Allegheny Restoration and Builders of Morgantown practices deep preservation in West Virginia and on the national stage.
Before machines made windows, carpenters did. They shaped horizontal wooden pieces, called rails, to fit perfectly into vertical stiles. They cut rabbets all around where the panes would seat. They fashioned delicate muntins to stand between the panes, and they snugged everything together and glazed it with putty to seal the edges. Their precision skill lighted interiors without admitting drafts, and their artistry enlivened buildings in ways we still admire.
Today, the repair and refabrication of original windows is a craft that distinguishes an architectural restoration firm. It’s a niche that Allegheny Restoration and Builders Inc. of Morgantown prides itself in.
Name almost any structure that keeps our state’s history alive: a majestic hotel, a vaudeville theater, a railroad depot, a legislative or academic hall. There’s a good chance it’s been touched in some way by ARBI. Founded in 1991 to save the state’s few remaining covered bridges, the company went on to work as a general restoration and construction firm, specializing in the windows and millwork that express the architectural character of buildings across West Virginia and from Tennessee to Massachusetts.
If we could line preservationists up according to their philosophies, we might call one end the “illusionists,” those who prefer a modern approximation of the historic, and the other end “realists,” committed to traditional materials and methods. Although ARBI was started by cousins who happened to be theater majors—traders in illusion, you might say—the firm landed toward the reality end of that spectrum.
Blair Lee, who’d studied theater but also happened to be a talented carpenter, was working on the team restoring the Philippi covered bridge in 1991 when, frankly, some people had to be fired. A big-hearted project leader had hired too many locals. No one wanted to be the heavy, so Lee asked his cousin Tom Anderson to give up his theater management job in Minnesota to wrangle things into shape.
The 1852 Philippi bridge had nearly been destroyed by fire in 1989, and Governor Gaston Caperton decided it was time to preserve the 17 covered bridges remaining in the state. Lee and Anderson enjoyed their time in Philippi. They got to work with WVU engineer Emory Kemp, whose grounding in historical materials and methods brought out the deeper meanings in projects and made for handsome outcomes. As the bridge restoration neared completion, they formed ARBI in hopes of winning the coming covered bridge projects.
Anderson and Lee set up an office in Morgantown and a workshop in Beckley, and both men worked in the field while Anderson also sought projects. He did secure some of the bridge work over the following decade. And along the way, the two found other jobs to fill their portfolio. They built a carriage house in Lewisburg for the Greenbrier Historical Society, using period nails and hinges, to display a historically important Conestogastyle wagon. They contributed to the restoration of the former B&O Railroad station in Martinsburg, referencing old photographs to reconstruct soffits and rebuild porches. They’d grown to a staff of four or five when they took the job in 1996 for a full interior and exterior restoration of the 1896 Dering building on Walnut Street in Morgantown.
One day, Anderson walked into the Dering building and asked, “How far are you guys willing to travel?” He stood before a table and unrolled the blueprints for a magnificent building—in New England. When the men balked, he left, leaving the blueprints behind. “I looked the plans over,” recalls ARBI carpenter Jon Smith. “And I asked the guys, ‘How in the world could we not tell our grandchildren we worked on this?’”
Author and designer Edith Wharton’s 1902 mansion, The Mount, in Massachusetts, had been granted National Historic Landmark status decades before and was the target of a long-overdue rehabilitation. ARBI submitted a winning bid. The team drove up to western Massachusetts, where they restored and refabricated many dozens of windows, doors, and shutters and updated the mansion’s heating, cooling, and other systems. They worked day and night in an unheated interior and stayed in a seedy hotel—the kind of dues-paying job a successful firm looks back on fondly. “Blair got a bright idea,” laughs Smith, by nature the firm’s unofficial storyteller. “He went across to the supermarket and got clams and seaweed, and he steamed clams in the coffee pot in that hotel room. Sitting and watching it, he couldn’t wait for the clams to open up. He could really cook stuff out in the field.”
Now not only a historic house museum, The Mount flourishes as a cultural arts center that hosts 50,000 visitors a year, a shining example of preservation in support of education and tourism.
Anderson, Lee, and crew earned respect at The Mount. “I found them to be competent, sensible, and humble,” says Stephen Reilly, project architect at the time with John G. Waite Associates. “They set the bar high with their craftsmanship and work ethic.” ARBI’s work in Massachusetts secured its reputation as a preservation firm of national stature. As it would happen, the team would work with Reilly again.
