WILKES-BARRE — Checking in?
Today, it’s as easy as going online and finding a deal near a location you want to visit.
But the area’s hotel scene in times past was dramatically different. Choices of location and amenities changed over the years as the nature and the mode of travel changed.
Wilkes-Barre alone once had several hotels from which the business or pleasure traveler could choose.
With King’s College’s recent acquisition of the former Ramada Hotel on the Square for use as a new base for its physicians assistant program, the hotel choice in the downtown is down to just one: Genetti’s.
Hotels and their predecessors in the area flourished first in the 18th and early 19th centuries as havens for working people.
John Hepp, history professor at Wilkes University, said hotels in the past would have been used primarily by traveling businessmen.
“You had these people who just traveled from city to city and region to region on a certain cycle, and that’s how business was conducted,” he said. “Any town of any importance had to have a place where you could stay overnight.”
Before hotels came along, Hepp said, taverns would have served as lodging facilities when the city was still a lumbering town. Taverns laid the groundwork for what would eventually become to be known as hotels, and the amenities were scarce.
The Sign of the Buck was a tavern that was in the area in the late 1700s. Located on East Northampton and South Washington streets, it would be later known as the Old Fell House. The establishment is best known for its manager, Jesse Fell, who famously developed a method to burn anthracite coal on an open air grate, which paved the way for the anthracite coal boom.
Accommodations at places like the Sign of the Buck were pretty basic. Hepp said an early customer who came looking for a place to stay at the taverns would pay a fee, get a blanket and some floor space.
When the tavern closed, customers would find their spot and turned in for the night.
That really changed when tourism became a trend in the 1800s, Hepp said, linked the the growth of the middle class. Nineteenth-century middle-class families might not have been able to afford trips to Europe, but they might take a train into Wilkes-Barre to then go on to Buffalo, N.Y., to see Niagara Falls.
With the growth in tourism came the need to create more places to stay.
Once passengers stepped off the train at the Central Railroad of New Jersey Station downtown, they would have had a few hotels to choose from in relatively close proximity to the train station.
The area saw three hotels in the 1800s — the Phoenix Hotel on South River Street, the Wyoming Valley House also on South River and the Exchange Hotel on the Public Square — that no longer exist today.
The Phoenix was then the area’s first large hotel, standing at four stories. It would eventually be torn down and replaced by the Wyoming Valley House, considered the area’s largest and most luxurious hotel until the Hotel Sterling was built in 1898. The Sterling opened on Aug. 14, 1899, named after businessman Walter G. Sterling.
“Whenever you talk to anybody about hotels, that’s what they talk about,” Hepp said. Political meetings, lodging important out-of-town guests and holding events were some of the Hotel Sterling’s roles.
The seven-story, historical hotel was recently demolished.
The Exchange Hotel and Wyoming Valley House would also be demolished in the 20th century. The Hotel Hart, on East Market Street, was razed during the the redevelopment of the city’s downtown in the 1970s.
The Host Motel on Kidder Street, considered an example of the modern motel concept, met the same fate.
Area hotelier Gus Genetti Jr. can remember a time when the amenities of a hotel were dramatically different than they are today. Genetti owns the Best Western Genetti Hotel in downtown Wilkes-Barre. This year marked the 50th that the Genetti name has graced a downtown hotel.
“There were no TVs, no radios, no alarm clocks,” Genetti said, referring to the hotel of yore. He also said the bathrooms were small and Best Western did not use a reservation system. Instead, customers would have to call in to be directed to a hotel near where they would be traveling.
The hotel would get pay televisions in the 1950s. For a quarter, Genetti said, patrons watch TV for a limited time.
The hotel wouldn’t get hair dryers until 1970s.
Though the local hospitality scene has changed with the development of new lodging places near the shopping area in Wilkes-Barre Township and new accommodates in Plains Township, including the new large structure at the Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, Genetti is confident that his hotel will continue to succeed.
Genetti said the hotel has three things going for it. Customers are being referred by the Ramada Hotel management, and his hotel is finishing $2 million in renovations. As a result, it got an additional diamond in itsr AAA Diamond Rating, making the hotel a Best Western Plus.
The third, “largest” factor was that the Best Western on East Mountain will soon become a Holiday Inn, making Genetti’s hotel the only Best Western in town.
“We’re not the last hotel,” Genetti said. “I’m thinking it’s the best hotel in town,”