By Bill O’Boyle, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — At a closing Friday afternoon, the Greater Wilkes-Barre Partnership’s Wilkes-Barre Development Corp. officially transferred ownership of the Irem Temple building on North Franklin Street to the Irem Temple Restoration Project.
The “price” for the transfer was $1, said Christian Wielage, chairman of the restoration committee.
Wico van Genderen, president/chief executive officer at the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber, said the Irem Temple represents one of the nation’s most significant examples of Moorish Revival Architecture and has been part of the Wilkes Barre cityscape for over 100 years.
“Essentially vacant since the mid-1990s, the Chamber acquired it in 2005 in an effort to preserve and weatherize it for future efforts to bring it back into the community,” van Genderen said. “Today in full support of the ITRP, we have transferred it to them free and unencumbered, and given them some start-up funding to help them with their plan to restore the building and turn it into a downtown community, arts and heritage museum.”
Van Genderen said the Chamber has been actively working with the Irem Temple Restoration Project in completing a joint structural engineering study with Milner Architects to make sure the Irem was structurally sound.
“In parallel, the ITRP developed a business feasibility plan to bring it back to business and community use,” van Genderen said. “And now, after a two-year effort, the ITRP is ready to begin their restoration efforts.”
Wielage said the restoration project committee is happy to own the building and the restoration can now move forward. He said the ITRP completed its first capital campaign to pay for the feasibility study.
“We can now launch our second capital campaign,” Wielage said.
Wielage said a new part-time executive director will start soon. He said the person is from this area, but currently lives out of town and will soon move back here. He said another part-time staffer will be hired to help ramp up the capital campaign.
“We will soon be arranging meetings with potential donors,” Wielage said. “We have $400,00 in grants available to start work on the building in the coming months to address the most needed repairs.”
Earlier this week, the ITRP received a Local Share Account grant in the amount of $150,000.
Among the executive director’s responsibilities will be organizing and launching a comprehensive strategy for a successful capital campaign, meeting annual fundraising goals, securing new funding opportunities to support long-term sustainability, overseeing all marketing and communications efforts, and ensuring all work meets applicable historical restoration standards.
Construction of the building began in 1907, and it was dedicated in December 1908. It was built to host the rituals, social events and entertainment of the Wilkes-Barre Shriners, a Masonic organization.
The popular and powerful fraternal organization once boasted such magnificent “temples” in cities across America. Many declined as other venues — and forms of entertainment — chipped away at the market for live acts in small- and medium-sized cities.
As previously reported, project members expect the full restoration effort will cost somewhere from $10 million to $15 million.