The Hotel Sterling: Five History Lessons

The Hotel Sterling: Five History Lessons

(What is history REALLY telling us?)

Featuring the photography of Dawn Robinson & Stacy Shannon

With Ed Mountjoy of The Forgotten Places of NEPA, who ultimately  gets the last word!

DawnPhoto Credit: Dawn Robinson of Nocturnal Echo Imagery

About a decade or so ago, it was trendy in declining communities to sell people on the notion that historic preservation was the ticket to imparting eternal life. But as the literature of those who try to cheat death has shown us, the bid for immortality can come at a huge price.  While the walking dead may be all the rage in pop culture, no city wants to find itself plagued by zombie buildings, a term being adopted nationwide to describe the disease afflicting places where buildings are difficult to lease, or sell, because they are in physical disrepair, and their owners lack the resources to bring the building up to code .  Unfortunately, using millions of taxpayer dollars that were supposed to be spent on our city’s financial resuscitation, it appears that Wilkes-Barre has created a Zombie Hotel instead. 

The demolition of the once grand Hotel Sterling really only leaves one question–Why?  Why do beautiful things fall to disrepair?  Why did our community allow this place, with such a romanticized past, fall to ruin?  Why did this beloved building turn into a memento mori of Wilkes-Barre’s prosperity?  

StacyPhoto Credit: Stacy Shannon

Every time a historical landmark is left to die, a community is left   to confront failure.  The building failed to live up to expectations, the owners failed to maintain the structure, and  the community leaders failed to create a local market that could sustain successful business development.   Sadly, happy stories of rehabilitation and rescue are few and far between for the majority of places across the nation.  Instead the failure to preserve historic landmarks seems to be serving as the signal of the kind of economic collapse that begins with the start of a zombie building apocalypse in struggling communities nationwide.

Northeastern Pennsylvania’s three largest cities, including Wilkes-Barre, are currently standing on the ledge, looking into the abyss of financial failure.  Decades of arbitration-mandated labor-related costs are rising faster than tax revenues, large numbers of untaxed buildings are owned by nonprofits, and stagnating tax bases are deeply rooting these communities into the same dire financial situation that has contributed to the total collapse of cities like Detroit and Camden. 

Dawn 1

Photo Credit: Dawn Robinson

About a decade ago, Wilkes-Barre’s leaders presented our community with a big plan that was supposed to save it from the same fate facing her two sister cities–Scranton and Hazleton.  This agenda, primarily consisting of historic preservation, was called the “Susquehanna Landing” project.  The plan included a newly renovated Hotel Sterling packed with shiny new residential units.  There would be yet another city parkade built which would somehow become part of the Luzerne County owned, and still vacant, Springbook Water Company, located behind and to the right of the Hotel Sterling.  There would be a museum in the still vacant Sterling Annex building,  which would connect  via some elaborate, elevated walkway system, to some newly built conference center that would somehow be linked to the still vacant Irem Temple, which is currently owned by the Chamber of Commerce. 

What was ultimately missing from this plan was a NEED for all of this redevelopment in the first place.

Hotel Sterling Historical Lesson #1—Create a Need

You construct your vision around a need that already exists.  You don’t attempt to build something that you hope will create one.  When the Hotel Sterling was built, droves of immigrants were motivated to cross the ocean to come to Luzerne County to work in our mining industry.  Coal was King and trains were depositing, and retrieving, large gatherings of business men at the train station on a daily basis.  It was because of this activity, that the Hotel Sterling was actually constructed.  These people needed somewhere to sleep, have meetings and entertain while visiting Wilkes-Barre for business purposes.   We didn’t build it in the hopes that they would come, we HAD to build it because they were already here!  If you don’t have a solid and identifiable need for your Susquehanna Landing-esque “vision of the future”, you have to begin by creating the “need”, not the vision. 

 Dawn 3

Photo Credit: Dawn Robinson

Hotel Sterling Historical Lesson #2—Look to the future, not the past

I am puzzled by the sentimental idea that we are “losing our soul” with the demolition of the Hotel Sterling.  No structure is the “soul” of a community….especially one that was built to cater to the rich and business classes, in a community that was predominately built by the exploitation of the working class.  In fact, it was BECAUSE of the working class that this structure was brought into existence, because the coal miners created the NEED for the Hotel Sterling.  BUT the coal miners, with their dirty clothing and soot covered faces would have surely been turned away if they showed up at the Hotel during the luncheon hour, or for a few beers at the bar on their way home from work.  When it was first built, the Hotel Sterling was strictly a venue constructed for “the 1%” exclusively, unless you happened to work for the Hotel.

