This old house: W-B preservation group saves city’s oldest home

i Mar 11th 2018

By Bob Kalinowski, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice

WILKES-BARRE — The oldest house in Wilkes-Barre has been saved from the wrecking ball and will be transformed into a historical museum.

The property, built in 1793 and known as the “Butler House,” recently was purchased by the Wilkes-Barre Preservation Society after group members blocked its imminent demolition over the summer.

With bulldozers in the neighborhood on another job, members stood 24-hour guard outside the property at 313 S. River St. until they convinced the owner to halt the planned razing and let them buy the house.

They recently closed on the property for $10,000.

“We knew about the historical significance of this building for a long time. When it came to the point we heard it was going to be torn down, it became a crisis,” said Gordon Williams, chairman of the preservation group. “That’s why we moved the way we moved.”

Houses razed for mansions. Not this one.

This white Connecticut Yankee-style home with green shutters was typical of the houses that once dotted what is now downtown Wilkes-Barre.

It’s the last of its kind.

This one belonged to the descendants of Col. Zebulon Butler, the Revolutionary War soldier who commanded forces in the Battle of Wyoming and also represented the Wyoming Valley when it was part of Connecticut.

As local coal fueled the Industrial Revolution and created millionaires, the homes were razed for the mansions that now make up the River Street Historic District.

The Butler family, which had become one the area’s wealthiest, decided to move this one, however.

The house was originally located at the corner of River and Northampton streets.

After the Civil War, the home was moved to its current location when the Butlers built a mansion.

The home, which has withstood several floods, had been owned by Yarosz-Zaorski Realty since 1990, records show.

It’s been vacant since 2012.

Blocking the bulldozers

Over the summer, several nearby properties were being demolished and the real estate company asked the contractor to knock down 313 S. River St. next, members of the Wilkes-Barre Preservation Society said.

When they heard this, they stood watch round-the-clock outside the property while they tried to contact the owner.

“We walked up and down to make sure those bulldozers didn’t come toward the house,” recalled Linda Joseph, the group’s secretary and treasurer.

Ann Lewis, vice chair of the group and a local real estate agent, soon made contact with the owner. They agreed on a $10,000 sale price and she immediately fronted the money.

“He needed proof we were serious,” Lewis recalled.

In the meantime, the group worked the past few months to incorporate as a 501(3)(c) nonprofit and raise money. A group of 16 downtown residents, the preservation society, the Downtown Residents’ Association and a local chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution combined resources to pay the $10,000 and closing costs.

“The neighborhood raised the money,” said Wilkes-Barre Councilman Tony Brooks, who is director of the preservation society and lives nearby.

Butler house history

Brooks, who will become curator of the planned Butler House museum, said the group was glad to save history.

Zebulon Butler was a leader of the movement of Connecticut settlers to Wilkes-Barre under the Susquehannah Company. He built a log cabin for his family in Wilkes-Barre in 1773.

His son, Gen. Lord Butler, served on the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council following the revolution and personally knew Benjamin Franklin. Lord Butler built the existing house incorporating parts of his father’s log cabin in 1793.

Zebulon Butler’s grandson, Col. John Lord Butler, was an early anthracite coal entrepreneur for which the Butler Mine in Pittston was named.

A great-granddaughter, Sarah Richards Butler, married a Luzerne County judge and moved the home in order to build a mansion following the Civil War.

“Four generations of the Butler family lived in the house on the same plot until 1868 when the house moved from Northampton and South River to Ross and South River,” Brooks explained.

Past is future

Brooks noted the Butler House was documented by the Historic American Building Survey for the Library of Congress in 1939 and the information will be consulted in restoring the house to look like it did in the 1810s — which he said was “the peak time of General Lord Butler’s life.”

“The Butler House is a fine example of New England architecture and was popular in the 18th century until the Civil War,” Brooks said. “Connecticut Yankee settlers brought their architecture with them to Northeastern Pennsylvania.”

The preservation group plans to start fundraising to restore the building and create the museum. They are also seeking Federal and Regency period antiques as furnishings.

“Now the fun begins,” Brooks said.

Want to volunteer? The Wilkes-Barre Preservation Society is seeking volunteers to help restore the Butler House and build a museum. Those interested can call 570-793-3631.