In 1897, Seneca Glass Company began production of glass in the newly-developed Sunnyside neighborhood of Morgantown, West Virginia. While more than a dozen glass factories existed in Morgantown by the early twentieth century, Seneca Glass is one of the few factory structures that remains from this industrial heyday. The factory ran continuously for nearly a century. After its closure in 1983, the interior of the building was redesigned and turned into the Seneca Center, containing various artisan shopping establishments, antiques and fine dining.
Backstory and Context
The beginning of the Seneca Glass Factory stems from an agreement made between Seneca Glass and the Morgantown Building and Investment Company (MBIC) in the 1890s. MBIC divided the land that is now Sunnyside into various plots. As envisioned, many factories and other industrial buildings were built between the Monongahela River and Beechurst Avenue, leading to Sunnyside’s development as a working class neighborhood of immigrants and native citizens of West Virginia and surrounding states.
MBIC tempted the Seneca Glass Company to relocate from Fostoria, Ohio, to Morgantown with a rather lucrative legal agreement. Morgantown offered resources such as natural gas and silica, both needed to manufacture glass, and a transportation network consisting of the Monongahela River and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In addition, MBIC made an agreement that stipulated they would pay $20,000 to “erect, build and construct…factory buildings” in the “Beechurst Addition” of Morgantown to be used by the Seneca Glass Company.1 The Seneca Glass Factory was constructed during 1896, and the production of glass began in 1897. Glass factories were divided into two sections: the “hot end” of the factory, where molten glass was shaped and created, or the “cold end” of the factory, where glass pieces were etched, polished, wrapped, and packaged for sale.2
The glass industry boom brought European immigrants to Morgantown, who settled in the Sunnyside neighborhood on the other side of Beechurst Avenue. In the early to mid-twentieth century, skilled men arrived from Germany, Belgium, France, and Britain, where glassmaking was a tradition dating to medieval times. These workers had better means to purchase their own homes or rent homes of higher quality. In Morgantown, ethnic groups, especially the Germans, established churches, festivals, and community centers like the Turn Verein to carry over culture from their home countries. Immigrants from Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Russia, and other southern and eastern European countries entered glass factories as unskilled workers with hopes of making enough money to send back home. To make ends meet, the entire family, including children, would work in factories. Women were often tasked with completing the detailed etchings on the glass and packing the finished glass products for shipping. Until child labor laws were established, children could work in either the hot or cold end of the factory. Boys assisted the skilled male glassblowers and ran glassware to the cold end of the factory for finishing. Girls assisted with the processes of glazing, etching, and packing. Census records indicate that Sunnyside residents spoke a number of European languages in their homes.3
The first major event to significantly alter the new Seneca Glass Factory was a fire in 1902. The fire was discovered in the packing room, before spreading to the rest of the building.4 Most of the damage was interior, although “portions of the brick walls” needed rebuilding as well. The Seneca Glass Company used the fire as an opportunity to expand their facilities. In addition to a replacement building, several new areas were added, including a “new Needle Etching Room…and the reconstruction of the Grinding, Glazing, and Cutting Areas.”5 Renowned Morgantown architect, Elmer F. Jacobs, designed these reconstructions and additions.
To accommodate the demand for glass and American-made products during the Second World War and postwar eras, the Seneca Glass Factory was expanded upon in 1947. Several “small buildings and the main Etching Building, which was separate from other buildings, were removed and the plant was put under one roof.” At one time, the factory included an 80x80 blowing room with a furnace, lehr room, a water tower, 14 clay ovens and a 30 foot smokestack. The Seneca Glass Company owned the Seneca Glass Factory and surrounding land for almost a century.6
In the 1980’s, due to a decline in demand for specialty glass and crystal, the Seneca Company went bankrupt. The building was deeded to Sanders Floor Covering Incorporated in December 1984, which was short-lived.7
The current owner of Seneca Factory, now called the Seneca Center, is Two Trees, Incorporated, who acquired the property in May 1998.8 Since then, the Seneca Center has been adapted into small businesses and offices, making it is a prime example of adaptive reuse. In 2015, lightning struck the Seneca Center and damaged the historic chimney followed by wind damage later that year. Despite the loss of the chimney’s artisanal brickwork, the building itself remains much as it has since the 1902 rebuild.9
1 Deed of Sale, Monongalia Co, West Virginia, Book 51, p. 176, Monongalia County Clerk’s Office, Morgantown, WV.
2. Jenny Boulware and Andrew Mach, ed. “Glass Blowing and Community Building: A History of Morgantown, West Virginia’s Sunnyside Neighborhood, 1890-2013,” West Virginia History Vol. 9, No. 1 (Spring 2015): 65-88.
3. Ken Fones-Wolf, Industry, Labor and Political Economy in Appalachia, 1890-1930s. (University of Illinois Press, 2007), 30-46; United States Bureau of Labor, Report on the Condition of Woman and Child Wage-Earners in the United States, Volume III: Glass Industry, by Charles P. Neill (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911).
4. Dolores A. Fleming, "Seneca Glass Company Building," National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1985).
5. “Interesting State News,” The Clarksburg Telegram, July 4, 1902.
6. Fleming, “Seneca Glass Company Building,” National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.
7. Deed of Sale, Monongalia Co., West Virginia, Book 918, p. 420. Monongalia County Clerk’s Office, Morgantown, WV.
8. Deed of Sale, Monongalia Co., West Virginia, Book 1168, p. 201. Monongalia County Clerk’s Office, Morgantown, WV.
9. Boulware, Jenny et al. Tremendous Brick Chimney Which Soars: Site Condition of the Seneca Glass Company Smokestack. Report. History, West Virginia University.