Progressive Downtown Huntington Emerging Thanks to "Working Together"

The renaissance of cultural growth has sparked new interest among residents for living in the downtown area.
The renaissance of cultural growth has sparked new interest among residents for living in the downtown area.
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  Editor's Note: The Downtown Huntington Neighborhood Association President, Aaron Michael Fox, has prepared a 16 page historical and current perspective for the downtown that contains some rare photographs from the Vintage Huntington Facebook site. An adapted excerpt from the report continues below. The full 16 page PDF is available for download too.

(Portions Have Been Adapted ; Published by Permission)

The confluence of the Guyandotte and Ohio River resulted in the founding of a settlement known as Holderby’s Landing back in 1775. By 1871 the City of Huntington had been incorporated by Collis P. Huntington and Delos W. Emmons as the western terminus of the C & O Railroad.

The City had electric street cars known as trolleys before gasoline powered buses replaced them. Camden Park was built in 1903 to encourage trolley ridership. The Tri-State Transit Authority operates several “trolley” styled buses which are used on special celebrations and occasions.

TTA Trolley
TTA Trolley
Photo by Aaron Michael Fox


Simultaneously, leaders began polishing the city’s ornate two million dollar Thomas Lamb designed movie palace (the Keith Albee Performing Arts Center) and upgrading the section of Fourth Avenue that connects Downtown to Marshall University which is known as the Old Main Corridor. Block by block the goal has been new lighting, artistic and pedestrian –friendly design concepts and bicycle lanes.

Tyson Compton, President of the Cabell-Huntington Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the redesigns between Eighth and Tenth Streets on Fourth Avenue has helped the Keith Albee reclaim “her status as the grand dame of Downtown Huntington.”  

Keith Albee Performing Arts Center
Keith Albee Performing Arts Center
Photo by Jeff Hedgecock

Without exception, the Keith Albee Performing Arts Center is downtown’s most famous attraction. Originally built in 1928 as the Keith-Albee Theater, and under the supervision of vaudeville tycoons B. F. Keith and Edward Albee as part of their Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit, the Keith-Albee was the second-largest theater in the United States at that time--behind the Roxy in New York City. The theater was designed by Thomas W. Lamb who designed approximately 153 theaters around the world. Unfortunately, only forty-three of these grand theaters are still open, and seventy-one have been demolished. Thankfully, “the Keith” has been undergoing a full restoration since 2009, including the receipt of a check for $300,000 from WV Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, the House of Delegates and the State Senate which will go for roof repairs.

Elsa Littlepage stands by a display of  the Keith Albee's mighty Wurlitzer
Elsa Littlepage stands by a display of the Keith Albee's mighty Wurlitzer
Photo by Jeff Hedgecock; Vintage Dress MU theatre Costume Dept

The signature achievement in the restoration of the Keith for this year, was the restoration of the famous front sign. After standing watch over Fourth Avenue for decades and being featured in hundreds of pictures and postcards, two Hollywood movie premieres, and being struck by lightning numerous times; the sign had to be taken down in 2011. A massive "Save Our Sign" effort was organized that funded the full restoration of the sign, which was reinstalled in May of 2012.


Huntington experienced two early boon periods --- from 1871 until the 1937 Flood (which claimed five lives, left tens of thousands homeless, and caused millions in damages) and a short lived boon during World War II. After the conflict, the city’s population started dropping after 1950 due to urban sprawl and declines in the steel and manufacturing industries.

After years of population decline , an exodus of much retail to the Huntington Mall, and the leadership vacuum that followed the Marshall University plane crash in 1971, the city started rebounding with the opening of Pullman Square in 2005, the filming of Warner Bros. “We Are Marshall” in 2006, and the shooting of ABC’s “Food Revolution” in 2010.

Newly Remodeled Renaissance Book Store Structure
Newly Remodeled Renaissance Book Store Structure
Photo by Aaron Michael Fox

Capping 2010, the U.S. Census reported a growth in the city’s population for the first time in six decades.
Progress has come neither easily or rapidly. A series of small steps have led to the renaissance of the downtown where many of the Art Deco and gothic buildings have been restored. Those efforts have been guided since 2006 by an organization known as “Create Huntington,” which evolved from five focus groups geared toward steering the community’s future by concentrating on Family Life, Technology, Culture & the Arts, Community Development and Tourism.

