On the "Flip" Side of Historic Preservation

Main Street Kingwood Saves Historic Properties

Tom Westbrook’s restored 1920s gas station is one of the picturesque landmarks of downtown Kingwood, W.Va.

From its gracious 19th-century Victorians to a fully restored 1920s gas station, Kingwood’s recently branded tagline, “Classic Character,” seems to say it all. But behind this small town’s seemingly effortless mix of picturesque history with a 20th-century present lies a much more complicated story.

Kingwood, like many other communities in America, has been through countless struggles to protect and maintain its historic buildings. What remains unique about this hamlet, however, is its community of passionate, involved, and respectful citizens who have accomplished incredible feats of preservation through the creativity of their local Main Street program.

From Great Loss Rises Great Success 

The root of Kingwood's preservation success lies in a great loss. In November 1997, one of the town's most prized pieces of the past, the Carroll House, was purchased by a private citizen and developer who demolished it practically overnight. A Victorian home built in 1890, the Carroll House was a private home until its owners built a new residence overlooking it in the 1990s.

According to Tom Westbrook, proprietor of Filtersource, Inc., and preservation man about town, the Carroll House was an iconic structure that townsfolk had always associated with Kingwood; it stood at the end of the “long Main Street” and was one of the first buildings to greet visitors and locals alike as they drove into town.

The demolition of the Carroll House was particularly devastating to citizens like Westbrook because it seemed that city rules had been bent and ignored to prevent any intervention in the sale. According to Westbrook, the demolition permit was acquired before the sale was finalized. “In a day and age when everything is about money... money...  money, it’s easy for people to get a distorted view of what really matters in their lifestyles — once these things are gone, they are gone,” he says.

As the dust of the Carroll House settled, Westbrook and other concerned citizens wasted no time in mobilizing to make sure that no such backdoor actions would ever again rob the city of its treasures. This group of newly inspired preservationists began to identify other houses and commercial buildings that they felt were in danger. To help meet their conservation goals, they turned to real estate development.

The Main Street Kingwood program, founded in 1996, found a new outlet for its preservation efforts by flipping historic properties. After a series of dedicated directors, including Bryan Ward, Kerry Manier Gink, and Alex Haill, the program fell into a groove in 2001 with Robyn Hess, who has led the Main Street effort for the past 10 years. “It was like a domino effect,” says Westbrook. “Our organization was either donated properties, or we purchased them ourselves. Then we generally flipped them and sold them to buyers who we knew would respect their history.”

Main Street Kingwood went even further with its real estate development. It began to take on the city regulations that has so easily been bent by outside parties in the past. With the help of Mike Gioulis, historic preservation design consultant for Main Street West Virginia, the group set up a historic preservation easement which they successfully attached to the deeds of each of the properties they bought and sold, thus preventing their demolition or degradation in the future.

Stewards of the Past 

Kingwood West Virginia Preston County Inn
Main Street Kingwood helped save the Preston County Inn by purchasing the property and attaching an easement to it before reselling it. What could have turned into a convenience mart or fast-food chain instead remains a historic inn on the town's Main Street.

One property that Main Street Kingwood helped save is the Preston County Inn, located on in the heart of the town. “The Inn sat on more than an acre of land, so it would have been very conducive to a convenience mart of fast-food chain,” says Westbrook. “We were able to purchase it and attach an easement before reselling.” The inn remains in business.

Main Street Kingwood, says Westbrook, underwrites much of its operating budget from the proceeds of its real estate sales. Not only has the program thrived economically as a result of this ingenuity, but Main Street has also become an integral part of the community's network of preservation-oriented private boards and individual citizens. Virginia Hopkins, a local attorney, restored the old Kingwood Bank and now has her offices there; the Schwab Building was restored by the William Brown family and now houses streetfront retail; and Main Street Kingwood itself has kept one of the buildings it renovated to serve as its office, while renting out the rest of the space to local businesses.

“Kingwood’s successful real estate development shows how a dedicated, sophisticated cadre of concerned citizens can take matters into their own hands and affect the success of their downtown revitalization,” says Gioulis, who provided design services through Main Street West Virginia to many of Kingwood’s projects. “And to do this all within the goals and framework of a Main Street program is truly remarkable.”

When asked about his extraordinary commitment to historic preservation, Westbrook comments, “Sometimes I think about what would happen if an alien was dropped into Kingwood.... how would it know anything about us if it looked around and saw rows of McDonalds and chain stores? When consideration of the past is lost, our character is, too.”

“The best anyone can do,” Westbrook continues, “is to be a good spokesperson for their community's history — since the past is so easily forgotten — and make sure that people aren’t fully consumed by the present. It’s all about involvement.”