Sure, as the place began to decline, it became more community-centric and the average person may have found themselves there, once or twice, for the occasional prom or office Christmas party.  But when we look back upon idealized memories of the Sterling, those usually aren’t the recollections that are looked upon with great historical significance, unless of course, a President or other famous figure happened to be passing by or staying at the Hotel.

Stacy 1Photo Credit: Stacy Shannon

And certainly, no one is looking back fondly at the last years of the building when it was still active, but had declined to the point that its only viable use was as low income housing.  No, this is a venue that historians like to recall with tales of string orchestras and Lobster Thermidor, not financially struggling elderly people existing in a building that was declining around them. 

What about the people who never had the chance to experience the Sterling at all, if it is the “soul” of our community?  What if you live in Wilkes-Barre and came of age AFTER the Hotel Sterling shut its doors forever?  Have those young people existed in a soulless community?  Doesn’t anything that they have grown up experiencing in Wilkes-Barre matter at all?  It’s silly to attach such extreme value to a building. Especially when history has taught us that great economic growth, as well as our future, is often connected to the creation of new buildings full new memories for the up and coming generation.

Dawn 6Photo Credit: Dawn Robinson

Once upon a time, there stood a music hall, where popular plays and musical comedies were performed.  People of that community remembered that venue fondly, sitting at the gateway to Wilkes-Barre.  Then the day arrived when that parcel of real estate seemed far too valuable for such a singular venue, and the music hall was demolished to make room for the Hotel Sterling.  After all, the Hotel was needed to meet the requirements of the growing population and industry that was knocking at the door of Wilkes-Barre. 

People looking towards the future; spend little time dwelling in the outmoded needs of the past.  We need leaders who think about our future!  You never have to mourn the loss of your past, if you are replacing it with a future that is brighter.  Only communities that lack hope for the future, cling so desperately to their “glory days” at all costs!

 

Hotel Sterling Historical Lesson #3—Historical Preservation

as an agenda does not assure a successful redevelopment project

It’s interesting to note that Preservation Pennsylvania, along many other preservation centered organizations, is NOW issuing recommendations about assessing financial feasibility when considering Historical Preservation Projects.   Many see this as a reaction to the failed trend in pushing historic preservation as a redevelopment plan in declining communities, as well as the fact that economic conditions nationwide are signaling an overall decline in America’s financial health.  Historic Preservation of a long-term vacant building is ALWAYS ultimately more expensive than new construction.

 In the publication, “How To Protect and Preserve the Historic Places That Matter to You, Preservation Pennsylvania provides a series of “reality checks” for assessing a project’s financial feasibility, a topic that often goes unmentioned when emotional attachment reigns during community discussions that involve “saving” beloved landmarks.  In fact, those pushing a “preservation agenda” will stop at nothing to see that a building is “saved” in the name of “history”, even if it requires completely stripping EVERYTHING from the structure that contributed to a memorable experience at that location, just for the sake of saving nothing but the shell of a building.  That’s an expensive proposition that will not be economically feasible for building owners and developers to entertain in communities facing financial issues like Wilkes-Barre.   

Stacy 5 Safe

Photo Credit: Stacy Shannon

In a section titled “Reality Check—Know when it’s time to walk away”, Preservation Pennsylvania says “There is no formula that can be used to determine when to call it quits, but if you are honest with yourself, clear on your objectives, and really understand the limitations of your resources, you will know when it is time to congratulate yourself for making the effort, learn from what didn’t work, and walk away.”  

