WHEELING - A chorus of church bells will ring in Wheeling at noon Thursday to mark West Virginia's 150th birthday - including one of the last to hold the distinction of also having tolled on June 20, 1863, heralding official news of statehood.
That bell hangs inside the 165-year-old Second Presbyterian Church at the corner of 20th and Market streets. A large section of the building's roof collapsed in September 2011, leaving a gaping hole visible from several blocks away.
For the group working to repair and revive the old church, Thursday's statehood sesquicentennial is both a time to celebrate the past and look forward to a new beginning.
"The building's such a wonderful historical feature in Wheeling. ... When (the bell) rings on Thursday, it will be really cool," said Libby Strong, whose husband, Richard, is president of the Near Earth Object Foundation, which acquired the church in 2008.
The foundation is preparing to repair the building's roof, with the help of a $47,000 matching grant from the State Historic Preservation Office. That job alone is expected to cost $90,000 or more, Strong said, with a number of other things needing done to bring the building up to code.
The long-term goal once the building is restored is to create space where people can engage in a variety of educational activities, including stargazing, watching a play or checking out a rock and fossil show. The group has secured about $31,500 worth of materials, including telescopes, for the future "urban observatory" through a combination of donations and NASA grants.
Strong said the foundation is still awaiting city approval of building permits, a process made more complicated by the building's historic status. The church was one of five structures named to West Virginia's 2013 Endangered Properties List.
Plans call for the building to be restored as closely as possible to its original condition, right down to the mortar.
"Wheeling's got such great architecture. ... To be able to blend the past with the future is really an important thing," Strong said.
In itself, the history of Second Presbyterian Church is a microcosm of the conflicting views that ultimately led to West Virginia's creation. According to the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, the church was built using slave labor - but it later became a center for the abolition movement in Wheeling and hosted a meeting of the Freedman's Association in February 1865, not long after the 13th Amendment to the Constitution banned slavery.
One of the church's early pastors, the Rev. Richard Dodge, had lived in Springfield, Ill., for several years before coming to Wheeling. There, he became good friends with a lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, the future president whose signature would make West Virginia statehood official.