Henry Elden is Charleston Icon


Published: Monday, March 04, 2002
Page: P1C
Byline: Sandy Wells

People from across the country and around the world have toured his ingenious showplace, Toporock, a circular glass house and studio nestled on a ledge above the Kanawha River. He made a tree and the remains of a rock quarry part of the studio, a concept that won national awards for incorporating topography with architecture.

Henry Elden is a Charleston icon, an applauded architect, a former city councilman and mayoral candidate, a figure as familiar as his landmark cliffside home.

His famous glass house brims with treasures acquired during his extensive world travels. Ski photos proclaim a passion for the sport that still beckons him to Aspen and Tahoe.

Outspoken and flamboyant, an inveterate bon vivant, he approaches his 88th birthday in May with the same zest and drive that have propelled him throughout a rich and fulfilling life.

"I WAS BORN in Boswell, Pa., a little place that in West Virginia would be called a mining camp, but it was never referred to as that.

My father owned the movie theater. He died when I was 8. He had pneumonia. He was 44. That was before they had antibiotics. We stayed in Boswell until my mother moved to Johnstown. I was 14.

"I took mechanical drawing for four years in high school. They had a lot of drawers around the outside of the mechanical drawing room.

Students would go to the drawer and take out a cube or cylinder or ball and put it on their desk and draw it. It taught me how to visualize a three-dimensional object in two dimensions, putting it on paper. I've always been very proficient at being able to decipher plans that are two-dimensional.

"To survive, my mother rented rooms. I told a roomer I liked to draw.

He said I might like to be an architect. I had never heard the word.

So I thought, well, maybe that's right. I'd like to be an architect.

And there was no deviation from it.

"My dad left me a stipend, enough to go to college. I went to Carnegie Tech in the middle of the Depression, and took architecture there for five long years. There were 35 of us when I started. Only 13 finished, and I was the only one of the 13 who had a job.

"Charlie Kuhn had graduated from Carnegie. He contacted them and said he was going into the design-construction business and wanted an architect. I interviewed and got the job that brought me to Charleston. That was 1937.

"I started at $130 a month and worked 44 hours a week, and I was glad to have the job. I was a flunky and an assistant superintendent on some of the construction jobs. Laborers were paid in cash. On Friday, I would take the payroll around. I was just a kid and thought nothing of walking around with $3,000 and $4,000.

"Then the war came along and materials for construction became nil, so I worked in a structural engineering group at [Union] Carbide. In the meantime, I married Evelyn, and I went in the Navy. We took troops to hostile shores. We were in eight assaults, ending at Okinawa. I ran a typewriter. My shift would translate radio dispatches. It was code work, deciphering.

"Walter Martens was an architect here. He said if I would leave Carbide and go with him, he would give me a $25 raise at the end of six months and $25 at the end of the year. Six months came, and I got my $25. The end of the year came, and he said he couldn't afford it.

So I said goodbye. That started me on my own in 1948.

"I designed and built a home on Churchill Drive. By now I had a daughter and a little son. My drafting room was in my son's bedroom.

The old Kanawha Valley Lumber Co. gave me a pair of horses and a drafting top, and I worked out of that bedroom.

"When I quit Martens, Evans Lumber Co. gave me a little job on their building, and I didn't get another job for six months. I had to beat the pavement for jobs. As I started to get work, I built up an organization. At one time, I had 12 to 15 men working for me.

"As I developed, I finished an office in the basement of my house.

Then I built a studio next to my residence. In 1968, I built Toporock.

I've lived in two places in Charleston in 60 years, and that's remarkable.

"From the time I moved to Charleston, I wanted a place on the riverfront. By the time the '60s came along, this was the last piece of property on the riverfront. John Merrill owned it and tried to develop it, but he couldn't get a road into it. There's still evidence where he tried to get the road in, but it was too steep. You came in here and it was so easy. Well, that had to be thought out.

"John thought I was going to build on the flat property up here. He said he would have given me this knoll. Anybody could have built on the flat part. The challenge was don't remove any trees and do the least amount of excavation possible. My studio was a rock quarry at one time. That's why that sheer rock is there.

"Building this was quite a challenge. Over in my studio, those columns are 60 feet tall. Somebody had to be at the top to make the original connections. And we didn't have any accidents.

"The awards are over there on the wall. One is from the Steel Institute. This house has had a lot of publicity. It hit Parade magazine once. There have been a lot of tours through here. I don't turn anyone down.

"I've worked for most government agencies, the Army, Navy and Marines.

I've done federal buildings in Morgantown and Huntington. I've done post offices and hospitals. I did between 700 and 800 jobs.

"My most famous building downtown was the West Virginia Building and Loan building on the corner where the mall is. It had a golf ball tee colonnade around it. They tore it out and built a Bob Evans.

"One of the projects I'm really proud of is the library at West Virginia Tech. That's about 30 years old now, and it has held up well and functioned beautifully.

"When I came home from the Navy, Phil Hill encouraged me to run for City Council. He was a real powerful man around town and big in the Republican Party. I won, but I was defeated on my second go-round. I ran for county commissioner, and Dewey Kuhns beat me, and I ran for mayor, and John Hutchinson beat me.

"Basically, I'm against government. I think they have intruded into private enterprise.

"The only place I haven't been that I want to go is heaven. Evelyn came in one day when the Daily Mail was sponsoring a trip to the World's Fair in Brussels and said she'd signed up. So we went to Brussels in 1955, and I've been making one or two major trips a year since then.

"I have a business partner in Germany. He has a 40-foot sailboat.

Fifteen times I've joined him and sailed the Baltic, the North Sea and the Mediterranean. Just a year ago, I took an 8,000-mile Amtrak trip.

I was just out at Lake Tahoe for two weeks skiing in the mountains.

"I bicycle about 10 miles every day during the summer. I think my health is because of my property. I tend to this property myself. It does wonders for your body.

"I'm relaxed. I enjoy living here. I'm a bachelor. My wife died in 1993. I don't find it too bad living with Henry.

"I had my family in Mexico for Christmas, and I was really under the weather. One day I just collapsed. I thought the end had come. I turned to my daughter and said, 'Well, I've had a good run.' They revived me and found I'd had an overreaction to my blood medicine.

"I was glad for the experience because I was completely relaxed. There was no anxiety. So the end has come. I've had a good run. And I stopped to smell the roses along the way." To contact staff writer Sandy Wells, call 348-5173 or e-mail sandyw@wvgazette.com.