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Charleston’s Renaissance

Take a fresh look at West Virginia’s capital city with our guide to area attractions.

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As the seat of state government and the state’s largest city, Charleston teems with activity from the time the sun rises, glistening over the Kanawha River and reflecting off the mirrored downtown skyline, until long after it sets. The gilded dome of the state capitol is Charleston’s best-known feature, but government is only part of the story here.

Like many West Virginia cities, the capital’s history is rooted in the pioneering spirit. Westward expansion in the late 18th century led to the area’s first permanent settlement known as Fort Lee, founded by Colonel Savannah Clendenin, near what is now the intersection of Brooks Street and Kanawha Boulevard. Charleston, which may have been named for Clendenin’s father, and surrounding Kanawha County soon grew into a major economic hub with the discovery of salt brines, natural gas, and, later, coal.

As the Civil War broke out, Charleston became contested political territory, with the city sharply divided among Union and Confederate loyalties. Although the Confederate army occupied the city after the Battle of Charleston, Union troops returned after just a few weeks and stayed until the end of the war. Once the new state of West Virginia was established, the designated capital traveled back and forth for several years between Wheeling—the state’s first capital—and Charleston. It took a citizen vote to finally put the issue to rest, and Charleston was named state capital in 1877.

More than 140 years later, Charleston is a city pulsing with culture—music, theater, dance, art—that outstrips the size of the town in both quality and quantity. There’s a vitality that might be surprising to visitors, but not locals, especially the myriad of non-natives who have chosen to make this city home.

The epicenter of culture in Charleston is the Clay Center for Arts and Sciences. Opened in 2002, this multi-million dollar facility encompasses the grand Maier Performance Hall, home to the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, the intimate black box-style Walker Theater, and the Avampato Discovery Museum. The museum is open daily, and the Maier Performance Hall stages performances nearly every weekend between the symphony and an eclectic lineup of visiting acts.

But the Clay Center hardly has a corner on culture. The public radio show Mountain Stage makes its home at the Norman L. Fagan State Theater inside the Culture Center at the West Virginia State Capitol Complex, the amphitheater at Haddad Riverfront Park is home to a free concert series, and live music streams from coffee shops, bars, and restaurants nearly every weekend night year-round. For fine art lovers, a swath of galleries and boutiques that make up Renaissance Village downtown throw open their doors to welcome walkers on the third Thursday of each month, March through December, from 5 to 8 p.m. in an event known as Art Walk. This free celebration serves as a great introduction to the thriving downtown arts scene. Of course, art isn’t confined to galleries—a coordinated public art effort illustrates nontraditional canvases around town, including interstate support piers and brick buildings in the East End neighborhood.

Five theater troupes and two dance companies help fill out the city’s social calendar. The Charleston Light Opera Guild, Kanawha Players, Charleston Stage Company, Contemporary Youth Arts Company, and Children’s Theater of Charleston stage everything from full-scale Broadway musicals to original dramatic plays throughout the year. The Charleston Ballet and the River City Youth Ballet Ensemble perform both traditional and modern ballets, including the classic Nutcracker each year. These groups have plenty of venues to choose from, from the cavernous Art Deco Municipal Auditorium down to their own workshop spaces.

 

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