Spring Cleaning

Spring! Leaves, flowers, birds, cute baby animals, warm weather. And cleaning.

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in phase one of the architectural mothballing of a run-down apartment building. Early one Saturday morning a few weeks ago (though not as early as this) a friend and I headed deep into West Virginia’s coal country. Our destination: the community of Helen, population 219.


Helen, West Virginia, is in the Winding Gulf Coalfield, one of the eleven in the state. The coal camp in Helen was established in the 1910s, and homes were built in the area soon after to house the miners and coal company administrators. A boarding house was also erected to serve as additional lodging, but it is no longer standing.

Perhaps the largest building in town is the Helen Apartments, a brick eight-apartment complex dating from the 1920s. Whether it was built by the coal company remains to be seen, but it certainly housed coal company employees. With the decline of coal towns like Helen, many of the structures therein have been left to decay or been torn down.

The Helen Apartments, as seen by drone. Photo: George Bragg Photography/WeGROw Facebook Page

The Helen Apartments, in use until 2007, now fall into that category. Left empty, they served squatters for many years after they were officially shut down. However, in the past few months a number of local organizations have pulled together to save the apartment building. Because there is no funding at present to begin preservation, a team headed by Preserve West Virginia/Winding Gulf Restoration Organization (WeGROw) AmeriCorps member Tiffany Rakotz took spring cleaning to the extreme to prep the building for mothballing.

I was one of about 33 volunteers who showed up that Saturday to help. We filled bags and bags of clothing, papers, and household items that had been left in the apartments, and then filled a dumpster to the brim with the bagsover six tons worth. We pulled up carpeting. We heaved broken furniture off balconies. We piled the yard high with 18 tons of large household items and more furniture, setting aside ones that could be sold. Our goal was to rid the building of anything and everything that would make it a nice, cozy house for mold and critters until funds can be secured to preserve it.

As one team of volunteers finished cleaning, another came along behind, performing the actual mothballing process. They installed plywood panels to seal windows from weather, break-ins, and animals. And while time on Saturday ran short, there were only a few tasks left to finish in order to secure the building completely.

Photo: Tossing broken furniture off of the second-floor balcony. Brad Davis/The Register-Herald

To learn more, visit the Winding Gulf Restoration Organization’s Facebook page for updates on the project, or read the National Park Service’s Preservation Brief on mothballing.

This entry was posted in Building Conservation, Community, Historic Buildings, Historic Preservation, Industrial heritage and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Spring Cleaning

  1. Interesting! Great term for the process.

  2. Kaogu gongzuozhe says:

    Thanks for the post. While mothballing helps stabilize a property by reducing ongoing deterioration, continued monitoring of security while the building is empty, securing funds for repairs and rehabilitation, identifying appropriate future uses, and bringing in new tenants are important next steps to ensure the long-term preservation of a building. See, for example, the challenges faced by the National Park Service to preserve the officers’ quarters at former Fort Hancock, in the Sandy Hook (NJ) unit of Gateway National Park: http://www.nj.com/monmouth/index.ssf/2015/02/officials_hope_to_save_sandy_hooks_past_by_looking.html . Best of luck to WeGROw in pursuing their project to a successful conclusion.

    • Thanks for your comment. The National Park Service has a great many buildings to protect, and with such limited funding, mothballing is often the best choice (and sadly often the only option) to preserve what we have until it can be properly treated.

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