The Hand of the Craftsman
ARBI grew as it undertook projects across the region. When carpenter Phil Davis came on in 2001, he first worked on restorations of West Virginia’s Fletcher and Simpson Creek covered bridges. He’d only ever done new construction, but Smith mentored him in old-school methods and his mindset changed. “I had to get broken to the fact that, when you do new construction, everything’s brand new and perfect,” he says, “but when you do restoration, everything doesn’t always look brand new.”
The rough surfaces of old structures tell stories. “You can date buildings by whether the wood in the flooring is pit sawn versus circular sawn versus vertical sawn,” architect Reilly explains. “Modern techniques of milling lumber are very recognizably different—you might not recognize it as an authenticity problem, but you’ll see the difference.” A painted wood dentil molding looks different from a glass fiber reinforced dentil molding, he says. Rosehead nails and cut nails seat unevenly compared with today’s uniform wire nails.
Deep preservationists aim to retain those materials and textures—a structure’s architectural fabric. “When you take the time and patience to match the profiles on a house, around the soffit at the corner and all that,” Anderson says, “when you take a piece of that molding back to the shop and rebuild that so it matches exactly—I can’t overstate the value of that.” Anderson’s wife, Gwen, who moved with him from Minnesota and has been part of ARBI’s philosophical conversations all along, says it’s about seeing the hand of the craftsman. “If you look down and see silver screws where it should be square iron nails that were forged, how is that different than walking into a house that was built three days ago?” she asks. “When a piece of wood or an object is restored by a craftsman’s hands, it adds a human quality to the piece that lends itself to history.”
It goes well beyond the visual, too. “In a historic house with all plaster walls, the acoustics are fantastic,” Reilly says of the subtler qualities of traditional construction. “It’s very quiet. There’s a dull thud when you tap the wall, not a ringing.” He refers, contrastingly, to what he calls “preservation Disneyland,” where modern materials approximate shapes but can’t creak or warp or take on an authentic patina. The visceral experience of oldness can’t be faked.
Davis learned at those covered bridges that the oldstyle tools that leave characteristic marks can have other advantages, too. “I used a thing called a slick. It looks like a giant chisel,” he says. “I would, say, use my electric circular saw to make curved cuts, then use the slick just like the old guys would have to clean the joints up. No cords, no batteries—sometimes it’s just quicker.”
ARBI worked on the Hubbard House in Charleston in that era, along with the Lewin-Garlow house in Morgantown, the B&O Roundhouse complex in Martinsburg, the Randolph County Courthouse, and other structures. The company built a replica of Andrew Johnson’s North Carolina birthplace for the president’s National Historic Site in Greeneville, Tennessee.
Then Reilly’s firm called.
An Ethereal Light
The firm invited ARBI to bid on the window work at a stunning, high-profile job: Baltimore’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Built beginning in 1806 in Anderson’s hometown, the Basilica was the masterpiece of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, a primary architect of the U.S. Capitol and the father of American architecture. Reilly again served as project architect, and ARBI won its subcontracting bid.
Over the centuries, more than a dozen updates had eroded and even eradicated essential design features of Latrobe’s Basilica—particularly those having to do with windows, ARBI’s specialty. The firm recreated Latrobe’s large, clear glass windows to replace mid–20th century stained glass that dimmed the natural light the architect had designed the space for.
ARBI also undertook a more difficult and spectacular operation. In Latrobe’s design, daylight diffused into the sanctuary through a high dome with a central opening, or oculus, topped by a higher outer dome punctuated by unseen skylights. A World War II–era remodeling removed the skylights and encased the outer dome, cutting off the delicate and deliberate lighting effect. AR refabricated Latrobe’s two dozen 3-by-10-foot skylights. One nerveracking responsibility fell to Davis. “I was tasked with going up there and cutting into the dome,” he says. “I had to plunge down through the roof with a big saw, and it had to be the right spot.” It got easier after the first one, he says.
Historic context is never lost on a preservationist. “We could see all the way to Fort McHenry from up there on the Basilica’s dome,” Smith says. Located three miles away at the head of Baltimore Harbor, the fort was a site of major resistance to the invasion of the British during the War of 1812. “That’s where ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ was written. They stopped construction of the cathedral until after the war was over.”
