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Hotel began as Valley’s ‘place to be’

Last updated: March 04. 2013 12:12PM - 2076 Views
Tom Mooney for the Times Leade



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When the Hotel Sterling opened for business on Aug. 14, 1898, the first guests in the door experienced the biggest, most luxurious hotel Wilkes-Barre had ever seen.
Named for businessman and investor Walter G. Sterling, the new inn was seven stories tall and had a spacious, columned lobby designed to evoke comparisons with the great metropolitan hotels all over America.
The new building was an almost inevitable expression of the growing wealth and confidence of the city. The coal industry, upon which the whole area’s economy was based, was booming and was pulling railroading, manufacturing and other industries along with it.
Wilkes-Barre’s population was on a sharp rise, and by 1900 census figures would register a staggering growth from 37,000 in 1890 to 51,000. It was, in the words of the Wilkes-Barre Record newspaper, “a beautiful, wealthy and growing city.” By the new century, Luzerne County’s population would be near double that of just 20 years earlier.
Important features of the downtown were the Lehigh Valley and Central of New Jersey railroad stations, just off East Market Street, where hundreds of people daily disembarked in or departed from the city. That and general urban growth of the post-Civil War years was spawning more and larger hotels, generally close to those stations and readily accessible from the West Side.
The site of the Sterling, a large plot on the northeast corner of North River and West Market streets, had long been prime real estate. In 1871 it had become the site of the Music Hall, a large theater that featured the latest plays and musical comedy. But with its proximity to the downtown and the rail stations, the land was even more useful for a hotel.
The stockholders had grand plans for their new mega-inn. But apparently they were displeased by the design submitted by architect J.H.W. Hawkins, which made it look like something rising out of the European countryside. “The hotel was planned as a brick Victorian Chateau whose high roof would have risen in two tall peaks, covered with several rows of gabled dormers,” write Vito J. Sgromo and Michael Lewis in “Wilkes-Barre Architecture: 1860-1960.”
Eventually, though, they tamed Hawkins’ design down to something simpler and more urban modern, a flat-sided, flat-roofed structure that looked to the future rather than the past. Whatever its style, guests quickly saw it as a worthy successor to the city’s previous luxury hotel – the aging wooden Wyoming Valley House with its long porches, just a few doors down South River Street.
The opening itself was a major public event. Said the Record newspaper, “From early in the afternoon to late last night a steady stream of persons passed in the Market Street entrance.”
Within the next decade or so, competitors arose. The Hotel Hart and the Redington (even taller than the Sterling), facing each other across East Market Street near the rail stations. Even the smaller new hotels, Rader’s on South Main Street and the Brewery Hotel on East Market Street, began to look modern and imposing. The era in which “hotel” in Wilkes-Barre meant a wooden building with a few rooms was over.
The Sterling, with its ornate lobby suggesting big-city sophistication and its large dining and banquet rooms, didn’t take long to become an area institution where people went to splurge and be pampered..
The owners employed Oppenheim’s String Orchestra to entertain dinner guests in its restaurant, known after 1911 as “The Palm Room.” Wrote Harrison Smith, “A famous New York chef prepared such delicacies as ‘high-flavored and well-dressed oysters, mince pie or plum pudding…and wine-cured cheeses.’”
Staying at the Sterling was, for the time, pricy. The hotel advertised 200 bed chambers and parlors and 125 baths at $1.50 and $3 a day.
The building was a beehive of activity. Well into the 20th century the Sterling’s public rooms were packed with meetings, conventions and banquets, and at all times it tried to maintain an air of upscale sophistication. The menu for a 1916 testimonial dinner for a Luzerne County judge included blue point oysters, broiled St. John’s River shad, roast milk-fed squab chicken, Roquefort cheese and – befitting a gathering of important men – coffee and cigars. The owners broadened their menu a few years later when they hired a Chinese chef to add Asian cuisine.
Wyoming Valley enjoyed a prosperous time in the 1920s. “For whatever its problem, the anthracite-based economy provided employment for a large segment of the male work force,” writes Sheldon Spear in “Wyoming Valley History Revisited.” “Educational opportunities were expanding, and the area, together with the rest of the nation, experienced a housing boom. And what is today called infrastructure – bridges, streets, sewers, and the like – improved substantially.”
Along with business and wealth, population began to grow. Wilkes-Barre was well on its way to a 1930 census of more than 86,000 people, more than double its current size, and the county would have more than 450,000.
The key player in the Hotel Sterling had come to be Homer Mallow, who had come to be president and majority stockholder in 1920, and the hotel for a time was known as the Mallow-Sterling. In the 1920s, plans were laid for a major expansion. The owners built a huge 14-story addition along West Market Street and connected them via the small former Plaza Hotel, between the two parts of the Sterling, which they had already purchased.
