Ritter Park Historic District
The Ritter Park Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2013, The Gombach Group.
The Ritter Park Historic District is an excellent West Virginia example of the suburban movement which swept the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, both in terms of its historical development and its architectural character. The years 1913-1940 constitute the period during which the park and the majority of the structures surrounding it were completed, and the area assumed its historic character. With the exception of the Great Depression, this period was a time of rapid growth and economic development throughout the city of Huntington which is reflected in the stylish architecture of the Ritter Park area.
The city of Huntington was founded in 1871 by railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington as the terminus of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company. An ambitious plan of the city was laid out by his engineers at the time which included a comprehensive grid system of wide streets and generous city blocks covering the area from First Street to the Guyandotte River and from the Ohio River to the Four Pole Creek foothills. The town was bisected, north and south, by the C&O Railroad tracks and physical plant.
At the turn of the century most dwellings were located on the north side of the railroad tracks, between the C&O and the Ohio River. The more well-to-do residents had built substantial Victorian homes on Third Avenue, three blocks from the river, beginning in the 1870s. Progressively, as the population increased, elite residents advanced to Fifth Avenue and finally to Sixth Avenue. Farm land dominated the landscape south of the C&O tracks in 1900. Nearly all of the development on the south side consisted of workers' housing limited to the area near the C&O locomotive shops east of 20th Street on 8th Avenue.
Beginning in 1902, efforts were made to provide easier access to what became known as the "South Side." Ground was broken for a viaduct under the C&O tracks at 8th Street and electric trolley tracks were extended from downtown Huntington to the South Side via 8th Street to 13th Avenue. The first automobile arrived in town in 1905, further signaling the coming commuter age. The South Side became Huntington's first suburb.
Significant changes would have to be made in the Four Pole Creek area for residential and park development to occur even though the transportation lines were open. The road out of town to rural Cabell and Wayne Counties, the old McCoy Road, connected with Huntington in the Four Pole Creek area. In addition, historical documents reveal that this area was largely occupied by laborers who were renting property at Four Pole. These were probably industrial workers for a brickyard, a shingle plant, and a china factory located in the vicinity at nearby 16th Street (today known as Hal Greer Boulevard). Period photographs of the area show small frame houses and shacks nestled in the hills above the creek (what is now Ritter Park) and on a broad avenue looking north, possibly 13th Avenue. In the context of an area which was near industry and on the route out of town, it is not difficult to understand why the city council purchased fifty acres of land between 8th and 12th streets on Four Pole Creek for a new city incinerator in 1908.
George S. Wallace, who served as the chairman of the Board of Park Commissioners for many years, wrote that the city council faced much opposition to the plan to build a city incinerator on Four Pole. Huntington Mayor Rufus Switzer, a visionary citizen who would later be a founder of the Huntington Museum of Art, is credited with changing the plans to establish Huntington's first municipal park on the site. At about the same time, C.L. Ritter, a lumber magnate who was based in Huntington, began purchasing significant tracts of land in the hills above Four Pole Creek on the McCoy Road with the intention of using the acreage for timbering lands. Switzer's idea to create a park just below the Ritter property probably caused the lumber man to realize that the land would be more lucrative as real estate, and instead he built a rambling Craftsman style mansion there in 1912. Ritter's donation of additional tracts to the park lands and the subsequent naming of the park for himself alludes to a relationship between the park's development and his interests.
Mayor Switzer hired a New Jersey landscape architect, J.T. Withers, to design Ritter Park. However, before the plan could be implemented, Switzer was voted out of office, and it was never used. The park officially opened on September 11, 1913, but not a great a deal was accomplished in its design before World War I. The optimism and prosperity felt by the country and the city after World War I led to new interest in the community and development of a city wide park system. The Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs in Huntington both appointed parks committees after the war. This resulted in a joint committee for the supervision of park development, chaired by George S. Wallace. In 1925 the state legislature formalized the committee by establishing the Board of Park Commissioners under the city government. This body supervised the park system until 1983, when the legislature established the Greater Huntington Parks and Recreation District, an autonomous organization which manages parks in Cabell and Wayne counties.
The Board of Park Commissioners set out in 1925 to establish a city-wide system of parks and recreation areas. Their plan was to create a boulevard network which would connect each park throughout town in a mile's distance. They purchased property at 9th Street West on Four Pole Creek and property in the hills above east Huntington. These were named Kiwanis Park and Rotary Park, respectively, for the contributions these organizations made to the system. Washington Boulevard was planned and developed, with the creek rerouted near 12th Street, to connect these parks with Ritter Park.
That the new Park Commissioners began their tenure with an underdeveloped Ritter Park is demonstrated by the fact that numerous citizens wanted to place a fire station on the park site, but this request was denied. Little work was accomplished in the park by 1925 except for a road leading to Caldwell Point, where a domed columnar monument had been placed by the Caldwell family in the memory of prominent banker J.L. Caldwell (the monument is now gone; the point is known by locals as "Gobbler's Knob"). Adjacent to this stood a log cabin which now serves as the headquarters of the Buford chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The cabin was rebuilt from an earlier structure said to have been the vineyard keeper's house for the Beuhring farm which stretched from the Ohio River to the Four Pole Creek hills in the early 1800s. However, the early cabin was torn down about 1920, and its logs were combined with new supplied by C.L. Ritter to build a new structure for the DAR. Prior to this remodeling, the cabin served as a "pest house" to quarantine stricken townspeople during a flu epidemic.
