WESTON, W.Va. (AP) - The Jonathan M. Bennett House in Weston holds a lot of stories, but its own is not as obvious.
The historic 17-room Victorian mansion houses the Louis Bennett Public Library.
The Bennett family history is a storied one as well, set in locations including Canada and as far away as London, and includes the relatives of famed Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and current Republican Congressman David McKinley of Wheeling.
The family’s history begins with Jonathan McCally Bennett and how he made the fortune that would fund construction of the impressive house. Much of the Bennett family history has been preserved by the late Otis Reed, who wrote two books about Bennett properties in Weston, including “The Building of the Jonathan McCally Bennett Mansion in Weston,” and the late M. William Adler, a local historian who wrote a column for the Weston Democrat called “Yesterdays.”
Adler’s son, Bruce, said Jonathan Bennett was one of the greatest leading citizens that Weston had in some of its formative years in the 19th century.
“The city, its history and further economic development owes a great deal to his energy and interests,” Adler said.
Lewis County was still a part of Virginia when Jonathan Bennett became a deputy sheriff in 1836 at age 22.
“He actually started to accumulate the great wealth his family had because he was able to learn about properties in the county being declared tax delinquent,” Adler said.
Bennett bought the properties at auction, and his family eventually owned tens of thousands of acres in Central West Virginia. Many of the properties had deposits of oil and gas, Adler said.
Bennett became a lawyer and served as Weston’s first mayor in 1842, Adler added. In 1857, as first auditor for Virginia, Bennett used his influence to get the Virginia Legislature to locate the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston.
He also oversaw the construction of a branch railroad to connect to the main rail line running through the state.
The Sunday morning of April 20, 1873, Jonathan Bennett, by then a state senator, and his wife, Margaret Elizabeth Jackson, cousin of Stonewall Jackson, were home when the house they occupied on Court Avenue caught fire, according to Otis Reed’s history book.
Bennett received an insurance check for $3,000 on July 11, 1873. Exactly one year later, architect Columbus Burroughs Kirkpatrick arrived in Weston to begin drafting the plans for the Bennetts’ replacement house, which would be built on the same lots.
Sources describe the house’s architectural style as High Victorian Italianate. More specifically, Adler said, it is Riverboat Gothic, a type of Victorian architecture.
“That type was typical of houses that were more commonly built along waterways in the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys,” he said. “It incorporated certain motifs from river boats. Apparently it was fairly common. The captains of boats preferred to build houses along the river.”
That style ended up in Weston thanks to the architect, Kirkpatrick, who lived in Parkersburg on the Ohio River, Adler said.
A dominant feature of the structure is a 4 1/2 story entrance tower with a mansard roof, which has four steep sides.
Italianate design elements include heavy wooden brackets on the tower and veranda, a balustraded balcony on the tower, and an elaborately carved bargeboard - a board fastened to the projecting gables of a roof to strengthen and conceal the exposed end of the horizontal timbers of the roof.
The house stands out not just for its sheer size but its intricately detailed millwork and pressed tin in the segmented and rounded window heads. When the National Register of Historic Places nomination was made in 1978, the building had retained its original plaster ceiling moldings, woodwork and interior paneled and louvered window shutters. All but one of the arched fireplaces are metal to simulate marble. The stairway rails and balusters are molded hardwood that resemble in color and texture the mahogany shelves of the mantels.
Also intact in the house is an original gasolier, said library director Karen Enderle.
“It was the first house in Weston to be lit by gas,” Adler said. “The house incorporated what was a coal gas generator that would burn coal and the gas was siphoned off from that.”
Reed reported the taxable value of the mansion when J.M. Bennett moved his family in on June 21, 1875, at $4,000. In modern times, it would cost $426,000 to build, Reed estimated.
Louis Bennett inherited the house after his father died in 1887.
Louis was principal of what is now Glenville State College before he was Lewis County’s prosecuting attorney, a member and speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates and an unsuccessful candidate for governor.
He married Sallie Maxwell and they had a son, Louis Jr., and a daughter, Agra, who was Congressman David M. McKinley’s grandmother, Enderle said.
The Louis Bennetts were known world travelers. Agra, according to the historic register nomination, was presented at the first court of King George V. Both children had a French tutor in Weston and Louis Jr. received his early schooling in Germany, Enderle said.
“When World War I started he was very enthusiastic about joining before America even entered the conflict,” Adler said.
Louis Jr. recruited classmates and friends to form the West Virginia Flying Corps, Enderle said, and was commissioned as a captain by the governor. But, Adler noted, the U.S. Army wouldn’t recognize his corps and incorporate it into their forces. Not to be discouraged, Enderle said, Louis Jr. went to Canada where he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, a training organization of the British Royal Flying Corps.
He had 12 combat kills, including three aircraft, placing him ninth on the roster of World War I aces, Adler said.
His mother, Sallie, was at home in Weston mourning her husband, who died Aug. 2, 1918, when she learned her only son had died, Enderle said.
“He was killed in the course of carrying out a voluntary mission,” Adler said. “He was assigned the task of bringing down a certain military balloon observatory. His plane caught on fire and he went down behind enemy lines. He was very badly burned. The Germans took him to a German hospital and he died on Aug. 24, 1918.”
Sallie Bennett went on another worldwide trip in 1921, seeing New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Paris before returning to Weston, Adler said.
“She had been thinking about what to do for the city of Weston in part to commemorate her son,” Adler said. “On that trip she took note of the fact a lot of small towns she was traveling through in New Zealand had public libraries and Weston as yet had no public library.”
This was 1918 and Weston had various movie theaters, at least three or four nickelodeons plus an opera house. So Mrs. Bennett donated her home as the town’s library.
Today the public uses it for research, leisure reading, Internet access, used book sales, meeting space, preschool storytimes and book clubs, Enderle said. Visitors can take a self-guided walking tour of the building - except the tower, which is closed for safety - with the aid of a pamphlet.
Sallie Bennett honored her son and his comrades in another, quite remarkable, way: by commissioning a window in Westminster Abbey in London.
The window features St. Michael, the patron saint of airmen, trampling the devil angel. Other angels are depicted holding the helmet of salvation, the sword of the spirit and the breastplate of righteousness, as mentioned in scripture. The face of the angel holding the shield of faith is a portrait of Louis Jr. The state seal of West Virginia is incorporated in it.
Information from: The Exponent Telegram, https://www.theet.com
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