The result was something still grander than the original Sterling. Running from the lobby to the elevators of the new tower was a broad hallway called “Peacock Alley,” in imitation of New York City’s famed Waldorf-Astoria, where guests could strut in their finery on the way to or from dinner. Fine paintings and sculptures scattered throughout the public areas created a sense of big-city sophistication.
The elegance, however, would soon begin to seem antiquated. By the time the “new” Sterling was ready to roll, the Great Depression had set in, and hotels all over America were seeing fewer guests walk through their doors and fewer organizations schedule banquets.
So it was that in 1936 a financially troubled Sterling went into receivership. One of the trustees, construction magnate and former state Senator Andrew J. Sordoni, formed a new corporation and became the Sterling’s owner. Mallow remained in a lesser capacity.
From the late 1930s on, the Sterling was one of a group of area hotels owned by Sordoni’s company, and although it remained the area’s largest hotel it took on yet another personality – less upscale and more community-oriented.
The banquet rooms were still popular venues for meetings and dinners. The main dining room helped pioneer the “smorgasbord” (now known as “buffet”) concept to local diners. The huge Christmas tree in the lobby, decorated by guests and friends, was an annual communal event. Employees made up a “Sterling Chorus” that offered entertainments in the hotel and at other sites. During World War II, the hotel dedicated the “American Room,” with eight huge patriotic murals.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Sterling, though, was the huge neon sign atop the hotel, installed in 1939. With 10-foot-high letters, it spelled out “Hotel Sterling” and was visible all over Wyoming Valley. A penthouse on top of the tower provided Sordoni, who lived in the Back Mountain, with a home downtown.
While a 1941 strike by employees over wages forced the hotel to close for a week, the Sterling continued as the area’s biggest and most famous hotel.
By the second half of the 20th century, the area’s hotel scene had changed considerably. Compared to earlier years, the area’s population was declining and the old businesses that had powered the economy – coal, railroading, factories – were gone or stagnant. As federal redevelopment projects took hold, the entire face of Wilkes-Barre’s downtown changed. Even some of the Sterling’s old competitors, like the Hart, fell victim to the wrecker’s ball.
In the 1960s, the Sterling was renting out much of the 1898 building to King’s College for dormitory space, and by the 1980s the tower had become a low-cost residential hotel. After the Sordoni interests left the scene, the Sterling went through a variety of owners – and even one short-lived name change, to the “Sterling Inn Towne.” In the 1980s, owners announced a plan to turn the structure into condominiums and even began accepting deposits. But the project never came to fruition. City health authorities eventually ordered all people living in the hotel to leave.
By the turn of the century, a hundred years after construction of the original part of the Sterling, the structure was vacant.
A nonprofit developer, CityVest, then took over the property with a plan to redevelop the site. With a budget of $6 million in Luzerne County money, it tore down the 14-story tower and the connector building as well as other nearby buildings.
But no developer for the 1898 building, the original Sterling, ever turned up. As of 2011, CityVest was seeking permission to demolish that building and market the entire site as a vacant plot of land.
After well over a century, the name “Sterling” had passed into history.
W-B hotels history
1788: The Sign of the Buck, later known as the Old Fell House, East Northampton and South Washington streets. It was maintained by Jesse Fell, who developed a grate that would burn anthracite coal, making possible the development of the anthracite industry.
1831: The Phoenix Hotel, on South River Street near West Market. At four stories, it was the area’s first large hotel. It was torn down to make way for the Wyoming Valley House.
1866: The Wyoming Valley House, on South River Street near West Market Street. It gained prominence as the area’s largest and most luxurious hotel and retained that reputation until the Sterling was built. It was torn down early in the 20th century.
Late 1800s: The Exchange Hotel opens on Public Square. It will be succeeded by the Fort Durkee Hotel. It will be torn down and the site redeveloped in the late 20th century.
1898: The Hotel Sterling, at West Market and North River streets. It quickly supplanted the Wyoming Valley House for size and luxury and endured until the late 20th century.
1906: The Redington Hotel, on East Market Street and South Pennsylvania Avenue. It was the area’s tallest hotel until the 1930s. It is now part of the Genetti Best Western complex.
Early 20th century: The Hotel Hart, on East Market Street, near North Pennsylvania Avenue. It was demolished in the 1970s during redevelopment of the city’s downtown.
Mid-20th century: The Host Motel, on Kidder Street. It was one of the local pioneers of the motel concept once the era of the downtown hotel began to diminish. It was later torn down and the site redeveloped.
The building was a beehive of activity. Well into the 20th century the Sterling’s public rooms were packed with meetings, conventions and banquets, and at all times it tried to maintain an air of upscale sophistication.

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