Taking stock of what’s been lost

June 9th, 2015 10:28 pm

First Posted: 5/6/2014

WILKES-BARRE — The look of the city’s downtown area has undoubtedly changed over the last 100 years.

Some of its buildings over the decades have stood the test of time, such as the Luzerne County Medical Society. The building’s unique circular construction makes it stand out, even if it is tucked away to the rear of South Franklin Street.

Other buildings have not been so lucky.

Tony Brooks, chairman of the Wilkes-Barre Preservation Society, was the host guest speaker for the Downtown Residents’ Association’s monthly meeting on April 21. Held on the second floor of the Henry Student Center at Wilkes University, Brooks’s talk was titled “Lost Architecture of Wilkes-Barre.”

Like the title suggests, Brooks examined 65 houses and other city buildings that have been demolished over the past 100 years. The number represents “only a portion” of the total number of structures in the 16-block area of downtown Wilkes-Barre.

Brooks made the argument for the importance of preservation.

“Will Wilkes-Barre build on its heritage, enhancing the lives of our residents and making our community strong, attractive, vibrant place to live, work and play — or will it, as some fear, continue the patterns of urban decay and unchecked unattractive commercial sprawl? I advocate for the former,” he said.

It was not the first time Brooks has spoken on the topic. He has been conducting architectural walking tours of the downtown for the last 10 years. During those tours, he said, he often describes what was originally built, and he started giving slide show lectures showing how the city has changed over time.

“I give these talks and walking tours because Wilkes-Barre has a rich heritage, and before us lies the future,” he said.

Studying the lost

Brooks reviewed the original dates of construction, names of architects, design styles and the dates of demolition of the buildings in his studies. He also looked at the reasons for the original buildings’ demise, as well as what placed them. He said some were razed due to neglect, while others were done away with “in the name of progress.”

One example he gave was the 1892 Victorian YMCA that was on North Main Street. It was demolished to make way for a new, state-of-the-art Veterans Administration building (now Blue Cross of NEPA) in 1947. Brooks said historic preservation “was not part of the lingo of city leaders at the time.”

Though Brooks’ speech encompassed 100 years, some historic buildings demolished within the past year have left a profound impact. The iconic Hotel Sterling came down last summer, and several historic buildings on South Main Street were demolished in the fall.

John Hepp, a history professor at Wilkes University, called the Sterling’s demise “a great loss” to the downtown. He said the building has largely been synonymous with the city, and the building’s absence removed a critical part of the city’s history.

“Whenever a historic building is lost, one of the things that you lose is the ties to the past that the building created in the community,” Hepp said.

Brooks agreed, saying that whenever a historic structure is lost, the city loses a piece of its “collective soul.”

In the name of progress

As the buildings on South Main Street came crumbling down, The Times Leader spoke with several onlookers. The general consensus was that it was a step toward the future and at the possibility of bringing new business and life to the downtown area that was wonce rich with retail commerce.

Hepp thought it was important to preserve history in some way, whether it be through drawings, photographs or other recollections. He also recognized that if a building was in danger of collapsing, demolition should not be ruled out.

Brooks has a similar viewpoint. He said it is important to consider the natural and man-made resources, as well as the “quality of life that form the context” of existing historical buildings. The desire to keep them relevant has to exist.

“As travel agent who gives tours in Europe, I often hear people say that other countries have a stronger commitment to historic preservation. They will add, ‘Why can’t we have that back home in Wilkes-Barre?’” Brooks said. “My answer is we have to have the resolve.”