I was recently asked whether or not the Hotel Sterling should have/could have been saved, in an interview for 570 Mine Fire.  Here is a portion of that interview:

“I’m a realist. I believe that the biggest error was in not demolishing the Hotel Sterling sooner. I do not believe that it was ever financially savable, even way back when it was still structurally savable. And both components have to be there in order to create a successful outcome in a preservation attempt. Just because a structure is historical, does not mean that it will result in a successful redevelopment project. I think that when CityVest ran out of their first batch of funding without a developer in sight, that the community should have just congratulated them for their efforts, and called it quits right there. But instead we found a way to find them even more money, despite the fact that developer after developer kept passing the project up for structural reasons.  According to one newspaper report:

“Among the building deficiencies identified by developers: Low ceiling height, compromised views from small windows, an inefficient layout for use as residential or hotel units, unusable space created by the large lobby and atrium, inconsistent floor elevations on the second floor, narrow elevators that don’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, concern that replacement of the floors could risk structural instability of the building because of the way the floors are anchored to the building’s perimeter walls.”– “Sterling’s Fate in County’s Hands”, Times Leader, April 16, 2011

But as a community, we just kept going on this “preservation agenda” relentlessly. Given my short-lived experience as an activist for the building, I see how a fever begins to spread that ultimately builds these building owners up for a success that will never be realized because it is being built upon a false premise.  When I first started asking community leaders about what we could do to save the Sterling, most of them responded with “Tell the owner that you want to rent an apartment or commercial space in the building.” Which I found really weird, because I’m not a business owner and I don’t want to live near Market Street, so when I would push for a different answer or more information, they would tell me that it’s just what you do if you want to save a building.

Knowing that, while reading through old newspaper archives about the preservation project, one quote from the paper really stuck out in my mind:

 “Without any formal marketing, CityVest board members can’t go to any functions in town without somebody expressing interest”, Rogers said.” – “State Ensuring Preservation of Hotel Sterling’s Legacy:  Bureau for Historical Preservation Will OK CityVest’s Progress”, Citizens’ Voice, June 7, 2005

Were these people also being told to falsely tell CityVest representatives that they wanted to live/work in the building? And if so, would CityVest have stopped redevelopment plans sooner if there wasn’t this “false” community buzz about the project that didn’t reflect ANYTHING about the local economy or real estate market? I guess we’[ll never know, because with all of the finger-pointing going on, I’m sure no one affiliated with CityVest will ever agree to publicly talk about the failed project.  Which is a shame; there is a lot that we as a community could gain by having that discussion.”

Hotel Sterling Historical Lesson #4—Know when to walk away

While well intentioned,  the Hotel Sterling preservation seemed doomed almost from the very beginning when you take the time to look back over newspaper coverage concerning the project from the very beginning. (You can find excepts of this newspaper coverage (contained in another post on this site)  While many people blame the failure of the project on CityVest, the last owner of the Hotel Sterling, it is obvious that evidence clearly suggested that a positive preservation outcome may have been highly improbable to achieve in the end.  It is striking to realize that local journalists were referring to the structure as decaying and decrepit as far back as 2001—a red flag about the magnitude of the project itself and the funds required for completion.

Dawn 10Photo Credit:  Dawn Robinson

Another red flag that should have slapped our community leaders directly in the face was the fact that developer after developer passed on the project.  We should have just STOPPED at the point where funding had been exhausted with no developer in sight willing to take on a $32 million dollar historic preservation project.  But the hubris-filled love of our past, found our leaders scrambling for even MORE FUNDING  in order to declare the owners of the structure, CityVest, the “the developer of last chance”.   The fact that the newspapers were using that phrase should have signaled “danger” to the community at large. 

The entire concept for the Sterling project (& the other historic structures included in the “Susquehanna Landing” vision) may have been too “high-end” for the reality of the Wilkes-Barre real estate market. For years, the public was being sold on an upscale vision, when in reality, that market/location has only attracted volunteer services and companies specializing in addiction rehabilitation.

Another issue that was hinted at from the inception of the Sterling project was that Wilkes-Barre’s reputation for corrupt political dealings was going to make it difficult to attract serious developers who wanted to invest in our community. Since that time, we all know that things have only taken a turn for the worst—“Kids for Cash”, need I say more?!  The fact remains that the preservation enthusiasts in our community  need to consider the real-world obstacles that Wilkes-Barre faces while moving forward with any more projects now, or in the future. 

 Stacy 6

Photo Credit: Stacy Shannon

When historic preservation is discussed in Luzerne County, the conversation is very one-sided, and usually consists of attempts by preservationists to guilt the public into letting proponents have their way by insisting that people “don’t value history” if they are against a restoration project. It’s time to get real about historic preservation in Luzerne County. The fact is, that because of changes in the structure of the global market and the national economy, communities that have not been investing wisely in their history when things were really good, are going to lose a lot of that history now!

