WHEELING, W.Va. — North Front Street property owners Paula and Chuck Foster are proud of their little slice of Wheeling’s subterranean history.
The Fosters are owners of an apartment building near the Ohio River on Wheeling Island. In the basement is an old wine cellar, built in 1873, similar to structures found weeks ago at the Health Plan construction site.
“It’s a cool thing to have. Not many buildings have a wine cellar below their garage,” Paula Foster said. “But what do you do?”
The Fosters bought the building in 2011, and, as of now they have no intentions to restore or capitalize on the historic item.
Eighty-four feet long and 19.5 feet wide, the structure is caked in mud and debris. Holes of various sizes mar the floor, some of which could provide a painful injury upon a misstep in the dark.
The cellar features two separate rooms, divided by an elliptical arch. It’s built with sandstone blocks roughly 30 inches thick.
The Fosters said rumors of a connected tunnel — believed to lead to the Ohio River — have not been confirmed, and said they will likely remain rumors.
They cannot conceive of where such a tunnel could possibly intersect with the cellar.
According to Paula’s father, Bob Donaghy, someone with the last name of Schrieber contracted the construction of the vault. Donaghy, a hobbyist historian, said Schrieber was a wine merchant and florist who died in 1888.
Before death, he lived in the large house built atop the cellar with his wife and son, the same house from which the Fosters rent apartments.
They stayed there following Schrieber’s death while a man named Franz Laupp absorbed the business.
Donaghy said his research has yet to yield any historical record of the property between 1894 and 1927.
He said the record simply disappears until a lawyer, Samuel Noyes, assumed the house in the late 1920s. He kept it until the late 1940s.
“Is (Jimmy) Hoffa down there?,” bystander Erika Donaghy asked as a group of visitors descended into the cellar.
The Fosters keep it locked behind a wooden storm door that’s in no way subtle.
It’s not likely the original entrance, but it still looks old and out of place.
Once within, Wheeling Heritage historian Rebekah Karelis and Sarel Venter, of Adventures in Elegance, a historic restoration company, discuss where shipments of wine and liquor would have been offloaded and rolled into the cellar. There’s no clear point, other than what may have been a possible drop hatch along one of the walls.
Several pillars may have been later additions, as their stone work does not match what’s commonly found throughout the structure, according to Karelis. Paula points out a slimmer drop chute roughly five feet in depth — its exact purpose still unknown, but its presence clear.
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