I’m a firm believer in the arts and literature as a necessary component of life. Although my artistic ability never quite manifested (even using rulers, I struggle to draw a straight line), I’ve read voraciously since an early age and books remain one of my chief passions. During a recent week of work in West Virginia, I spent an evening wandering around the town of Romney, camera (as always) in hand. A distinctive building on the corner of Main and High Streets, looking vaguely like a church, caught my attention as soon as I entered the historic downtown. It seemed fortuitous to a book-loving architecture nerd like myself that such a lovely building was built as Literary Hall, home to what was once the oldest literary society in the United States.
Romney is a small town (under 2,000 residents), and the county seat of Hampshire County, West Virginia. It vies for the distinction of the oldest town in West Virginia (1762) along with Shepherdstown. In 1819, a small group of Romney citizens created “The Polemic Society of Romney.” Of course, this being 19th-century America, its founders were all male (and I don’t know if women were ever allowed membership, but I doubt it). This group of nine men expressed in their charter an interest not only in literature, but also science and education.
I have a passing familiarity with debating societies, which were popular in towns across the southeast in the 19th century, and college literary societies (interestingly, the American practice of collegiate Greek organizations emerged from collegiate literary societies. Beta Theta Pi fraternity was started in 1839 by students in the Union Literary Society at Miami University). A historic, community-based society dedicated to literature and improving education, however, is a creature I’ve not encountered before. By the 1830s, the name changed to the Literary Society of Romney, and the library contained some 3,000 volumes on literature, science, history, and art. This was probably the largest library in what was then western Virginia, and prompted the society to construct a building suited to house the volumes and volumes of books.
But this was in 1846, years before the building I ogled was built. The Virginia Assembly approved the Literary Society’s request, which led to the establishment of the Romney Classical Institute, which would later (in 1870) become the campus of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. In 1849, the Society boasted a two-story, Greek Revival building, with meeting space on the second floor, a school, and 20 registered members who paid $3 a year to the library fund, plus eight additional members. The only community members allowed library privileges were the clergymen of Romney and the principal of the Romney Classical Institute. All of this in a town of under 500 people! But the lofty goals, spirited debates, and love of books that had propelled the Literary Society to such successes by mid-century could not thwart the Civil War.
Romney, like most communities, suffered during the Civil War. While the majority of the members of the Literary Society went to fight for the Confederate army, Union troops ransacked the library itself, destroying or removing all but around 400 books. The town itself changed hands 50 times during the war, and there seemed little hope that the halcyon days of learning would resume after the war came to an end. But in 1869, the Literary Society was revived, this time with a public subscription and a new building.
The two-story, front gable brick building constructed after the War bore little resemblance to the mid-19th century home of the society, save for the building material. There is no portico to cast a shadow on the facade of this building, which has an almost stark air, softened only by the mellow coloring of the brick, and the gentle corbelling at the cornice. The Romantic styles were flourishing in America at this time, and Literary Hall, constructed in 1870, combines elements of both the Gothic Revival and Italianate styles, but the rigid symmetry of the building (and that raking cornice and attic lunette window), with the bays separated by brick pilasters, calls to mind pre-Civil War architecture.
The members of the revived Literary Society didn’t have to look too far down the street for inspiration – the Presbyterian Church is almost identical in form and detailing – complete with the same drip lintels. Constructed 10 years before the new Literary Hall, the Presbyterian Church obviously served as a model for the later building (and despite being used as a stable and hospital during the Civil War, emerged in pretty good shape). Literary Hall borrowed many exterior design ideas from the church, but the interior plan consisted of four rooms on the first floor, and a ballroom on the second. The reinvigorated Literary Society, alas, only lasted until 1886. The handsome brick building on the corner then became the home (until 1974) of the Masons and the Order of the Eastern Star.
The first floor of Literary Hall served as the Hampshire County Public Library for a few years beginning in 1937 (finally achieving an equitable distribution of literature). In 1973-74, local attorney Ralph Haines purchased the building, and restored it to house his law practice and a small museum (with some of the Literary Society’s records). It was also listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Perhaps it was the approaching cold front, with ominous blue-black clouds disrupting the scant available light, but Literary Hall looked slightly forlorn. Mr. Haines died in 2002, and the building appears quiet and a bit threadbare, though in sound condition. Given its history, however, I wouldn’t rule out another surprising rebirth for Literary Hall – and I fervently hope that happens.