Story and photos by David Sibray
Eclectic, progressive, exemplary — many adjectives have been applied to Charleston’s East End, one of the most fascinating boroughs in the Mountain State. Here in the shadow of the dome of statehouse, some of the most imaginative homes built in America have been raised among gardens unparalleled in the Appalachian Mountains.
Since the 1830s, when the first residences were built along the banks of the Kanawha River, its avenues have attracted the state’s most prosperous and influential families. Even before their arrival, prehistoric peoples permanently settled in this verdant valley, sheltered from cold winds in winter but relieved of the pestilent heats of the Deep South in summer.
This same idyllic climate led to the neighborhood’s fame as a garden spot. Even banana trees grow thrive here given proper protection against the worst winter conditions. Its gardens are a feature of regularly scheduled garden tours while many residents maintain publicly-accessible gardens and plant their front yards full of every variety of ornamental that the region can sustain. Community gardens are also well-established throughout the district, and every kind of vegetable seems to grow to enormous proportions here.
According to Jane Claymore, a native of the district who helped instill my love for wandering its avenues, the warmth that has secured its fame as a garden spot also led to its increasingly eclectic and erudite culture. Claymore points out that the summer heat caused many residents to move to homes outside the valley in Charleston’s South Hills District. The escape to cooler climes opened the neighborhood to habitation to sometimes less affluent but more artistically and progressively inclined residents.
I have heard, but have not confirmed, that East End is one of the largest Democratic Party strongholds in West Virginia. Certainly its residents seem to incline toward political and environmental activism beyond what I’ve observed in other communities. Gay pride flags and political signs eschewing mountaintop removal mining appear on many lawns.
The political energy that sometimes feels palpable here is further enhanced by the presence of the statehouse; many politicians choose to maintain permanent town houses or apartments in the neighborhood, and local gossip is infused with state government scandal.
Setting the stage for all other aspects of life here is a backdrop of incredible architecture. Historian Billy Joe Peyton once suggested that the variety of architecture present in the East End is unmatched elsewhere in West Virginia, and I agree. Almost every kind of American residential architecture is represented here — Queen Anne, Art Deco, Chateauesque, Prairie School, and a seemingly endless mixture of revival styles.
According to James Harding, who surveyed the “East End Historic District” for the National Register in the mid-1970s, the neighborhood is among exemplary in its demonstration of transition, though it’s
“It is, however,” Harding writes, “the period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that is best exemplified in the evolution of an important neighborhood from late Victorian modes to the balanced, more symmetrical tastes of the post-1890s revivals. Of special interest are rows of houses reflecting transitional design qualities reflection the late Victorian love for the irregular and picturesque, but displaying persistent Victorian elements along with the Oriental and Prairie School themes advanced by Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Since Harding helped established the first historic district here, the development of local character has been greatly enhanced, and its historic district has been repeatedly expanded. Walking tours of historic homes are guided frequently, and a thriving food and nightlife culture has been advanced. Several of the state’s best known destination restaurants have opened in the commercial district along Washington Street, including Little India, Tricky Fish, and the Bluegrass Kitchen. One of the state’s best coffee houses, Moxxee, attracts coffee connoisseurs from across the U.S.
If you’re looking for a daytrip that enjoins the best of historic architecture and cultural complexity, you’ve found the place. In addition to its own amenities, its situation near the heart of the state’s largest city renders a visit here convenient for travelers who are also in search of shopping and cultural diversions: the Town Center, the W.Va. Culture Center, and the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences are all located in or near the district.
The East End is easy to find. U.S. Route 60 follows Washington Street east-to-west through the whole of the district, while exits off I-64/77 Greenbrier Street and Leon Sullivan Way provide direct expressway access.