The Park Commissioners began developing Ritter Park in the late 1920s and early 1930s by hiring a landscape architect, Gus Wofford. He remained with the Park Board until 1952, the year that George S. Wallace was defeated as chairman of the Commissioners. Mr. Wofford is credited with the planning of the Rose Garden, a formal flower garden near 12th Street, a Tulip Garden opposite 9th Street, stone lined lily ponds near 8th Street Road, stone bridges crossing Four Pole Creek and related streams, tennis courts, an amphitheater, a greenhouse, picnic facilities, and the park's road system.
The Works Progress Administration constructed Ritter Park's roads in the 1930s and is said to have built the stonework which outlines part of the park and several of its major features.
Once the development of Ritter Park was assured, the suburban movement took effect in Huntington. Residential housing was quick to follow. The area surrounding the park did not feature permanent homes to any degree until after the park opened in 1913. World War I interrupted housing progress, but the 1920s saw the construction of the grand Colonial Revival, Tudor, and Classical Revival mansions bordering the park. The people who built these homes were some of Huntington's most influential citizens, including bankers, attorneys, doctors, newspaper publishers, and coal company executives. The styles of these structures, particularly the brick Foursquares built before World War I, would become the standard for housing throughout Huntington during the 1920s, a period of rapid growth and building in the city.
The city of Huntington attained full maturity in the 1920s, firmly established as the transportation capital of the region and a marketing center for West Virginia coal. Numerous commercial buildings were designed for downtown during that decade, and Ritter Park residents used the same Huntington architects to build their new homes. R.L. Day & Company, Dean & Dean, and Meanor & Handloser were firms who had designed buildings of distinction downtown. In fact, C.H. Wetzel used Meanor & Handloser to design both his Tudor Revival home on McCoy Road and the Jackson Building & Loan Association Building on Ninth Street, now the Huntington Area Chamber of Commerce. Versus T. Ritter, a prominent Huntington architect responsible for Huntington High School and Huntington City Hall among others, lived in one of the Ritter Park Foursquares before World War I and may have designed those homes also.
Charles Campbell, a prominent Huntington attorney, was mayor of Huntington 1919-1920 and is identified with promoting the development of Ritter Park. He personally donated a substantial sum of money to purchase additional park lands for the city. During his tenure the Eighth Street Bridge was built across Four Pole Creek. In 1923, he built a Neoclassical Revival mansion on 13th Avenue, 1000 block. Campbell was a partner in the Park Real Estate Company and may have been involved in developing the South Side near the park. The placement of his grand house across from the park helped to insure its success as Huntington's elite residential neighborhood.
That distinction has continued through to the current day. The park has remained popular and is used by hundreds of Huntingtonians daily as the scene for jogging, walking, games, and high school band practice. Concerts are held in the amphitheater annually, and the Rose Garden is the site of numerous weddings each summer. The fact that residents have maintained their homes in their original condition for the most part contributes to an atmosphere basically unchanged by time, retaining a character that is most representative of a prosperous era in the history of Huntington and of West Virginia.
Abstracts From the Cabell County Deed Books. 1908-1959. Cabell County Courthouse, Huntington, West Virginia.
Gillenwater, Mack. A Survey of Downtown Huntington, West Virginia. Phase II. Huntington: by Author, 1985.
Gowans, Alan. The Comfortable House, North American Suburban Architecture 1890-1930. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.
McAlester, Virginia and Lee. A Field to American Houses. New York: Alfred a. Knopf, 1988.
Wallace, George S. Cabell County Annals and Families. Richmond: Garrett and Massie Publishers, 1935.
Wallace, George S. Huntington Through Seventy-Five Years. Huntington: by Author, 1947.
Board of Park Commissioners, City of Huntington. Preliminary Paving Plan Submitted to Works Progress Administration of the Fifth District of West Va., Cabell County, Huntington, West Virginia. 1935.
Board of Park Commissioners. Huntington's Park System and Recreational Facilities. Huntington, West Virginia, n.d.
Campbell-Staats Collection, Morrow Library Special Collections, Marshall University.
Early Settlers' Association. Early Settlers of Huntington, W.Va. 1871-1885. History, Facts, and Reminiscences. n.d.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. Huntington, 1919, 1931, 1947, 1954.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. Twelfth and Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1990-1910.
Wofford, Gus, Designer and Landscape Architect. An Aerial Perspective of Ritter Park, Huntington, West Virginia. April 1932.
† Beth Hager and Austin St. Clair, Cabell County Historic Landmarks Commission, Ritter Park Historic District, Cabell County, WV, nomination document, 1990, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.