By Bill O’Boyle, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — A Philadelphia-area architectural design and preservation firm has begun a detailed assessment of the century-old Irem Temple building on North Franklin Street.
Justin Detwiler, senior project designer for John Milner Architects in Chadds Ford, said he and a crew will be at the site through Friday to conduct a conditions assessment and feasibility study. Detwiler hopes to have his report completed by the fall, and it will include the cost estimate to repair the historic structure, which opened in 1908 and has been closed since at least the mid-1990s.
The building is owned by the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce.
“It will be expensive,” Detwiler said about the restoration price tag. “But it is well worth the cost and effort.”
Detwiler, who grew up in Kingston and moved to Philadelphia after college, said the study will determine the condition of the building, how deteriorated it is, and identify any major concerns.
He said a structural engineer is part of the crew, along with architects, an environmental expert and a roofing consultant.
“There are definitely a lot of issues with the building,” said Detwiler. “But I believe the building can and will be saved. Hopefully, our findings will support that.”
Detwiler said his preliminary examination of the building hasn’t determined “anything that’s frightening,” but his company is still figuring everything out.
“Can it be saved? I say probably yes it can.”
Christian Wielage, CEO of business budgeting software company PlanGuru and owner of Harvey Guitars on Public Square, said that by restoring the Irem Temple, jobs would be created to help boost the economy and increase tourism. He said restoration could be the first step in tapping into local history as a source of shared prosperity.
Wielage is leading the fundraising effort — the Irem Temple Restoration Project — to pay for the study and to restore the building. He said about $65,000 of the $100,000 goal for the study has been raised to date.
Detwiler said his company has extensive experience in restoring historic buildings throughout the United States. He said the Irem Temple building, distinguishable by its four minarets and a stained glass dome, is extremely rare. He added it’s one of the best Moorish revival buildings he has ever seen.
“It’s extremely unique,” Detwiler said. “There are very few examples of this style of architecture in the country.”
In addition to his group completing the assessment and feasibility study, Detwiler said the building will be secured to assure it doesn’t deteriorate further. He said it’s clear that homeless people have been using the building as a refuge. He also said a lot of the metal and hardware has been stolen from inside over the years.
Documentary being filmed
Jonathan Edwards, of Contention Media on Old River Road in Wilkes-Barre, is filming a documentary on the temple, its history and the restoration.
Edwards said he has made the Irem Temple his pet project, and he wants to see the building saved. Wielage, meanwhile, said the people behind the Irem Temple Restoration Project are “very excited” about the study.
“The ITRP and the Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce have been working hard behind the scenes for the past four months to finely tune the scope of this analysis,” he said. “Provided this analysis does not find an anomalous structural failure, we will have a clear road map to restoring the Irem Temple building and making it a centerpiece for the community.”
Wielage said the project is dear to Detwiler — three generations of his family have been Shriners, and his father, Paul Detwiler, is a past-Potentate of the Irem Shrine.
“As a child I attended concerts, band rehearsals with my father and grandfather, and craft shows in the lower level with my mother and grandmothers,” Detwiler recalled. “My love of historic structures began as a child studying this building and the rich architectural heritage of the Wyoming Valley. I have spent my architectural career restoring historic buildings, and I’m thrilled to be able to help save this irreplaceable landmark.”
Wielage said a consensus emerged in the community over how the temple should be re-purposed.
“By removing the seats and flattening the floor, we will turn the main auditorium into a multi-use event space, from concerts to weddings to farmers markets,” Wielage said.
He said that with 20,000 square feet of usable space outside the auditorium, his team hopes to create a museum dedicated to the history of the Wyoming Valley. Above the floodplain, the upper floors would display local artifacts currently in storage. The basement would be transformed into a 21st-century interactive learning experience.