Archive for the ‘ Guerrilla History ’ Category

Welcome to Cellblock 3: The Ghosts Here Are Probably Coughing

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Frequent visitors to Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) in Philadelphia are familiar with the red cross on the gate— it’s the cellblock that visitors have been trying to sneak into for 20 years!   Cellblock 3, known as the hospital wing, has long held the public’s curiosity.  Abandoned for many years after the prison closed in 1971, it’s now open to the public for guided tours.   Visitors have long wished to explore this space, but its severe deterioration has made touring the hospital block almost impossible – until now.

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Opportunities to step past that head gate with the iconic cross have been few and far between. In the past, ESP has offered rare glimpses of the space with sporadic hard-hat tours, but the area was never stable enough to allow the normal foot-traffic of daily visitors.  To allow the public to view Cellblock 3, staff and volunteers had to stabilize the crumbling cellblock, remove debris, and create an informational experience for tourists.  The effort cost nearly $200,000 to complete.  The bulk of the money was raised through private funds and their Halloween fundraiser, Terror Behind the Walls.

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Now visitors can enter the former surgical suite that served thousands of prisoners, including Al Capone who had his tonsils removed there.  During his imprisonment at ESP, Capone had two surgeries. The second was most likely a circumcision–a procedure that was utilized at the time for treating syphilis.

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The rest of the hospital wing’s rooms are visible only from their doorways.  Described as a “monument to misery”, the rooms reflect the myriad of maladies suffered by the prison population and the treatments available to them. The hospital wing treated typhoid, influenza and common colds, among many other ailments. It also treated injuries from accidents and violence that occurred within the prison. Visitors can view the laboratory, X-ray lab, hydrotherapy room and the psychiatric department, along with specially designed cells that were meant to aid in the treatment of certain conditions.

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Known as one of the most haunted places in Pennsylvania, ESP was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world. Today it stands in ruin–a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers. Some 47 years after it was shuttered and abandoned for its intended use, noise–now from tourists and not from shouting inmates–reverberates. If there truly are ghosts there – a concept promoted each fall in the historic site’s Halloween fundraiser — chances are they are coughing.

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While in operation, tuberculosis was its most prevalent health issue inside the thick prison walls.  Before antibiotics, there was no cure for tuberculosis. The prison was dark, damp, and crowded with coughs and sneezes filling the air. Inmates eventually diagnosed with the contagious disease were moved and quarantined in special cells called “solarium cells” that provided more access to light, ventilation, and fresh air. TB patients also had their own hydrotherapy room, gymnasium, and recreation yard.

Most of the deaths that occurred at Eastern State Penitentiary happened in Cellblock 3.

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For Lovers Only–Abandoned Penn Hills Pocono Resort

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Photo Courtesy Rich Zoeller aka THAT KID RICH  

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Photo Courtesy of Jennifer O’Malia

Welcome to JizzneyLand!  Celebrated as the “Paradise of Pocono Pleasure” and “a place of unbridled passion”, the honeymoon resort known as Penn Hills catered to Swinging Young Couples.  With tacky, lust inspired décor like round beds, heart-shaped whirlpool bathtubs, gaudy floor-to-ceiling shag carpeting, and mirrors on the ceiling, the Hotel California had nothing on this place!

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Photo Courtesy of Adrienne Shellenberger aka GRAVE EXPECTATIONS 

If these walls could talk they’d tell stories of love, infidelity, lust, corruption and Mob connections! As soon as I started posting pictures from this location on social media, I had several women reach out to tell me tales of visiting here with suave Italian “business men”, who owned fancy cars, printing shops, drop ship businesses, video distribution companies, and other undefinable “business interests”.  Of course, no one wanted to be interviewed in detail “on the record”, but Billy D’Elia is the name that came up, in association with these men, several times as the three different women shared their stories with me.

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Photo Courtesy of Katherine Rogers

CRW_0162Photo Courtesy of Jennifer O’Malia

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Photo Courtesy of Katherine Rogers

While this location started as a tavern in 1944, the 500 acre resort grew to include skiing, golf, swimming, archery, ice skating, snowmobiling, tennis, an indoor game room, a massive dining hall, and a night/comedy club.  The property also contained one cool historical feature–modernist streetlights from the 1964 World’s Fair.

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1964 World’s Fair Street Light at Penn Hills

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Photo Courtesy of Jennifer O’Malia 

During its prime in the 1960s and 1970s, Penn Hills was so popular that reservations often had to be made months in advance.  Anyone living in the Tri-State Area during the 1970s will remember the TV commercials with the slogan: “Penn Hills for lovers only.  You’re never lonely at Penn Hills….. Just 90 minutes from New York City!”

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Photo Courtesy of Jennifer O’Malia

Located in Analomink, Monroe County, Pennsylvania, the resort began its decline in the late 1980s, along with many of the resorts and hotels in that same region.  Some blame the rising affordability of air travel at that time, coupled with the inexpensive packages available at all-inclusive resorts at destinations in countries like Mexico.  Others say the resorts in the Poconos were built up in anticipation of legalized casino gambling in the state of Pennsylvania, which didn’t materialize as quickly as developers assumed it would.