It makes more sense to maintain structures BEFORE they become long-term vacancies, than it does to attempt to engage in heroic “life saving” measures after the fact.   Like it or not, “saving history” is a big ticket project that requires the help of outside private developers who are going to be looking for a return on their investment. And while there are plenty of entities who will encourage communities to move forward with such projects, there are none who will assist them in assessing the situation beforehand to see if such a project is even viable in the first place.

HISTORIC PRESERVATION in and of itself is BIG BUSINESS. Who can we count on to tell us when taking on a project may not be feasible in our community? Is the consulting firm hired to market the project going to do it? Are all of the architect firms that stand to benefit from the proposed project going sound the alarms? Will non-profit entities such as Preservation Pennsylvania, who earn their keep pushing a preservation or “history” agenda, do it?  NO. 

Stacy 2Photo Credit: Stacy Shannon

When Wilkes-Barre discusses historic preservation, the conversation always seems focused on the structure itself and what CAN be done (& believe me, SOMETHING can ALWAYS be done) to save it, but no one ever seems to  question what SHOULD be done when all of the external factors are considered.

Stacy 4Photo Credit: Stacy Shannon

Many components need to be in place in a community to successfully complete a multi-million dollar historic preservation project. What in Luzerne County has changed that would make success in ANY expensive historic preservation effort a possibility today? I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that anyone has an answer to that question as our community is now faced with deciding what should happen to the entire cluster of vacant “Zombie” historic buildings inhabiting the city block once designated for the “Susquehanna Landing” community redevelopment vision.

The fact that all of these vacancies even exist  is quite mind blowing,  considering that they have been sitting, untouched for years, just one block away from the epicenter of Wilkes-Barre, and also one block away from the city’s institutions of higher learning.  And just like the owners of the Hotel Sterling, the owners of these remaining structures cannot afford to fix or maintain them either!  And sadly, the taxpayers technically own many of these buildings, thanks to someone’s failed plan that involved community entities buying them AFTER they became vacant!

Hotel Sterling Historical Lesson #5–Even when “zombie” real-estate is privately owned,

if the owner falls into financial dire straits,

the distressed building becomes a burden for the taxpayer

What a grand, public resource eating, Zombie Hotel the Sterling eventually became!  And this is often the case for all Zombie Buildings, even if they are historic!  People forget that just sitting there, doing nothing, these vacant buildings are costing SOMEONE money—usually the taxpayer in one way or another! Taxes are either being paid or are being forgiven.  Insurance premiums need to be maintained by SOMEONE.  The price of having vacant and blighted real estate littering the landscape can become an insurmountable burden for any city, scaring away prospective business owners and real estate investors. 

And now we are forced to ponder the ugly and expensive question about what needs to be done with the rest of the zombie real estate that has taken up residence within this same block, waiting for the day when our past was supposed to redeem our city in the present.  How many more parcels of the decaying remains of a by-gone era can our community possibly try to maintain before we push ourselves beyond the prospect of having any real hope for the future?

Dawn 8Photo Credit: Dawn Robinson

Today as we begin the process of dismantling our brick and fake marble corpse of innovation and prosperity known as the Hotel Sterling, we SHOULD mourn its passing because it was built to fulfill a need created by abundance.  Unfortunately, whatever we put there now, will ultimately be damned, because we will be building it out of desperation.    

We are a community, extinguishing our past in the present, and transitioning into what we will become in the future.  The Hotel Sterling is a story about the death of a chapter in American History that begins with the end of the industrial revolution.  For decades, our community has attempted to outrun our diminished expectations for a way of life that we can no longer hope to maintain.   The demolition of the Hotel Sterling should serve as a harsh wake-up call about our community’s impoverished current reality. At one point considered a monolith of our affluent class’s achievement, what remained was ultimately nothing but blight on our city’s landscape.  

