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Huntington's Skyline: Guaranty Bank Building has seen many changes over the years

Jan. 03, 2010 @ 02:18 PM

HUNTINGTON — The Guaranty Bank Building at 517 9th St. seems to reinvent itself continually. 

Just as its name has continued to change over the past century, so have its occupants. 

The stately structure is the final of the taller buildings to be featured in The Herald-Dispatch’s Huntington Skyline Series, which has looked at the history of Huntington’s tall buildings and provided an update on what’s going on with the buildings now.

Today owned by Huntington businessman John Hankins, the 12-story Guaranty Bank Building was constructed in 1909 as the Robson Prichard Building. 

The main tenant for which it was built was Huntington Banking & Trust Co., said Hankins, who is well-versed in the building’s history.

“They occupied the main floor. They were the lead tenant,” he said. 

There were two entries, a middle door and a door on the left hand side, where there was a coffee shop, he said. The upper floors were offices rented to Huntington businesses. According to a 1985 historical report from Marshall University, the fourth floor housed the real estate office for Houghton A. Robson and  and Fred C. Prichard, the original namesake of the building.

Huntington Banking & Trust Co. failed in the early 1930s during the Great Depression, and Western and Southern Life Insurance Co. — a regional insurance company based in Cincinnati — foreclosed on it, Hankins said.

“During the Depression, it was probably empty until 1939,” Hankins said. Then Sterling Diddle, a well known Huntington businessman, founded Guaranty Bank & Trust Co. It was home to that bank until the early 1950s, when the bank moved into the building that now houses Huntington Bank on 5th Avenue.

Meanwhile, the building underwent another leadership change. Western and Southern Life Insurance Co. sold the building in the 1940s to Sheriff Don Chafin of Logan, W.Va., one of its more colorful owners. His fame came from the battle at Blair Mountain.

According to Chafin’s 1954 obituary in The Herald-Dispatch, it was 1921 when Chafin “mobilized a small army of deputies — later formally organized into the militia by order of the governor — which met the union organizers in skirmishes at Blair Mountain on the Boone-Logan county border and in the Crooked Creek section.

“Thousands of shots were fired and much blood shed but there were relatively few casualties,” the obituary says. “One source says 47 were killed and more than 100 injured. ... Eventually federal troops were called in, disarmed both sides and restored order.” 

It’s been said that Chafin reportedly received a nickel per ton of coal that left Logan County, Hankins said. It’s also been told that he was indicted for bribery in the 1930s and supposedly went to jail for a time, Hankins said. When Chafin got out, he was re-elected as sheriff, Hankins said.

Chafin also was shot himself once.

The obituary reads as follows: “The story goes that the sheriff went to headquarters of District 17 near the statehouse in Charleston and in no uncertain terms told Bill Petry, district vice president, his organizers were a nuisance and to keep them out of Logan County. Chafin is said to have told Petry that if they didn't stop coming in, he would do something about it. 

“Petry said, ‘Why wait, Don. We can shoot, too.’ 

“Both Petry and Chafin went for their revolvers. Petry beat the sheriff to the draw and shot him above the heart. Chafin, holding one hand over the wound, and without firing a shot, walked to a hospital,” the obituary says.

“He went to the hospital and didn’t die,” Hankins said. “Then he comes to Huntington and buys the Guaranty Bank building from Western and Southern and goes to the top of the building and buys the penthouse I now live in. He put guards in the lobby and at the top of the elevator.” 

He lived there until he died.

Chafin renamed the building for himself in 1957, Hankins said.

Other facts about the building: It was famous in the 1920s because it was the headquarters of Island Creek Coal Company, Hankins said. It also at one point in time, housed Lumberman’s Insurance Company. Some early photographs of the building show letters spelling out the business’s name in the windows — one letter per window, Hankins said.

After Island Creek scaled down, it rented space to Ensign Electric Co., which actually had a manufacturing operation up there, Hankins said.

In the 1950s, the building was sold to the C&O Railway, Hankins said. “They took over the building and moved their entire engineering department from Richmond, Va., to Huntington.”

From 1957 to 1977, the Chafin Building, as it was called then, was owned by the C&O Railway. In the lobby was Stonewall Jackson Life Insurance Company, another famous company founded in Huntington that went bankrupt, Hankins said.

In 1977, C&O sold the Chafin Building to Stanley Prizer, a famous trial lawyer in West Virginia, and a partner of his. 

“They had it from 1977 to 1997, and I bought it in 1997,” Hankins said. 

After Hankins bought the building, he was approached by Sterling Hall, the grandson of Sterling Diddle, who wanted to form a new bank and had obtained the right to use the name “Guaranty Bank and Trust Co.,” even though this new bank was completely unrelated to the first Guaranty Bank. 

So Hankins renamed the building after Guaranty Bank. Now, another name change is in the works, after Guaranty Bank merged with First Sentry in September 2009 and is now First Sentry Bank. 

Today the ground floor of the building is a banking drive-through for First Sentry Bank. 

“They’ll continue to be a tenant for the drive-through bank, but they don’t have walk-in transactions,” Hankins said. “We’re going to do some improvements to the drive-through to give them new access off 9th Street.

“We don’t know what we’re going to do namewise,” Hankins said. “There’s no reason to call it the Guaranty Bank Building if that bank is gone, but a bank is still there. We’re working on that now.”

Guaranty Bank had occupied both the first and second floor of the structure, and vacated the second floor after the merger.

The second floor will now be home to a law firm from Richmond, Va., that is opening a regional office in Huntington, Hankins said. The firm is Setliff Turner & Holland. 

Campbell Woods, LLC, occupies eighth, ninth and 10th floors. Lawyer Jack Laishley has an office in the lobby.

Floors three through seven are being remodeled as office spaces.

Hankins has remodeled and expanded the penthouse that Chafin built in 1947. He lives there with his wife, Mitzie.

He also has renovated the basement over the past 10 years. It “was absolute derelict — 100 years of accumulative junk,” Hankins said. “After hauling 50 truckloads, we rebuilt the basement like the Taj Mahal. “It’s now a fitness center and has locker rooms, with men’s and women’s showers and sauna baths. It also has a lunch cafeteria with vending machines.

“You could almost live there,” he said.