history with direct connections to the Graham settlement.
Second, Mitchell’s wife and Thomas’ mother was Maria Newell Bennett. She was the only daughter of Dr. Jesse Bennett, the one born through the famous C-section. It was her inherited wealth from her father that financed Mitchell’s business and solidified his status as one of the most successful merchants in Point Pleasant, and Robert and Maria lived above his mercantile. In fact, following Robert’s death in 1864, Maria was given a life estate in the building and remained there until her death in 1870. Now, since Dr. Bennett’s Riverview Plantation is no longer with us, nor is the home of her first husband Dr. Enos Thomas, this building is the last one with a direct connection to such a noted part of Mason County’s history.
Third, Robert and his son, James Edwin Thomas Mitchell, were well-known Confederate sympathizers. Both were listed in the Pomeroy Telegraph as having voted for secession, and James went so far as to join the Confederate Army under that “infamous marauder and horse thief” General Albert Jenkins. He was, by all accounts, present for both of Jenkins’ raids on Point Pleasant, in August of 1862 and March of 1863. Robert, on the other hand, faced federal confiscation of his property.
This story is important, because the building survives to tell it. Only four buildings in downtown Point Pleasant were standing during the Civil War, so their stories become focal points for our history. One is, of course, the Mansion House, but it is in a league of its own. Another is the Langston School, built in 1848 as the first public school in the county. The last is the Church of Christ in Christian Union, built in 1864 for the Methodist Church, South and used as a hospital during the war. Note the types of these buildings: one residential, one educational, and one religious. The Mitchell-Nease building is the only commercial building among them.
Fourth, the building is a testament to the Graham Settlement, Bennett family, and Civil War, but it is also notable for everything that came after. This building was built in the 1850s! It has “witnessed” nearly 170 years of Point Pleasant’s history! The creation of West Virginia, the height of the steamboat era from 1850-1890, the 1884 flood, the coming of the Ohio River Railroad in 1886, the 1895 fire that destroyed most of downtown, the Kanawha and Michigan Railroad in 1892, the creation of Tu-Endie-Wei, the flood of 1913, the relocation of Marietta Manufacturing to Point Pleasant, the Great Depression and 1937 Mother of All Floods, the boom of the 1940s and ‘50s, the collapse of the Silver Bridge, and so much more.
This building has stood through disaster after disaster, and every time, both the building and city came out swinging. The three worst floods in our history and a fire that leveled downtown, and we’re going to demolish this building because of an electrical fire, which I might add was confined to the 3rd floor, and water damage from fighting that fire? This building was flooded into the second story three times!
The building has taken part in our celebrations. Onlookers crowded the porch (and if I was them, the second story windows, too) during the grand dedication of Tu-Endie-Wei and the Battle Monument.
The building has been a part of our community for 170 years. As one of the main mercantile and dry goods stores in town from 1850 to the 1930s, it was a gathering place and the center of the community. You think the idea of hanging out at Walmart is new? As the Point Pleasant River Museum, it remains a focal point of Main Street, the community, and the local economy.
I’d like to end by making known what was said at the last Point Pleasant City Council meeting, and what will be brought up again at the Historic Landmark Commission meeting (April 24 at 5 p.m. at the Point Pleasant Municipal Building).
As you likely read in this paper, multiple experts testified before the council regarding the potential for saving the building.
Carol Stevens, a structural engineer with CAS Structural Engineering, is well-versed in historic buildings, having worked on the WV Capitol, WV Governor’s Mansion, and Lewisburg County Courthouse, among others. She confirmed that the structure of the building supports pre-Civil War construction, and stated that based on her experience, there is no reason that this building cannot be saved. She did agree that the bricks have softened, but said that there are ways to correct that.
Mike Gioulis is a historic preservation consultant out of Sutton, Preservation Alliance of WV board member, and former employee of the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). In his decades of work in WV, he has been involved in over 800 rehabilitation projects across the state, many of which utilized the federal and state historic tax credit. Based on his experience, he told the Council that the building could be rehabilitated in less time and for less money than demolishing it and building a new one. Compared to past projects of his, it would be roughly $800,000 and 1 year, instead of $1.6 million and 1.5 years as is currently proposed. He also agreed that the interior could be gutted and rebuilt, giving the Museum the modern interior that they’re looking for, and that there is nothing that would prevent them from building another addition to gain more space.
Finally, Jennifer Brennan is the Certified Local Government/Tax Credit Coordinator for the WV SHPO. She told the Council of the various funding options available for this project, including the SHPO’s pre-development grants that cover 70 percent of engineering and architectural planning costs and their 50 percent development grants for the actual project. She did note that the deadline for those applications had just passed, but also spoke on the tax credit. In WV, we have both the federal (20 percent) and state tax credit (25 percent), and it can be applied for at any point in the year. Assuming that this is an approximately $1 million project, that means that the city and museum will get back 45 percent, or $450,000. Think about how far that money could go, either for further upgrades/additions to the museum or other projects throughout the city.
Brennan also confirmed, as I’ve been saying for weeks now, that the district is nearing a point when it would be reviewed by the SHPO. We’ve lost over 21 percent of our district, and when you add alterations to that, we’re near 40 percent that no longer qualifies for the National Register. At the very least, that is enough to drastically change the boundaries of the district. At worst, the district could be delisted. Either way, quite a few property owners will lose access to the historic tax credits (which I might add, includes 20 percent for private homes). Based upon my research and knowledge of preservation law and policy, it’s my opinion we would also lose the Historic Landmark Commission, which only exists to enforce district guidelines, and Main Street Point Pleasant, which is a branch of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
To sum everything up, this building is likely one of the most important in the district, right up there with the State Theater and Lowe Hotel. It can easily be saved, in less time and for less money than what is currently proposed, and to offset that cost even further, there are multiple grants available as well as the historic tax credit. Finally, the project is about much more than the Mitchell-Nease building. This is about the future of the entire district.
This building cannot come down.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.