Looking Back at the United Carbon Building

The United Carbon Building now goes by the name Boulevard Tower. It also has been called the Stanlev Building and the Nelson Building. Regardless of the name, 1018 Kanawha Boulevard East is an architectural gem in downtown Charleston. Built in the Art Moderne style in 1941, it was described by the Charleston Gazette on its opening day as a “streamlined landmark of a greater Charleston.”

    As office buildings go, the United Carbon/Boulevard Tower building has a relatively small footprint. The site for the building, purchased from the George Washington Life Insurance Company in December 1939, is a narrow lot fronting the newly-constructed boulevard on the Kanawha River. The 12-story building was commissioned that year as the national headquarters for the United Carbon Company, which occupied the top four floors until 1950.

    Oscar Nelson, president of the United Carbon Company, commissioned architect Walter F. Martens to design the company’s international headquarters. United Carbon dealt in carbon black, a black pigment used in the manufacture of printer’s ink, rubber, black and gray paint and enamel, and other products such as phonograph records, carbon paper, crayons, and typewriter ribbons. Carbon black is a hydrocarbon – the soot of natural gas and is produced through the incomplete combustion of a natural gas flame against a metal surface.

   The sidewalks surrounding the building were originally constructed of a special mix of concrete combined with a pigment of carbon black, which served to complement the building’s color scheme and reduced glare. Sadly, the original sidewalks have since been replaced with a standard concrete mix.

    Designed by father and son architects Walter F. Martens and Robert E. Martens, the materials for the exterior were based on the United Carbon Company’s corporate color scheme of black and gold. The brick veneer of the upper floors has a golden tone, with windows set in black steel sashes. The ground floor is clad in Minnesota black granite and Virginia alberene stone.

    The 12-story edifice rises 157 feet from the sidewalk to the penthouse, which served as the office of the building’s owner Oscar Nelson. The steel frame structure is supported by 315 concrete piles driven 48 feet below street level. The southeast corner of the building is rounded, with an inset portico on the first floor serving as the principal entrance. Inset in the polished granite walls of the entrance are seven reliefs in bronze depicting the industrial processes of producing carbon black. 

    The corner of the portico features a bronze statue which bears the inscription, “From the Fullness of the Earth.” The figure and bronze reliefs were sculpted by one of the designing architects Robert E. Martens. Martens explained that the figure “represents a workman, not definitely a laborer, nor a chemist, nor an office man. A figure of vision but also a man who by sweat and toil is taking the ingredients from the earth and processing them into useful finished products.” Martens added that he was “inspired, too, by Oscar Nelson . . . who as a youth came to this country with ambition and determination, but above all with a broad vision and a courageous faith.”

    The lobby walls are faced in polished black Belgian marble, while the floors are black and gold terrazzo. The elevator doors, mail box and concession stand are bronze and are strongly Art Moderne in style. The interior stairway boasts a functional yet elegant design. The building, through timeless design, continues to serve as a premier downtown address to many Charleston tenants.

    The unassuming United Carbon Building is a significant landmark on many levels. It represents the accomplishments of one man, Oscar Nelson, who built a successful industrial corporation from the ground up. A replica of the building’s form stands as his burial stone in the Sunset Memorial Gardens of Spring Hill.

    Walter F. Martens was a proliferate architect, designing many buildings in the Kanawha Valley.

Next month Looking Back visits one of his designs,
the Executive Mansion of the West Virginia Capitol complex.