A major part of historic preservation, and I would argue a major part of local history, is architectural history. Buildings are the best surviving indicator of a community’s wealth and prosperity, or potentially lack thereof. They reflect the times in which they were built, from advances in science and construction to general ideas about society, politics, and theology.
For someone like me, Main Street can be read like a book. But, if you cut a random chapter out of that book, it doesn’t make sense. Imagine cutting a chapter out of your favorite novel, or out of a U.S. History textbook. You’d probably have a few questions, right? Like, we had a Civil War? Or… What the heck are horcruxes? (Harry Potter, anyone?)
Let’s take Point Pleasant as an example, and I’ll pretend I’m not from here.
How’d the town start out? Well, the downtown grid is laid out like an “L” along the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers, and Tu-Endie-Wei tells me that there was a fort where the “L” met at the Point. Additionally, the park ranger tells me that the Mansion House was built by Walter Newman in 1796 as a tavern. So, what does any of this mean?
It all says that Point was founded in the 1790s, pretty much as soon as the area was opened up to permanent settlement. The relatively small town grid tells me that the economy was mostly agricultural, though the fort says that the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers were important trade routes worthy of protection, suggesting that river commerce was beginning to open up. Finally, the Mansion House is big for the time period (hence the name), suggesting that there were quite a few people traveling through Point. All of this I know to be true.
So, what happened next? Surrounding Federal and Greek Revival-style plantations, and the lack of any Federal or Greek Revival buildings downtown tell me that this remained a mostly agricultural town until around the 1840s. There wasn’t a reason to replace the log buildings until then. If it ain’t broke… The sole exception was the Burnside House, which I’m told by locals burned about 30 years ago. It’s likely that this was built by either a plantation owner, or the owner of a mill that served the plantations. (It was the mill.)
Like I said, the first major expansion of the town was after the 1840s, during the Gothic Revival era. This is when we get the Mitchell-Nease-Hartley building and the current Church of Christ in Christian Union (formerly the Methodist, South). They’re brick, larger than the log buildings. That tells me that both the population and industry are growing. Which industries? Well, there’s the river so likely a shipyard or related manufacturer. And Virginia was a slave state, so there are still plantations that need a mill. (Right on both.) The fact that they’re both Gothic Revival also tells me that Point Pleasant is paying attention to national ideas about romanticism and better living, rather than the more traditional, strict Greek Revival.
The next buildings I can find are late Italianate. Based on stylistic details, I’m fairly confidant these are from after the Civil War, and that tells me two things. First, Point Pleasant experienced some growth after the war. Second, based on #1, Point wasn’t as hurt by Reconstruction as other southern towns. Together, they tell me that Point Pleasant was primarily a Union town. We know this to be a bit more complicated, with quite a few Confederates from our area, but this is mostly true.
And then, Point Pleasant explodes! More than half of Main Street, both the businesses and houses, was built between 1880 and 1900 based on the number of Romanesque, 2nd Renaissance Revival, and Queen Anne buildings. Only one thing could’ve caused this: the railroad. It made moving a massive amount of materials much simpler, including some entire houses shipped by rail and assembled like a children’s toy. Add to this the number of people that can quickly be moved by train, and the town reached entirely new levels of prosperity.
The railroad especially influenced residential Queen Anne buildings, now that the details and decorative pieces could simply be made in a factory in Chicago and shipped to Point Pleasant by rail, which was much cheaper than having a local craftsman carve all of those shingles or porch spindles. This is also why these houses look virtually the same no matter where you go in the U.S.
As for the commercial buildings, these were heavily influenced by the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and nationally known “rockstar” architects like H.H. Richardson (Romanesque) and the firm of McKim, Mead, & White (various classical revivals). Both drew heavily from classical Greek and Roman inspiration, as well as early U.S. styles like Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival.
But, I am out of space! Next week, I’ll take Main Street from 1900 up to the current City of Point Pleasant.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.