Published: Sunday, March 24, 2002

Section: NEWS

Page: 1B


LOOKBACK: VANISHING HISTORY WILKES-BARRE - Some towns, including Jim Thorpe, Peddler's Village and New Hope, savor their past and use historic buildings to attract shoppers and visitors.

Much of Wilkes-Barre's history, on the other hand, has been lost to the wrecking ball.

Century-old buildings that survived two major floods have been systematically razed in the name of urban renewal - a concept initiated during the early 1960s as the Model Cities program, but pushed especially hard after the 1972 Agnes Flood.

``Urban renewal failed in 1972. Why are we doing it in 2002?'' asked Larry Newman, president of the Luzerne County Historical Society. '

Although Mayor Tom McGroarty isn't the first city official to tear down these buildings, he's more than carried on the tradition.

Since taking office in 1996, McGroarty has had 13 nearly century-old center-city buildings razed, said Newman. The mayor intends to demolish at least four more to make way for an office building at South Main and East Northampton streets.

Newman and other city civic leaders say the mayor has no real plans for the site. They prefer to save the historic structures.

``We don't believe there is a project needing that space within a short period of time,'' said Todd Vonderheid, vice president at the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business and Industry. ``We should all, as active partners, take a step back and review the properties to the community and ask (about) the potential reuse options to the buildings and the site.

``Demolition precludes reuse.''

Former Mayor Lee Namey started buying up stores along the first block of South Main Street before he left office in December 1995. Most were viable businesses, Vonderheid said. He said the initial intent was to refurbish and reuse the stores to attract people to shop downtown.

Some have since been razed; others stand vacant, or are still liquidating merchandise.

Historic buildings have disappeared from city streets since at least the 1930s. Not all have been the victims of the wrecking ball.

For instance, the Pickering house on South Main Street, which was thought to be the oldest home in Northeastern Pennsylvania, was dismantled in 1931. It was supposed to be reconstructed in Kirby Park. Newman said nobody knows what happened to the pieces.

The house was erected in 1787 by Col. Timothy Pickering, who was the Quartermaster General during the Revolution.

Pickering was the first prothonotary of Luzerne County and its representative during the Constitutional Convention of 1790, according to Times Leader records.

In 1791, Pickering was appointed Postmaster General of the United States by President George Washington. Pickering also was the Secretary of War and Secretary of State.

The dismantling of Pickering's house was an anomaly, as most properties that have vanished were demolished because of flood damage or in the name of urban renewal.

Three decades after the Pickering house was dismantled, the city razed GAR Memorial Hall to make way for the Park N Lock South parking garage. GAR Memorial Hall was built in the 1880s. The landmark housed, among other artifacts, Gen. Robert E. Lee's epaulets.

In the 1930s, the local GAR, a veterans group, gave up the building and it became, at various times, a movie theater and union headquarters.

A Times Leader article in 1968 said the building was being ``destroyed to make room for the rapidly expanding second block of South Main Street, another symbol of the economic renaissance of Wyoming Valley.''

Most of the parking garage is empty, as the city leased the majority of the parking spaces to a nearby business that doesn't use half the allocated spots.

More recently, McGroarty had numerous century-old buildings razed for a movie theater and parking garage project, and a proposed transportation center. Little has been done on the transportation center and the theater is on hold because of litigation.

McGroarty received permission from the state Historical and Museum Commission to demolish the International Ladies Garment Workers Union Building on South Washington Street to make way for the theater/parking garage last year. McGroarty had to have two historic terra cotta panels removed and preserved before it could be razed, the

commission ruled.

The mayor will only say the panels are stored in a safe place.

In January 2002, McGroarty had the McCormick Building, also on South Washington Street, taken down for the theater project. The commission didn't have a chance to survey the 100-year-old structure to see if it should be included in the National Registry of Historic Places, because it was never notified the building was going to be razed.

The demolition of viable old buildings flies in the face of the wishes of some residents and city business owners - who last year said they want to preserve the historic nature of Wilkes-Barre.

It also goes against a historical sites survey of the city by the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society of Wilkes-Barre, predecessor to the county historical society, that was completed in 1979, seven years after the Agnes Flood.

``Although the tragedy and loss to personal and real property was enormous, the flood was looked upon by many as a chance for a dying city to revitalize,'' the report introduction stated.

``The Federal Government made huge sums of money readily available for urban renewal projects directed toward flood recovery. ... Historic preservation has played practically no role in these revitalization programs.''

Nevertheless, in 1978, a historic sites survey was initiated in the city to ``identify and inventory the city's man-made or built environment and to identify those buildings, structures, sites, and districts in Wilkes-Barre which appear to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.''

The survey included maps and photographs to help promote Wilkes-Barre's ``architectural heritage for tourist and preservation purposes,'' the report states.

It suggested the city restore and maintain what it could.

McGroarty did not return numerous requests for comment on the disappearance of historic city buildings throughout the decades.

Jolyn Resnick, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 829-7210.

Times Leader copy editor Tom Mooney contributed to this report.

PULL QUOTE BY GAR PHOTO: A Times Leader article in 1968 said (GAR Memorial Hall) was being ``destroyed to make room for the rapidly expanding second block of South Main Street, another symbol of the economic renaissance of Wyoming Valley.''

From the Collection of the Luzerne County Historical Society

The Pickering House, which once stood on South Main Street, was dismantled in 1931 and was to be reconstructed in Kirby Park. But the pieces of the 1787 building have since vanished.

Times Leader File Photo

These decorative panels once graced the International Ladies Garment Workers Union Building on North Washington Street. They were conserved - on the orders of the state Historical and Museum Commission - when the building was demolished last year. City officials say they're stored in a safe, undisclosed place.

Times Leader File Photo

The International Ladies Garment Workers Union Building was one of 13 nearly century-old buildings demolished in the city since 1996.


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