Exterior of a building and what the building will look like as Marshall University's Visual Arts Center

An old building gets another chance in downtown Huntington when it becomes Marshall University’s Visual Arts Center.


Originally published in West Virginia Focus magazine

Sometime last fall Donald Van Horn was standing on a sidewalk in downtown Huntington studying the seven-story building in front of him. Putting a label on the building was tricky—no longer the old department store that it was, it hadn’t yet become the shiny new academic building that it would be. He was watching it transform from one to the other in a flurry of construction projects and renovations.

Van Horn had seen the building in its former state, at least in passing, dozens of times before—it sits prominently in the heart of downtown Huntington—but this day last fall was the first time he noticed the year carved into the building’s cornerstone: 1902. “I saw those dates etched on those stones and got to thinking about it,” he says. “And I thought, ‘That’s when the university records tell us the visual arts program started at Marshall.’ So it’s destiny.”

It’s destiny because, more than 110 years later, that random bit of trivia has come to mean something. When, in summer 2014, renovations to the historic building are complete, the date etched into the cornerstone won’t signify just the year the building was constructed, but also the creation of the college program that will be housed there. Van Horn is the dean of that school, the College of Arts and Media at Marshall University, and will oversee the program’s transition into the newly renovated, $13 million building in the fall—a milestone for the university and its creative arts program. “I think the potential is just really extraordinary,” he says. “It’s creative solutions like this that are reinvigorating communities and making them destinations people want to go to.”

The building that will become Marshall’s new Visual Arts Center has a lot of what architect Phoebe Patton Randolph calls “embodied energy.” That’s the energy and resources put into the building already, during construction and over the course of its lifetime—the energy used to make and pour the building’s concrete or its steel beams—that makes it environmentally and socially responsible to hang onto the building instead of tearing it down to make way for something new. The Visual Arts Center’s embodied energy comes from its construction in 1902 and improvements over its lifetime as a department store—first as Anderson-Newcomb Co. and then as Stone & Thomas, until it closed in 1996. The building sat vacant for nearly 15 years before Marshall bought it and brought in Randolph and her team at Edward Tucker Architects, a Huntington-based architecture firm, to renovate the building, transforming it into the university’s new arts center. “There’s already been so much energy put into creating these downtown cores we have,” Randolph says. “If you choose to go outside of that core and build a new building, then you’re not really taking advantage of all of the infrastructure that’s already there downtown, the fact that it’s walkable, and just the value we have in old buildings.”

interior of Visual Arts Center; black and white photo of the exterior of a building

“Architecture is an art—it brings
character and beauty to our
environments. I think the historic
building will contribute to the
inspiration and the creativity of
the students when they study and
create art themselves,” says
Susan Pierce of the State Historic
Preservation Office.

The idea is to harness that energy and use it to the advantage of the school and the community at large. When the new Visual Arts Center opens in fall 2014, more than 400 art students and faculty will take root in the center of town, along with their money and resources, their initiative and ideas. “This is a really vibrant and dynamic group of people,” Van Horn says. “You’ve got some of the most creative minds, the people who are best at thinking outside the box—they’re now going to be an integral part of the downtown, and the contributions they can make to the broader community are really limitless.”

Then there’s the value in the building itself—more than a century of history and culture. The design team that handled the project walked a careful line in renovating the building, between honoring its historical integrity and our modern sensibilities and practical concerns. “You have all this amazing character in the buildings,” Randolph says. “We really think it’s important to preserve these historic structures—it’s a sustainability issue and it’s a quality of life thing.” Working with Susan Pierce at the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office, they tried to save as many remnants of the building’s history as they could, but they also had to surrender some things. They managed to save the original hardwood floors, for example, but eventually decided to replace the original windows for the sake of energy efficiency—though they worked with a window company to find window frames that closely resemble the originals. “It’s a matter of preservation of an art form,” Pierce says. “Architecture is an art just like printmaking, oil paintings, sculpture—it’s an expression of who we are, not just today but who we were during the 19th and 20th century. It’s of value to reuse those elements when we can.”

The project also means one less empty storefront in downtown Huntington. The building sits across from Pullman Square, a fashionable outdoor shopping center complete with urban green space that has become one of the city’s crown jewels in the 21st century. The development of Pullman Square jumpstarted what Van Horn calls “a sort of renaissance” downtown, with more and more storefronts being renovated and filling up with businesses. As renovations to the Visual Arts Center near completion, it’s getting closer and closer to joining them. “Up until 12 months ago it was an eyesore; it was a blight,” he says. “On either side of it all the buildings on the block have been renovated and they’re beautiful—and now the very core of the block is going to be the very most beautiful of them all.”

Written by Shay Maunz