~*~

ONE FINAL WORD FROM THE FORGOTTEN PLACES OF NEPA

Ed 1Photo Credit:  Ed Mountjoy

Ed Mountjoy, the face behind The Forgotten Place of NEPA on Facebook, had the extraordinary opportunity to watch the fireworks display at Kirby Park, from inside of the abandoned Hotel Sterling this year. (Way to go Ed!  You are my Urban Exploration hero!)  He explains:

“Seeing the fireworks from the Hotel Sterling that night was surely something I don’t ever expect to forget. Being up there, on the seventh floor, sitting there by that window, which was missing its bottom part of glass, was an odd feeling. It wasn’t odd in a bad way, but odd as in that I could actually picture people doing the very same thing back when the Sterling was occupied. The fact that it was dark all around, except for outside, added to the feeling, since the darkness covered up the fact about how gutted and decayed the building really was. While sitting on the floor watching the fireworks, I could just imagine someone in that very room doing the same thing decades ago. It was a historic view that many got to see in the past and, with this passing Fourth of July, it would be the last time anyone would get this view, from this very building, of the fireworks. Knowing this would be the very last year, I knew I had to get up there to see them.”

Ed Continues:

“This is WHY I maintain The Forgotten Places of NEPA and The Forgotten Coal Industry of NEPA on Facebook.  Places like the Sterling, won’t always be around.  Many, if not all, of the places I’ve been to have meaning to at least someone, whether it’s a small building on the side of a barely used road or structures that occupy spaces at the busiest of intersections. At some point, people worked and/or lived in these places, people I am sure have relatives that are alive today, relatives that may wanna see where their ancestors worked/lived at. I maintain these pages to keep those memories as alive as I can and I’m sure others seeing these photos trigger memories of either them working/living there, or knowing about family and/or friends who worked/lived there. Many might think that my pages are strictly just about urban exploring, but it’s not. Granted, most my photos involve having to do so, but I do it because I know many who’d like to see such photos can’t go there themselves. I do so, not just to explore the locations and get piles of photos, even though that is the best part of the experience, but to, hopefully, trigger some memories from others and maybe even learn a little more about these locations from those people.”

 SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo Credit: Ed Mountjoy

~*~

Return To Guerrilla History

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

 Cheri Sundra © 2013
All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

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  1. Cheri, what a fantastic, thought-provoking post! And those photos are outstanding, too!
    Sometimes it is time to “say goodbye” to a structure, just as we’ve said it to ways of life. Does anyone really want the age of coal barons and coal miners to come back? No! It’s bad enough now, with our current 1%.
    I have some fond memories of visiting a nightclub that used to be in the Sterling. I remember the magnificent lobby. Even then, however, in 1984, it was obvious that the place was just an echo of its former grandeur.
    I also remember the Susquehanna Landing project. I wondered what had happened to all those grand plans.
    As for the zombie structures being within a block of our colleges, I’m sorry to say that neither King’s nor Wilkes seems to have the funds to invest in these properties. It’s sad, but true. And I’ve always been told it’s a lot easier to get a donor to put their name on a brand-new, state-of-the-art building than a rehabbed glory of the past.
    Thanks for writing this!

    • Don Hanson
    • July 26th, 2013

    Very nice photos, great work.

    • Bob Hewitt
    • July 26th, 2013

    What a fantastic article! I was born and raised in Wyoming Valley. In the 40’s and 50’s, when I was there, I would love to have had the opportunity to see the Sterling, but unfortunately never did. I hear many stories about it and was “inside” vicariously but never in actuality.

    Thank you for such an informative set of writing and wonderful photographs. I left the valley in 1961 and still have strong emotional, but not physical, ties to “home.”

    • Sheila McDermott Boyle
    • July 26th, 2013

    Thank you for the story and the pictures. A reminder of the past: a special birthday dinner with my grandparents, the refuge for that same grandparent after Agnes left her homeless, and later a corner apartment for my Aunt on the 6th floor with a view of the river,the bridge and the Park where we watched the 4th of July fireworks. The Christmas tree in the lobby was always a must see. Sad to see but she had to go and I’m glad it is finally happening after years of it being a eyesore

    • Bob
    • July 26th, 2013

    Just bought your book on Kindle. Great photos. Haven’t lived in the valley for 10 years now. Seeing the Sterling demolished is sad… even for me who left the valley because I couldn’t take the depressing decline any longer.

    • Anonymous
    • July 29th, 2013

    Great lessons. Unfortunately, there are many cities across America that needed to learn these lessons earlier. I expect much more demolition in W-B and other similar towns in the years ahead. I might as well invest in some demolition companies.

    • Erma
    • August 4th, 2014

    keep up the great work!

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