Glass factory houses: Living big in small bungalows
Like a lot of people, Walmart greeter and retired meat processor John Alvin, 75, and his wife, Gail Whittaker Alvin, 80, have added on to their house over the years.
Unlike a lot of people, their living space is still well under 800 square feet.
“It’s such a cozy little house,” said Gail, a Charleston native. “Everybody is amazed at how much bigger it is on the inside than it looks on the outside.”
Their lot, on Washington Avenue in Kanawha City, is just 20 feet wide.
The house, with two bedrooms, one full bath, an eat-in kitchen, living room and laundry room, comes to 720 square feet.
By today’s housing standards the place is minuscule, so small it’s hard not to stare, trying to imagine what it would be like to live in such a confined space.
The Alvins, and many of their neighbors, are living a tiny but important part of West Virginia history that began nearly a hundred years ago, just before the close of World War I.
Back then, industry was booming here in the Mountain State, where salt brines, natural gas wells, coal mines, railroads and navigable waterways offered rich resources needed for producing glass and chemicals.
The only thing missing was manpower.
Factories needed workers, and those workers needed homes.
To solve that problem, tiny bungalows comprising only about 450 square feet — that’s about 15 feet by 30 feet — were sometimes mass-produced specifically to house industry workers and their families.
Many such homes were built on property surrounding the Libbey-Owens Co. (later Libbey-Owens-Ford) and Owens-Illinois Bottle Co. glass factories in Kanawha City.
Others went up during the construction of the city of Nitro, originally a federal explosives production facility.
“The unskilled laborers lived in four-room houses, carpenters and mechanics lived in five-room houses, and the executives lived in six-room houses on ‘Silk Stocking Lane’ up 21st Street,” Nitro Historic Commission President Rich Hively said. “They called it that because only the executives could afford silk stockings back then.”
Another cluster of tiny homes was built in Kanawha City on 20-foot-wide lots in the 1950s, right after World War II and just before new building codes were established, according to mywvhome.com.
If you know where to look, you can still spot these tiny homes along the streets of Nitro and Kanawha City.
Lowell, 75, and Mary Ann Finney, 72, live on Toledo Avenue in Kanawha City — known by locals as “Cutter’s Row,” said Russ Young, a board member of the Kanawha Valley Historical Society.
“It remains a quaint little block, pretty much like it was back then,” he said.
Mary Ann Finney grew up in Kanawha City.
“My dad was a glass cutter at the factory for 42 years,” she said. “And my grandfather was a Pennsylvania native who came here to work.
“When the factory hired workers, they’d set up saws in the street and built them a house. As another came in, they’d build another house.”
The Libbey-Owens-Ford houses were built by “Aubrey Love, out of redwood and cedar,” said Navy veteran Bernard Dolin, 88, who lives on Washington Avenue in Kanawha City and worked at the glass factory for four years.
Bungalows in Nitro were produced by Minter Homes, a Huntington company.
“The contract between the government and Minter Homes says 1,724 [kit homes] were built beginning in 1917,” Hively said. “For the most part, the materials were loaded into boxcars and shipped by train to the site where they were assembled.”
The Finneys moved onto Toledo Avenue in 1966 and raised their family in what was once a four-room rental house.
“We were the youngest couple on the street back then,” Mary Ann Finney said. “Most of the people were longtime employees of Libbey-Owens-Ford or had already retired from there.
“My grandmother lived across the street from us and said we’d better take good care of our property and make sure we keep the place up,” she said.
They did. And still do.
So do the other residents along Cutter’s Row, including the Finneys’ son, who lives a few doors down.
Community pride is still quite evident and “people keep it nice and clean and presentable,” she said.
She’s happy with her tiny house and tiny financial cost that goes with it.
“We added space in the back and guess the house has about 800 square feet now,” she said. “We have three bedrooms and a bath and a half.”
Gail Alvin remembers growing up with eight people in a little house down the street.
“I was born and raised on these [Kanawha City] streets,” she said. “I don’t know how we did it, but we slept eight people in a two-bedroom house when I was growing up.”
Today, the Alvins love the convenience of Kanawha City and are very comfortable in the tiny house they share with their poodles Max and Molly; Corkie, a Maltese-Yorkshire terrier mix; and two finches.
“I always did say there is a lot of useless space in some of these big homes people want nowadays,” John said. “We don’t need two living rooms.”