Latrobe’s skylights would have posed a complex problem for any builder. “Very long, very narrow, and big and heavy,” says Reilly, now a partner at Lacey Thaler Reilly Wilson Architecture & Preservation in Albany, New York. “But they’re really quite something. If you look at photos of the building, you can see them on the main dome, slender slices across the surface. Allegheny did a fantastic job.”
Completed in 2006, the restoration of the Basilica turned out to be Anderson’s favorite project. The radical restoration generated controversy. But it earned ARBI and Davis a Craftsmanship Award from Baltimore’s Building Congress & Exchange, and it was ultimately celebrated. The reintroduction of natural light, especially the ethereal light from the dome, stirred public acceptance. “All of Latrobe’s other buildings had been demolished or so significantly changed that the Basilica was basically his last intact public structure,” Reilly says. “The skylights and windows were really important character-defining features. Allegheny’s work was part of the greater understanding and restoration of the building.”
A Hazard of the Profession
When most of us think of restoration, we think of history and architectural styles and tourism of a certain kind. But for the carpenters doing the work, it’s a lot of time spent in abandoned, ill-lit buildings with peeling paint and wind whistling through cracked windows. Once in a while, even the most stouthearted get creeped out.
ARBI’s most haunted work site, in Smith’s mind, was Willow Wall, the 1812 McNeill Family House near Moorefield. “The guy that owned the house collected vampire-killing equipment,” he claims. “Stakes and holy water and stuff.” But he interrupts himself with thoughts of another most-haunted place. Behind the Otto farmhouse at the Antietam Civil War battlefield in Maryland, he says, lies a kidney-shaped mound. “It’s full of arms and legs.” He can’t resist the gruesome wartime-hospital detail. Initials carved by recovering soldiers can still be seen in the windowsills of the house, he says, and buzzards return there every year to nest. “The park rangers refuse to go in there at night. They say you can hear all kinds of crazy stuff. I worked on a complete restoration, but I never was in there after dark.”
In 2015, working at a restoration of the First Ward School in Elkins, Smith took photos of a stairway using his phone’s camera. “As soon as I put this picture on my computer, I said, ‘Look at this! There’s a man standing on the stairs!’ I didn’t see him at the time. He’s not gray—he’s in color—and you can see through him. He’s got gray khaki pants with a blue streak down the leg, and you can see a hand on the railing.” Like most ghost photos, it’s faint—too faint to reproduce in these pages—although it’s vivid enough that it’s hard to dismiss. After the restoration was done, he says, a visiting local said that staircase had been closed off when a boy fell to his death.
Working in a spooky environment also has its temptations—like one day at that job at Morgantown’s Dering building, which was once a funeral home. “Albert Emory was taking down wainscoting in the embalming room upstairs, and he found a bunch of old coins,” Smith relates. “So Bruce Marshall and I told him the old story that those were coins off of dead men’s eyes. ‘I wouldn’t touch them for the world,’ I said. No, he’s keeping them, he kept saying, and he put them in his pockets.” When they left Emory to his work, Smith suggested Marshall discreetly lift his fan once in a while and give Emory a draft of cool air. “When we had his attention, I took two 2-by-4s to the room below and bumped the fl oor like someone walking. The next thing we knew, he was right out in the middle of Walnut Street,” he laughs, “and all those coins were in a neat row on the windowsill.”
Many dozens of historic buildings welcome us today for tourism and public events and as private offi ces and homes thanks to the work of Allegheny Restoration and Builders. The staff remember each job with affection and humor— for someone they met, a prank they played, a technique they learned, or a new appreciation they gained for the state’s and nation’s history and its craftsmen.
Now the company is heading into a new phase. Lee passed away in 2017 and is deeply missed, and Anderson is close to retiring. An important part of his job, he says, has been to inspire people. “Who wants to get up every day and go out in the cold and the snow and the rain?” he asks. “You have to get out there yourself.” He and Lee did that, and they truly did inspire dedication and respect. If they had stuck with theater, they surely would have created memorable illusions. As it turns out, they’ve preserved for us some of the most meaningful illusions of all.
The company has employed nearly 50 people at one time over the years and stands now at 35 as it looks toward the future. “So many of us, no matter our profession, strive for efficiency all day every day to a point of failure,” Reilly says. “My experience with Tom and Blair and Jon was, they would respectfully make it clear that we could rush this, or we could do it the right way. It’s really important to embody the preservation of the built world the way that they have done.”