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At the top of the town, a view back into the past

MORGANTOWN — History is all around us, if you just know where to look. A.J. Hammond and Dylan Sheldon are making it a little more prominent for Morgantown residents.

The duo runs the Historic Morgantown Instagram account (@historicmorgantown), highlighting the city’s historic homes, primarily in the South Park neighborhood. 

“We’re not historians, by any means. We just are interested in it and have been trying to research it and tell these stories,” Hammond said.

The account’s posts include a current photograph of the building, often contrasted against an accompanying archival image, when available, and information about the home’s builder and prominent residents.

“Here in Morgantown, we have some tremendous history that should be celebrated. And the easiest way for us to do that is to have these visible landmarks,” Sheldon said. 

“We’ve got these beautiful houses that people spent months of their lives building with extraordinary craftsmanship. Men and women ended up living in these homes that contributed to the founding of our neighborhoods and really, the blossoming of our town of Morgantown from a small town into a university town.”

Hammond and Sheldon were first inspired by their hands-on experience trying to save one of those beautiful houses and learning about the family who called it home along the way.

A exterior view of the Purintan house at 76 Granview Ave South Park. AJ Hammond, Gabe and daughter Georgia pose on the porch

Welcome home, Mr. President

Daniel Boardman Purinton is probably best known for the building on West Virginia University’s campus that still bears his name today. The Purinton House was constructed as the first on-campus residence for the university’s president during Purinton’s tenure in that position, from 1901 to 1911.

“He’s in charge of the university during a significant period of growth for the university. There are a couple of university presidents like that, but it sounds like without his leadership WVU wouldn’t be what it is today. Without WVU being what it is today, Morgantown wouldn’t be what it is today,” said Aull Center staff researcher Nathan Wuertenberg, Ph.D. 

That growth encompassed other buildings that define Morgantown’s downtown campus, including Stewart Hall, the university’s first library.

“You think about it, prior to the construction of the president’s house and Stuart Hall, the campus essentially consists of Woodburn Circle,” Wuertenberg said.

But this is not the house that Hammond and Sheldon restored. In 1907, preparing for an eventual retirement from the university, Purinton and his wife Florence built a home away from the bustle of downtown Morgantown, on a ridge overlooking the town, at 76 Grandview Ave.

“Online, we found a letter from the president’s wife to her cousins, where she was actually talking about the house and how she said, ‘We have risen in the world from the grandeur of the President’s mansion, to 400 feet above sea level in South Park. And she was talking about how their view is a real panorama,” Hammond said.

While the house made a university president’s family marvel in 1907, over a century later in 2020 it was in danger of collapse and in desperate need of some attention.

Walking into something

As with many things during the pandemic, things began with a walk.

“Right after COVID happened, I started working from home … and during that period, my wife and I had developed the habit of walking in the morning around the neighborhood together. And one morning, we saw the house 76 Grandview, but it was not on the market. I actually had verbally told (my wife), I said, ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful place, that would be a cool one,’ ” Sheldon said.

Sheldon, who works in video communications and marketing by day, worked for a construction company specializing in renovations during college. Since completing a renovation of his own family’s home in 2018, he had been looking for a new project.

“I don’t like to sit around. I don’t like to watch TV. I’ve always kind of been somebody who just kind of needs to be doing something productive, at least something that feels productive to me. And doing remodeling work certainly fits that bill for me,” Sheldon said.

When the property did come on the market in May of 2020, the friends saw an opportunity to take on a project together. 

“I had been really envious of the work that he was able to do,” Hammond said. “We got talking about the idea of maybe doing something like that together, and we didn’t know what it would look like, but we thought it’d be fun to do it.” 

It was only during the process of purchasing the house that the duo became aware of the home’s history.

“It was in terrible shape. Some parts of the house were structurally endangered. We realized, ‘Wow, this house has such important historical value and significance,” Hammond said. “And it’s, it’s been forgotten up here, lost. No one no one knows it’s here. No one cares about it.”

That last part proved to not be exactly accurate.

Ambitious pandemic project

“I believe both of us thought, ‘Man, if we don’t do this, somebody might tear this house down.’ It’s an amazing house. We’d love to be able to not only the two of us be able to keep it, but we’d love to see our community be able to keep this house as well,” Sheldon said.

The duo set out to bring this piece of local history back to life, piece by piece, nail by nail.

“We really took it down to the studs in most rooms, and we updated,” Hammond said. “All of the electrical was updated, all of the plumbing was updated, there was a foundation wall in the basement that we replaced.”

In the intervening century since the original construction, the house had been converted into a duplex, necessitating some walls to be torn down and some redundancies to be addressed.

“We put it back to a single family home. There were two kitchens, two of everything. We kind of reworked some of the layout,” Hammond said.

Hammond and Sheldon did what they could on their own, putting in hours after work and on weekends for 18 months. They kept as much as possible, calling in the experts for finer work like refinishing the original floors. But of course a modern house needs some modern pieces, like a kitchen. 

“It has modern amenities, but it’s a historic home,” Hammond said.

Where original was no longer up to code, they kept true to the spirit of the era.

“When you walk into the home, the staircase that takes you from the first floor to the second floor has been rebuilt as best we could to look like or mirror the original staircase that was there,” Sheldon said.

By a happy chance, some of the older architectural details seemed to fit modern preferences.

“On the first floor, there’s three operational sets of pocket doors. They give the house kind of an odd, modern, open concept almost. These large pocket doors have created these massive openings from room to room, but then the doors are still working, so you can open and close them as you’d like,” Sheldon said.

A greater purpose

Now completed, the house is for sale, but that wasn’t ever the main objective of the project.

“What we were so excited about was having the opportunity to tell the history of the house in South Park, that there’s a president’s house, and it was abandoned and dilapidated. Now it’s a beautiful, beautiful home,” Hammond said.

The home kept giving more of its history as the renovation progressed. In the attic were signed copies of books by Purinton’s son, Edward Earle Purinton, one of the forerunners of the modern self-help genre, with titles like, “Efficient Living,” and “The Triumph of the Man Who Acts.”

When some trim was removed for restoration, a letter was discovered on the stationary of Monongalia senator and State Senate President Joseph H. McDermott, expressing regret for being unable to attend a dinner.

“Giving people that sense of history — that sense that the places they are, and the places that they live, have a much larger story than just them — I think it connects them to something larger. It has a connection to something bigger and something longer. And I think that gives people greater meaning for their lives,” Wuertenberg said.

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