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The Culture Center:
West Virginia's "Treasure House"

By Stan Bumgardner

The West Virginia Science & Culture Center at the State Capitol Complex, Charleston. Photo by Steve Brightwell.

“Much of our artistic beauty is our very life itself. This is what we’ll strive to capture in the [Culture] Center.” –Norman L. Fagan, the first director of the Science & Culture Center

Forty years ago this summer, the West Virginia Science & Culture Center (now known familiarly as the “Culture Center”) was dedicated on the State Capitol Complex in Charleston. For four decades, it’s been a showplace for the state’s artistic, cultural, and historical heritage. From the West Virginia State Museum and Archives, to the Norman L. Fagan West Virginia State Theater, to the State Historic Preservation Office, to the Commission on the Arts, to the Library Commission, to events like the Vandalia Gathering, the Culture Center spotlights what makes West Virginia the amazing place it is.

While construction of the center now seems like a no brainer, it was far from inevitable when first proposed in January 1966 as part of a new capitol master plan. At the time, the entire campus consisted of only the capitol building and two state office towers—one of which was known as the DMV Building. By the mid-1960s, though, the size of government had far outpaced available office space on the complex, so the state was renting buildings all over Charleston. As such, the master plan emphasized new office buildings and more parking—a never-ending problem that still exasperates state workers and visitors alike.

Seventh on the priority list was an “Archives and History Building, ranked below new office buildings, a storage warehouse, and a cafeteria. Ever since the capitol was dedicated in 1932, the state museum and archives had been crammed into makeshift spaces in the basement and top floor of the building—areas too small to accommodate thousands of artifacts and millions of documents. The space constrictions also meant that larger artifacts and collections had to be rejected and sent out of state. A notable example was an intact post office building that served the community of Headsville in Mineral County from 1860 to 1914. The state museum was unable to house anything of that scale, so the old post office was rebuilt in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.

Despite the desperate need for an Archives and History Building, it remained low on the priority list in favor of office space. In the years after the master plan was developed, the most prominent additions to the campus were two modern-looking office towers, now referred to generically as Buildings 5 and 6, which were completed in 1971.

The tide began to turn, though, when Arch Moore became governor in January 1969 and quickly familiarized himself with the master plan. Norman L. Fagan, executive director of the West Virginia Arts and Humanities Council, invited the new governor—whom he had never met—to attend the council’s next meeting. Fagan had made a name for himself as head of the West Virginia Historical Drama Association, which produced the statehood play Honey in the Rockeach year at Grandview State Park in Raleigh County and was about to launch Billy Edd Wheeler and Ewel Cornett’s musical The Hatfields & McCoys.

Fagan didn’t hear back from Moore before the Arts and Humanities Council meeting and assumed the governor wouldn’t be attending. Fagan recalls that meeting, “All of a sudden, the door flies open and in walk two state troopers followed by the governor.” Moore was possibly the most gifted politician the state has ever known. As he sauntered around the room, he greeted all 15 council board members by name—a memory skill that would astonish friends and foes alike throughout his career.

Moore soon called Fagan and asked how he could give the arts and history a much needed boost. Fagan didn’t hesitate, saying, “The state museum is an embarrassment, and the state Library Commission is located in a commercial storefront. You need a building that can house the museum, archives, Library Commission, and Arts and Humanities.”

After that meeting, Moore and Fagan began ironing out the principal details for what would become the Culture Center. Fagan noted that the two had immediate chemistry, perhaps in part because of their military backgrounds but also because, as Fagan puts it, they were both “dreamers.”

In April 1969, only three months into office, Moore announced publicly that the Culture Center would be a top priority for his administration. He asked the legislature to increase the Office Building Commission’s authority to issue revenue bonds for $35 million to support state parks and mental hospitals and to construct an “Archives and History Building.” He estimated the cost of the new building to be in the $8-10 million range.

There was initial resistance, both politically and in the community. Secretary of State Jay Rockefeller, who was already planning a run against Moore in 1972, opposed the project because of the state’s financial struggles and a large deficit in the state’s road fund. Moore countered that the two issues were unrelated and pushed onward.

Then, there was vocal opposition from local business people and residents whose property would be acquired by eminent domain for the new facility. The proposed construction site would take out an entire city block, referred to locally as the Rose City Block—named for the Rose City Cafeteria at the corner of Duffy and Washington streets—approximately where the Culture Center parking lot is today. Some people had lived and worked in the Rose City Block as long as the capitol had been there. In a fit of hyperbole, barbershop owner Bob Barker compared the governor’s eminent domain actions to Hitler. However, there were some legitimate complaints, including Michael and Mary Collias, who’d operated the Swan Superette since about 1945. The state paid them only $3,000 in relocation fees.

Without question, Arch Moore was one of the most controversial and polarizing figures in West Virginia history, but he knew the game of politics like nobody else. For example, despite overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature, the Republican Moore frequently pushed through his own projects. The Culture Center was a prime example. Largely due to his behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the legislature authorized the Office Building Commission to increase its indebtedness from $27.5 million to $60 million to cover the costs of several projects, including the Culture Center.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.