WELCH – Three years ago, Welch city officials launched plans to “bring some culture back into the city,” according to a 2017 Bluefield Daily Telegraph article.
Today, the Jack Caffrey Arts and Cultural Center is open and ready for business. The center is named after John E. Caffrey, who died in 2015. A Welch resident, Caffrey was a chief engineer for U.S. Steel Mining’s Gary operations, and later served as head of the West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection. He was a trusted informal advisor to the late Reba Honaker who had served as Mayor of Welch until the time of her passing in 2019.
Before it became an arts center, the structure was known as the “NAPA building” and sits at 143 Wyoming Street in downtown Welch. The around 100-year-old structure is on the historic register. It was donated to the town of Welch after sitting empty for nearly 20 years and the city decided it was a perfect fit for the arts center.
According to a May 2019 Bluefield Daily Telegraph article, organizers described the project as a “second lever renovation” which reuses approximately 7,500 square feet of space. Originally a post office and later an automobile dealership, the historic structure greets visitors with a two-story interior made of exposed masonry bricks, polished concrete floors, and large-span steel Pratt trusses supporting the roof. Large existing window openings were replaced with new aluminum storefront glazing allowing natural light into the space. The roof was replaced with a new membrane protecting and preserving the structure. A second exit stair was uncovered and enclosed to improve the health and safety of the building’s occupants.
“We want to bring some culture back into the city, and open it up for all the citizens,” Honaker said in a 2017 Bluefield Daily Telegraph article. “We’ll have something there for everybody – maybe a night with karaoke, different artists to come in and sing, and so forth.”
The Jack Caffrey Arts and Cultural Center held its Grand Opening in June 2019. The center is the result of years of work and planning. According to the director of the Jack Caffrey Arts and Cultural Center, Ann Turley, the city of Welch has wanted a museum for a while and the project was made possible through a grant from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, the West Virginia Commission on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts and City of Welch.
“It has been an interesting year, we officially opened in June and it was successful, I think people have been shocked to walk in here and see an older building and see it completely renovated inside,” Turley said.
At the time of the Grand Opening, Turley said that many of the static exhibits will feature artifacts from McDowell County’s rich history.
“As you know the whole area is depressed economically and the county is looking to give people a reason to stop in the county and to forge a new part of our history,” Turley said. “They did not want people to forget who they were and we are trying to keep it in one spot to be able to see it.”
The Center is not only a museum of artifacts but a home for living art through live performances and traveling exhibits.
“There will be exhibits that will always be there and other parts of the museum will change due to exhibitions of other fine arts the educational parts of it will focus on why McDowell was such a big place in its heyday,” Turley said. “The Center will have exhibits that have been collected by various people: a railroad historian, Dave Chapman that does mobile displays and he is hoping he can contribute.”
A large-scale mural by Tom Acosta was installed and dedicated on May 23. The mural was commissioned by the City of Rainelle Community Development Corporation to honor veterans. The mural is inspired by an annual ride of The Rolling Thunder motorcycle riders and a specific instance in 1989 for the opening of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.
In February of 2019, the late Honaker said, “I think the opening will be a boom for the city, something that residents can be proud of and a place to display their arts and music.”
Since its opening, the center has been used for 48 receptions, dinners and events. In addition, Turley said they hosted an arts camp and a theater camp for two different age groups. “There aren’t many spaces in our county so it gives it a different atmosphere,” she said.
The biggest upcoming development for the center is the addition of a live radio station, the only one in McDowell County. The Shott Foundation awarded the center a grant for the equipment and Turley said she hopes they will be able to broadcast live events for the community to hear.
In addition, they will rent out office spaces in the center. Turley said that the center is already becoming known as a meeting space in the community. “It is in progress and whatever we can think up, we will facilitate,” she said.
The museum space of the center is based on county, coal and railroad and the main focus is to showcase what created McDowell County.
“We got our main goal in reaching out to educate people who we are and who we were. The building itself is divided and the first space is the museum and then leads into the bigger areas for receptions and dinners,” Turley said. “The people that visit, their response has been very positive, we are trying to attract people outside of Welch, people go where they are used to going. I think the radio will be the first step to reach out and bring people in.”
Recently, Turley attended a City Council meeting and brought them the governors report that points to the fact that the financial gain of an economy based on the arts far exceeds any other economy. She said the council members were receptive to the report.
“Even the things that support any kind of economy the infrastructure around any kind of progress, I think they were hopeful,” Turley said. “I think we are all hopeful but there’s a lot of work to be done still.”
— Contact Emily Rice at email@example.com