By Phillip Chapman (B.Arch candidate) | This column reviews the loss of a non-conventional modernist home in West Virginia, Top O’ Rock, designed by architect-engineer Henry Elden. Despite the very public demolition of this home, it raised public awareness of the limits and extents of architectural preservation in a consumer economy.
It should come as no surprise that we, as a general public, would want to save buildings representing various stylistic periods that provide influential meaning throughout life. That meaning comes in various forms: reference to great classical societies, shifts in cultural movements in arts, music, and construction, or respect to a pioneer in a certain era, to name a few. Oftentimes, these landmarks go overlooked and fall prey to the social and political battle with which no one ultimately wins. Take the private home of Architect / Engineer Henry Elden for instance. Top O’ Rock, as it is appropriately named for its place among an old rock quarry in West Virginia, was a testament to late Modernism at its inception; something of which the state had not seen before. Today it is a testament for a contrary, austere reason – its demolition. Politicians, historians, or preservationists did not do much in the way of endeavoring to save what was considered a local monument from the wrecking ball. More needs to be done to preserve these historical icons so that our future society can learn and build from them.
The state itself has developed a rich history beginning during the Civil War with its secession from Virginia. From the many small coal mining towns to the architecture within them, there is an abundance of historic landmarks to be found all over the state. Large, nationally known sites like the Capitol grounds, the Greenbrier Resort, and the downtown Charleston District contribute to West Virginia’s rich architectural background. As well, lesser known sites have been preserved like the Kanawha County Courthouse, Sam Black Church, and the Cass Historic District.
In 1968, a nationally known architect and engineer by the name of Henry Elden, designed and built his personal home perched on a mountainside in Charleston, West Virginia. The Modernist design was named “Top O’ Rock” because Elden used his expertise with steel and inspirations from architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright to construct the home on top of a large rock overlooking the city. As stated, he was well known within the region as a designer, having built over 800 projects in the span of his career throughout the state. His modernist views and engineering knowledge of steel usage helped revolutionize the state in design and building and gained him national recognition; the house itself being acknowledged as the local “Fallingwater.”
At the time Top O’ Rock was constructed, the modern architectural era was nearing its close. The state of West Virginia has always fallen behind in technological advances, and building design and construction was no different. Eventually it became a leader in steel production and shipping, influencing a shift in design throughout the region. Elden’s design for his home was different both tectonically and stereotomically. Featuring floor to ceiling glass walls, long overhangs, and an organic contextual approach, it references many prior stylistic design qualities while incorporating the latest design technologies. While most buildings of the time were in keeping with traditional architectural styles, such as Gothic Revival, Greek Classicism, and Baroque, Elden pioneered a different view – a new and updated design logic – by using concrete, steel, and glass in unprecedented mannerisms much in the way similar, high-profile architects, of the same time had done. Top O’ Rock was such a testament to innovation in its time that it has been featured in national magazines, on episodes of HGTV, and is a locally identified icon. Elden passed away in 2009, and the property was sold to Drs. Mitchell and Kamilla Rashid for $400,000 shortly after to which it fell into a morbid state of neglect.
In 2015, West Virginia offered $80,000 in state-issued grants to provide for historic preservation. Sites are required to adhere to a specific set of federal and state guidelines, depending on the grant, before they can qualify. Top O’ Rock, in Charleston, unfortunately did not meet these standards, and was put on the chopping block without being given a chance to be preserved. Many grants require a building to be added to the National Register of Historic Places list in order to qualify, but the owners of Top O’ Rock did not put forth effort to invest and preserve it.
Alternatively, the Dutch Hollow Wine Cellars were constructed in 1855 to house wine for the aging process. Three 14 foot high stone vaults, some 40 feet deep, were in use only for approximately three years. The sheer monolithic stone construction for the time period and its overall use, especially for such a short time, do not exemplify reasoning to be a historically preserved structure. Alas, around the same time Elden would be moving in his home at Top ‘o Rock, the cellars were put on the National Register of Historic Places. This qualifies the site to be eligible for state approved preservation grants, receive tax credits, and provide a blockade should deconstruction be contemplated. Shortly after being added to the register, the city of Dunbar, with which the site resides, purchased the cellars as a part of a local park development, thus solidifying their existence.
The city of Charleston never once contemplated purchasing Top O’ Rock and the question as to why it was never added to the national list remains a mystery. The politicians in the city viewed the structure as more of a financial burden and eyesore after the current owners allowed it to fall into a state of disarray, having been vandalized several times starting in November 2013. In April 2014, the home went on the state’s “At Risk” register, marking it as vulnerable to be torn down after a demolition contract was obtained. In May 2014, the city had already issued citations demanding the Rashids address the vandalism and destruction on the property. The apparent way to deal with such issues is to tear the structure down.
Immediately, a group of local supporters sprang into action to try and save the iconic home. A design competition was organized by members of the community and a local State University member throughout the next year. Exactly one year later, the small competition was held for 13 teams envisioning a myriad of ideas for adaptive reuse and redevelopment of the home and subsequent 13 acres of land. Due to the University center pulling its sponsorship for unpublished reasons forced it to be postponed. A non-profit organization headed by the same member from the University then took up the responsibility to reschedule the effort to save the site. Shortly after, tragedy struck again when more vandals hit the home, forcing the competition to never be completed. A demolition contract was again secured, and is currently being carried out today.
While the Wine Cellars were 115 years old and able to obtain a place on the national registry, Top O’ Rock was 47 at its death with no real chance of survival. The amount of effort between these two sites, not to mention countless others across the state, is the real issue at hand. Not to detract from any historical site’s importance whatsoever, it is the local community and government as a team that needs a stronger focus on historic preservation and a deeper understanding of what it entails. Whether it is wine production and sales, entire city districts, or a turn-of-the-times private home, all need to be recognized for any specific design achievements and the work to preserve these icons mutually supported.
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