Local real estate developer Alex Vence tackles the renovation of another downtown Huntington landmark in the West Virginia Building.
Just a few short years ago, local real estate developer Alex Vence was inspired to restore the beloved structure on Fourth Avenue known by generations of local residents as the Huntington Arcade Building. Today, on the same block, he is breathing new life into what was West Virginia’s tallest building when it was built in 1924. Drive or stroll through downtown some evening and you’ll see the ever-changing, colorful LED lighting that now makes the upper floors of the West Virginia Building glow. But that’s not all. Inside the 15-story edifice, an exciting transformation is underway, as well.
Gone are the office suites and the student housing that later replaced them. The manually operated elevator visitors used to ride now hauls only freight. In its place, you ride to each floor of luxurious apartments by modern key-fob-accessible elevators. Vence retained the grace of that earlier era in the scrolled ironwork of the lobby’s furnace registers and elevator indicators while adding a fireplace that warms the entrance space.
When he bought the building in 2013, he tackled many exterior maintenance projects, added new awnings and secured the property’s private driveway with a nostalgically elegant iron gate created by local artist, Carrie Wallace.
“The bones were still good,” Vence says of the iconic downtown building, “but it clearly needed a good scrubbing, both literally and figuratively.”
While renovating the façade, he also painted the two upper floors where the material changes from brick to limestone. It’s here he added the dramatic lighting. Inspired by a 1930s photograph of his building that showed incandescent white lighting illuminating that upper crown, and by a trip to New York City, Vence installed a colorful lighting system made by the same company that lights the Empire State Building.
“I thought, ‘That’s really neat. I ought to look at doing that again,’” he says. “I worked with State Electric, who put the system together, and I’m very happy with the result.”
Although it’s a smaller system, the maker says it’s capable of producing 16 million colors. The LED program debuted in time for the 2014 Christmas parade, and it since has given the entire city an ever-changing series of light shows.
Vence says he’s lucky that Huey Perry, who owned the building for 26 years, had done extensive renovation during his tenure, addressing the things you don’t see: wiring, plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems. Now, much of Vence’s work is cosmetic. But that’s like saying he’s merely refreshing its makeup. Some floors that had four apartments will now hold three, giving each considerably more space. He has completed the 13th floor and is working on another that will have upgraded amenities.
Currently, he offers one- and two-bedroom apartments with fireplaces, walk-in closets, solid doors, quartz countertops, stainless steel appliances, marble bathrooms, stacked washers and dryers and ceilings that he took back to their original 10-foot height. He’s removing visual obstructions from the windows to improve the views, as well. He’s even transforming the old Permons restaurant space into a 5,400-square-foot penthouse with three bedrooms, three and one-half bathrooms, fireplaces, laundry room and a dog bathing area. He says its master closet is bigger than his first apartment.
With most rental prices ranging from $800 to 1,900 per month, Vence says people may think he’s crazy — but all 41 apartments are currently rented, and not all are as luxurious as he plans them to be in the future.
With condominiums dotting the central business district, Vence felt there was also a market for luxury apartments; and apparently he was right. He’s found a niche among people from other markets who may only live in Huntington a few years.
“They’ve come from Atlanta, Chicago or Columbus, and they think our prices are a deal,” Vence says. “I had a doctor call me the other day. He’s going to be a fellow at Cabell-Huntington, and he was calling from a New York area code.”
When asked the price, Vence told him $1,900 a month. The doctor paused and then said, “That’s it?”
Vence believes the tenants he is attracting have more discretionary income, and that’s good for Huntington, too.
“They go out to dinner, they go out for drinks, they go to Marshall Artists Series and they spend money downtown,” Vence explains.
Having The Bodega Market & Café across the street adds another draw to living downtown, which his clients seem to want.
“People who moved into the building love being downtown,” Vence says. “But they also want to be able to walk to amenities, and we’re fortunate enough to have those again downtown.”
Vence’s ties to the building are more than just entrepreneurial, however. The Huntington native’s grandfather, Dr. J. Evan Sadler, had his medical office on the third floor, and his mother, Elizabeth Vass, was operating one of the elevators when she learned she was pregnant with Alex. Mayor Steve Williams believes that’s why this project is so special.
“The greatest aspect of this building’s transformation is that Alex is an up-and-coming member of the business community who’s local. He was born and raised here,” Williams says. “It’s Alex Vence with locally developed ideas, locally developed passions and locally developed skills, and he’s doing it with local banks.”
While Vence believes the West Virginia Building offers the best of everything – views, style, location and prestige – there’s another aspect of his project that he holds dear.
“This is my neighborhood,” Vence explains. “Preservation of buildings like this is important because old buildings are reminders of a city’s culture and complexity.”
With Vence’s vision, the West Virginia Building won’t be merely a reminder of Huntington’s glory days; it will be another step toward the central business district’s exciting rebirth.