Our view: Historic Irem Temple worth saving

August 10th, 2017 6:11 pm

The list of buildings Luzerne County didn’t save is getting as long as the county’s history of immigrant settlement. Some were more historic for their place in a moment than for long service in important roles (i.e. the Fell Tavern). Others had more impressive internal decor than outward appearance (Hotel Sterling). A few were about industrial heritage (Huber Breaker), and many had more sentimental value than architectural.

But if there is any threatened building still standing that deserves saving the most, it surely is the Irem Temple.

It is an outstanding architectural gem, inside and out. It is a wholly distinctive addition to Wilkes-Barre’s skyline, and it can be easily argued that it is the most distinct county-wide.

Indeed, in a January Times Leader article, Wilkes-Barre Preservation Society Chairman and all around history hound Tony Brooks said the Moorish-style architecture is unlike any other shrine auditorium in the country.

“It is a unique gem of all of America, not just Wilkes-Barre,” Brooks said.

It has a rich history of offering entertainment, hosting dances, parties and social events from weddings to graduations and more.

The building hit the spotlight again this week with news that a Philadelphia architectural design and preservation firm is scrutinizing the edifice, with a structural engineer in the mix, to get a full picture of what is wrong, what is right, and what salvation will cost.

It is, of course, that last one that has prevented the building’s restoration. The reality was put in simple terms by Justin Detwiler, senior project designer for John Milliner Architects: “It will be expensive,” he conceded, “but it will be well worth the cost and effort.”

Of that, let there be little doubt. A properly restored Irem Temple building could easily become an unrivaled venue for a variety of events. It need not compete with other options, most notably the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts a short distance away.

But it is so striking in appearance and decor — even in its deteriorated state — that one can readily envision it being a destination location, a place people would come to see regardless of what’s going on inside, a building event organizers would seek out for use precisely because it would increase the draw of any show, celebration or ceremony they staged.

Yes, limited preservation would be better than none — a use by King’s College has been floated in the past, as well as a limited preservation that would raze chunks of the building while keeping the architectural essence. But this is a building undeserving of half measures or renovation restrictions.

A preliminary review left Detwiler cautiously optimistic.

“Can it be saved? I say probably yes.”

But barring the discovery of some catastrophic structural flaw during this inspection, the answer should not include the word “probably.”

If the city, county and state cannot find the will and dollars to preserve and restore this icon, we are a sad people indeed.