The organization empowers residents and facilitate ideas through the weekly “Chat ‘n Chew" meetings at the Frederick, the Facebook group, and its website. Create Huntington has played a positive role in the success of such projects as the “Adopt Your Block” Litter Getter program, a monthly “Cash Mob” for local business, the revitalization of Shops at Heritage Station, the Diamond Teeth Mary Blues Festival, local art at “Gallery 842”, the Petsafe Dog Park, bike lanes on Fourth Avenue, the Paul Ambrose Trail for Health , as well as farm startups, recycling projects and neighborhood associations.

Bridging a full circle positive dynamic, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams promised to “work together” with all stakeholders to crown Huntington an “exceptional city.”

“Excellence must be created by design and not by happenstance,” the former member of the Young Thundering Herd said. Downtown revitalization, residential, municipal and business efforts have come through community involvement particularly such efforts as the “30 Mile Meal” project which places an emphasis on local fresh, ripe foods from vegetables and fruit to poultry, eggs, beef, bison, pork and lamb.

Old Main Corridor
Old Main Corridor
Photo by Aaron Michael Fox


New business has triggered new interest in downtown residency, as the "creative" class enjoys living where the arts and culture are close by. As a result, the upper floors of historically commercial building have been renovated to accommodate residential units. The tallest structure downtown, the WV Building will be an up-scale residential high-rise. Others have been or are being renovated too, such as the aforementioned Renaissance Book Store, the Keen Jewelry next to the library, and the upper floors of the St. James (First State Bank) Building, for example.


For the last 3 years, the City of Huntington has invested considerable time and financial resources into the Old Main Corridor Project listed in the introduction. The City also unveiled a comprehensive cleanup campaign in 2013 that includes a ban on all furniture from being stored outside--except that which is designed specifically for exterior use, and a crackdown on code enforcement beginning this summer.

The looming zero-tolerance policy is part of Mayor Steve Williams' multi-pronged approach to improving the quality of life in the city through code enforcement. The city also will hire additional code enforcement ocers, reinstate the Fire Department's Fire Prevention Bureau and seek the ability to issue on-the-spot citations from the West Virginia State Legislature.

The Huntington Police Department was recently recognized by the FBI for being the #1 police force in our region for the second straight year, and the city now has the lowest crime rates in 27 years. The City of Huntington also hired a graffiti abatement specialist in January of 2013, to work with the City on designing and implementing a new Graffiti Abatement System, to make sure all new graffiti is removed from the city within 24 hours of its application.


Pullman Square provided a much needed spark to Downtown Huntington, which has seen an explosion of new development since the Square opened in 2006.Unlike Downtown development of the past, we are not tearing down our historic buildings, but rather finding new ways to keep them in use.

Huntington Prime was Huntington’s first restaurant to specialize in a locally-inspired menu in 2007. The very modern and contemporary-styled restaurant makes use of both the ground and penthouse floors of the West Virginia Building, which is the tallest building on the Huntington skyline and was built in 1924.

Happily, today Heritage Station is a busy artisan retail complex, full of locally-owned shops, and home to regular public events like the annual Diamond Teeth Mary Blues Festival.

  New locally-owned artisan shops at Heritage Station include: the Wild Ramp: a local Market, All About You: Hair & Nail Salon, Bottle & Wedge: Beer, Wine, and Cheese Shop, CommonGround Shoppes: uncommon, handcrafted, home and garden goods, Finds & Designs: vintage furniture and up-cycled clothing, Jameson Cigar Co., the Red Caboose: artisan gifts, River & Rail Bakery, Let’s Eat: localvore restaurant, and Sip: Huntington’s first and only wine bar.

It’s safe to say that every shop in Heritage Station has a loyal following, but it seems that the most popular of all the shops is the Wild Ramp Market. The market is a revolutionary concept in our region, that strives to create a farmer’s market in a retail environment.

The store is staffed by volunteers, which keeps prices low and maximizes profits for suppliers, who keep 90% of all sales. The market is beneficial to both consumers, who get healthy and affordable, locally-grown products; as well as suppliers who do not have to waste time standing by their products as with a traditional farmer’s market.

The market is a heated and cooled interior space and open year round with hours that are convenient for both producers and the consumers (Tuesday-Saturday 11am-7pm).

Finally, the Huntington area wrestled with health problems that were made famous by Chef Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution on ABC-TV. Before and since, concerned residents have worked to improve health and quality of life. One of the projects is the Paul Ambrose Trail for Health (PATH), a growing bicycle and pedestrian trail system which recently received a donation of an old CSX Transportation railroad bridge which connects Highlawn to Guyandotte. Sen. Bob Plymale who is executive director of the Rahall Transportation Institute indicated that a small park might be built on the west side of the bridge.

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