Last-ditch effort to save the Irem Temple building begins

i May 6th 2016

By Bill O’Boyle, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

WILKES-BARRE — This could be the last chance to repair, preserve and restore the 109-year-old Irem Temple on North Franklin Street.

According to Christian Wielage, the Irem Temple Restoration and Preservation Fund has been launched at the Luzerne Foundation. Charles Barber, president/CEO of the foundation, said a grassroots group is striving to preserve the historic building so it does not go the way of the demolished Hotel Sterling.

Wielage is spearheading the campaign. The 36-year-old lives in White Plains, New York, and Dallas and said his second great-grandfather, William Jameson Harvey, was a Shriner who was around when ground for the building was broken. The CEO of Plan Guru, a business budgeting, forecasting and performance review software company, Wielage owns Harvey Guitars on Public Square.

On the project’s Facebook page — Irem Temple Restoration Project — it states, “An initiative is currently underway to stabilize, and eventually restore the famous Irem Temple located in downtown Wilkes-Barre.”

The message on the site says the building is in dire need of funding to secure it — that break-ins and thefts have been regular occurrences.

Joe Boylan, vice president/economic development of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce, which owns the building, said the chamber has endorsed the fundraising project.

Boylan said a request for proposals (RFP) will be made May 19, requesting firms to respond with proposals to stabilize and secure the Irem Temple. Responses will be due within 45 days, Boylan said.

“We applaud this group for taking a proactive approach in trying to find a solution for the building,” Boylan said.

Weilage said Wilkes-Barre has a lot of economic advantages and needs to leverage its assets. He said the Irem Temple project could help drive economic activity.

“The first step is to get proposals to secure and stabilize the building,” he said. “That work alone will have a price tag on it. I can’t speculate on what it will cost.”

Moving forward, he said his group hopes to raise money from multiple sources. The Facebook page, he noted, already had 1,452 “likes” as of Thursday morning. He intends to discuss the project with area universities, philanthropists, foundations and state and federal elected officials.

Wielage said once the building is repaired and stabilized, the focus will shift to renovating it.

“We plan to take out the seats and return the floor to its original flat configuration,” he said. “That would allow it to accommodate dinners and performances. But really, we are open to all ideas on how to re-purpose the building. However, this is what we see as the most viable plan to make it a multi-use venue.”

Wielage said as long as the total cost is “not astronomical,” he feels the project is realistic. But, he said, the cost could reach into the millions of dollars.

“Clearly, there needs to be some rather large donations,” he said.

Wielage said Wilkes-Barre City Councilman and historian Tony Brooks and businessman Joe Nardone Jr., who has experience/expertise in concert promotion, have agreed to be a part of the planning group.

Brooks said he has been an advocate of historic preservation for more than a decade.

“I truly believe that architecture is a direct and substantial representation of history and place,” Brooks said. “I want to add my voice to preserving those historic structures like the Irem Temple, so that we are able to share the very structures and spaces that generations before have lived.”

At the same time, Brooks said projects like the Irem Temple also preserve the visible and tangible cultural identity of Wilkes-Barre.

“And this particular building is unique not just to Wilkes-Barre, but to America,” Brooks said.

Barber said it will take a public/private partnership to move the project forward.

“The Luzerne Foundation is honored to help with this last-ditch effort to preserve this great architecture, which is one of the last of its type in the country,” Barber said. “And this time, the charge is being led by members of a younger generation in the community. The key people involved are millennials, and they truly care about this project.”

About Irem Temple

• It has been acclaimed as one of the nation’s most significant examples of Moorish Revival architecture.

• It once operated as a 1,500-seat opera house and a home for stage and screen events.

• The Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce purchased the building in 2005 for just under $1 million.

• It has been dormant since the mid 1990s and vacant for the last 11 years.

• It would take millions — estimated as much as $15 million — to restore the building, according to the most recent analysis performed for the chamber.

How to donate

To donate, go to the Luzerne Foundation website at www.luzfdn.org; click on Irem Temple.

Or send a check payable to Luzerne Foundation, with a notation for Irem Temple Restoration Project, to:

140 Main St., Luzerne, PA 18709.

Call 570-714-1570, for more information.