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Bookmarks of the city’s architectural history

All parties must end. And sometime this afternoon, the annual reunion of former employees of Charleston's grand old Diamond Department Store will be breaking up for the last time, 30 years after the retailer closed its doors downtown.

Organizer Nancy Fletcher of Parkersburg said the number of attendees was dwindling as age and migration thinned its ranks. As last year's gathering drew only 38, Fletcher said she couldn't see a reason to continue another year.

By the time the store went out of business, I'd only been driving for three years. Trips up the turnpike from Beckley were still kind of a big deal for a kid without a lot of experience behind the wheel, so I never got to set foot in the place.

But accounts of it sound magical, like Macy's in "Miracle on 34th Street" — six floors of space where you could find linens, fine china, portrait photography and lawn mowers.

And the descriptions by longtime city residents of the store's Christmas window displays sound like the stuff of Norman Rockwell Americana.

(I was particularly taken by the notion of the in-store luncheonette and its giant cinnamon rolls with icing. Big enough to split three ways, these treats were described by Fletcher as "out of this world." That's an orbit I could get into.)

Baked goods aside, what I like about these recollections is that they serve to restore some of the original sheen to the old buildings I encounter downtown that have long since been repurposed or vacated.

Some, like The Diamond, have new tenants and, thus, a second act, as office or retail space. Others, like Stone and Thomas' tattered flagship store just around the corner, stand vacant — sad, empty shells that once housed glittery, bustling commerce and proffered stylish household goods as well as fancy tokens of affection.

To me, the commercial properties of the city serve as bookmarks in the architectural history of a town that came of age in the years surrounding two world wars.

I'm fascinated by the purposeful neon signage of the Firestone service center on Washington Street. The smart, art deco look of the now defunct Blossom Dairy and Quarrier Diner makes me long to hear to their Jazz Age echoes. I see a battered nobility in the sculpted columns of the shuttered Staats Hospital — which began life as a Knights of Pythias Lodge — on the West Side.

That they're still standing is a testament to an ethos that strived for permanence and identity.

Save for major government buildings, it's a characteristic lacking in the era of big box stores and planned obsolescence. I suppose, like the tricky, fickle fortunes of modern business, these structures have to be able to transform quickly or be razed easily for a new, equally disposable establishment.

The state is littered with remnants of its industrial and commercial heritage. There are beautiful, exotic buildings in Huntington, Parkersburg and Wheeling that serve as time capsules and monuments to an age of economic muscle and the bestowal of noblesse oblige to the communities they served.

Some have been wonderfully maintained and kept current as places to conduct the business of commerce or government. Others have suffered neglect from the ravages of time, faded and worn like a water-stained portrait of a regal debutante.

So it does my heart good to see efforts like Parkersburg's Point Park Marketplace renovating a property that had previous lives as a hotel and soda water factory into a farmers market not unlike Charleston's own Capitol Market — which itself is a reworked space that formerly housed a railroad freight station.

I'm encouraged to see plans to brighten the old Staats Hospital with window murals as work continues toward its rehabilitation.

Perhaps, as area urban renewal organizers hope, this makeover could further extend the overall effort to reinvigorate a West Side lined with blighted reminders of a proud, blue-collar history.

With changes altering the state's industrial and economic landscape, perhaps it's good to have a touchstone or landmark to inspire feelings of confidence and stability — something to remind its citizenry of where it came from, where it's headed and what it's working toward.

As the city and state advance and transition for whatever new prospects await, I'm glad to see that we're finding ways to honor that past as we work

toward the future.

Maramba is managing

editor of the Daily Mail. His email address is philip@dailymail.com.


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