Groups want historic South Main Street facades included in WB redevelopment project

i May 15th 2020

By Jerry Lynott, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

WILKES-BARRE — There’s a few ways to save face when it comes to historical preservation and two groups in the city want to know what’s going to happen to the facades of a couple buildings standing in the way of a downtown project.

Sphere International LLC recently pulled a permit to begin demolition of the Frank Clark Jeweler and half of the Engel Building for the long-awaited hotel the developer proposed for the corner of South Main and West Northampton streets.

But work isn’t expected to begin until after a meeting between Sphere, based in Flemington, New Jersey, and representatives of the Diamond City Partnership and Downtown Residents’ Association.

During Wilkes-Barre City Council’s work session Thursday, Vice Chairman Tony Brooks, who also is director of the Wilkes-Barré Preservation Society, brought up the meeting and said he would provide an update.

“Those two groups want to put up money to help save the buildings and have them in some way incorporated into the structure, whether it’s the facade or saving them completely,” Brooks said.

The jeweler’s building dates back to 1913 and is the younger of the two, architecturally speaking, and stands out for its marble and brass, Brooks noted. “Frank Clark is the absolute last retail building of its kind,” he said.

The Engel Building goes back even further, to 1892, with its facade partially hidden behind a false front, Brooks said.

The groups have put up money and a $35,000 Facade Grant, offered by the Diamond City Partnership back in 2013 after the city razed adjacent properties it owned that were about to fall down, is still available, said Larry Newman, executive director of the downtown revitalization organization.

Sphere should know about it because the grant, that has to be matched dollar for dollar, applies specifically to the Engel Building at 67-69 S. Main St. Sphere owns the 69 S. Main St. half of the building. It was among the six parcels the city sold to the developer in 2016 for $500,000. Sphere also purchased the Frank Clark building 63 S. Main St. for $265,000 that year from Ken Pollock Inc.

The other half of the Engel Building at 67 S. Main St. was home to the Place 1 at the Hollywood, a women’s clothing store. It’s not part of the Sphere project because the developer and the property owner could not come to an agreement on sale.

Whether the developer plans to apply for the grant is unknown at this point, Newman said. What Sphere intends to do with facades also isn’t known, he said, although there was a stated commitment when the project was announced in October 2015 to attempt save the buildings and incorporate them into the project.

“Like everyone else, we’re eager to learn what they plan to do,” Newman said.

A message left for attorney John Dean, who represents Sphere, was not returned Friday.

Neither the DCP nor the DRA has wavered on its position of, at minimum, preserving the facades.

“We committed some money to it years ago,” said Joel Zitofsky, a DRA member.

“To lose it, number one, would be a big loss,” Zitofsky said, adding the DRA is prepared to put up a fight.

Preserving what remains of the city’s historic architecture is important not only to distinguish Wilkes-Barre from other places but also as a selling point, Zitofsky and Newman said.

“From an economic standpoint, the differentiated product commands a premium,” said Newman, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture.

The proposed $28 million, 10-story mixed-used project included retail, lodging and banquet and residential components and would add to the skyline of the city. A rendering of the project is posted on the website, http://splventures.org/, under “Future Projects/Ventures.”

The rendering served as Newman’s reference point for Sphere’s plan. There are a number of different options to include the facades for the historic buildings, he said.

The facades can be dismantled piece-by-piece and reassembled in the new structure, Newman said. Another option is to keep the buildings partially intact and connect them to the new construction, he added.

There’s also what architects call a “facadectomy,” that entails bracing the walls behind the facade to keep it standing, demolishing that rest and building new construction behind it, Newman said.

“It’s a matter of what makes the sense for the project,” Newman said.

Regardless of the method, preservation is key, he stressed.

“In any other American city these facades would be treasured,” Newman said.

Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.