Wedding Bell Shaped Pool

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Photo Courtesy of  Adrienne Shellenberger aka GRAVE EXPECTATIONS

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Photo Courtesy of Jennifer O’Malia

For whatever reason, lovers visiting Penn Hills in the new millennium found the accommodations horrifying during the last few years that it was open.   Consumer reviews from online travel sites definitely articulate how much the resort and its services deteriorated since its hey-days as a honeymoon destination spot.  Consumers described a resort that was deserted and scary.   They depict rooms that smelled moldy, contained outdated furniture, chipped paint and non-operational whirlpool tubs.  Accommodations were full of bugs, stains, and littered with graffiti containing slogans such as “We got screwed at Penn Hills”.  They also claimed that the drinks at the bar were watered down, the food was barely edible and the property was literally falling apart.   Reviews say that the wood on the buildings was rotting, the pool was peeling, the tennis courts had potholes, archery targets were no longer standing upright, and most of the buildings looked abandoned.

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Photo Courtesy Rich Zoeller aka THAT KID RICH Kat Penn Hills_DSC5735 copy Photo Courtesy of Katherine Rogers

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Photo Courtesy of Jennifer O’Malia

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Photo Courtesy of Adrienne Shellenberger aka GRAVE EXPECTATIONS

When Penn Hills co-founder, Frances Paolillo died in 2009 at the age of 102, the resort closed less than two months later. According to multiple internet sources, the workers’ final paychecks were never issued.  The Monroe County Tax Claim Bureau reported that Penn Hills owed about $1.1 million in back taxes and was on a payment plan since 2006 to defray that debt. Portions of the property were sold at tax sale. In June of 2013, the remaining parcel was purchased for $25,000 at a repository sale by Penn Resort Investment, LLC, based in Jim Thorpe.  According to newspaper reports, Stroud Township officials have been trying to get the new owners to secure the property.

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Photo Courtesy of Adrienne Shellenberger aka GRAVE EXPECTATIONS

Since declining into a state of abandonment, the resort, which was already in serious disrepair, has fallen victim to copper thieves, flooding, vandalism, and recent fires.  According to newspaper reports from December 2014, there have been a total of 98 instances requiring a police response at the resort since its closure, because of suspicious circumstances, burglary, and theft.  Stroud Township says if the current owners don’t cooperate, the township could eventually demolish the old resort and put a lien on the property.

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Photo Courtesy of Katherine Rogers

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Photo Courtesy Rich Zoeller aka THAT KID RICH 

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Photo Courtesy of Jennifer O’Malia

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Photo Courtsey of Adrienne Shellenberger aka GRAVE EXPECTATIONS

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Some of My Own Photos From That Location:

The Laugh with Abandonment Comedy Club

Laugh With Abandonment Comedy Club
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The Abandoned Gift Shop

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The Abandoned Skating Rink

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Skating

Guest Rooms (some don’t seem totally “abandoned”)

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Guest Room 2

Guest Room 3

Abandoned Indoor Pool (no, that’s not ice)

Indoor Pool

Abandoned Indoor Poolside Bar

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Ghost Estates: The Sanctuary

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If you try really hard, you can almost feel the positiveness of the developers when they named this sacred future hamlet, located in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania.  The land was purchased for development from Bishop James C. Timlin and named The Sanctuary. But the hulking abandoned shell of what was going to become a townhouse, which is the predominant view in your line of sight when entering this wanna-be housing development, tells a completely different story.  This place is like a blank page at the end of the last chapter of a book.  The street signs and hydrants may have been erected, but this mostly abandoned development is nothing but an attempted mirage of suburbia.  It’s the American Dream gone wrong.

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While cruising the desolate and primarily house-free streets, admiring the asphalt roads and empty lots, you realize that this Ghost Development is not entirely dead.  One house in the back is obviously occupied, and from another in the front, a dog could be heard yipping away from inside one of the cookie-cutter townhouses.

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Yet there are also partially landscaped yards in the process if reverting into scrappy, weed infested spaces, in front of dwellings left half-finished, abandoned and deteriorating.

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According to past newspaper reports, The Sanctuary has transformed into one couple’s suburban hell.  In an interview from 2009 with the only homeowners living in The Sanctuary at that time, they disclosed that water tainted by a dangerous industry solvent flows beneath their dream house with the cozy fireplace, expensive hardwood floors and spacious kitchen.   The homeowners voiced concern about being left with a $400,000 mortgage on a home that was worth considerably less in a stalled housing development.  To contribute to their problem, the housing development is linked to figures in one of the biggest scandals ever to rock Luzerne County.

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Sanctuary was conceived and developed by W-Cat Inc.   Federal prosecutors are very familiar with some of the names associated with that development company.  Three of them, former Luzerne County judges Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and attorney Robert J. Powell, were key figures in what has become known as Kids for Cash, a judicial corruption scandal.

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The Dead Diva of Hollenback Cemetery: The Notorious Florence Foster Jenkins

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If someone was going to play you in a movie about your life,

who would you want it to be?

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Meryl Streep (along with Hugh Grant) recently signed up to appear as one of Wilkes-Barre’s former residents, now eternally residing in the Hollenback Cemetery, Florence Foster Jenkins, who became infamous for her artistic incompetence since she was an Opera Diva who could not sing.  The concept isn’t that hard to grasp today, in the age of talentless nobodies who become amazingly famous–Florence Foster Jenkins is the undisputed Patron Saint of that genre!

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Known, and sometimes ridiculed, for her lack of rhythm, pitch and tone; in addition to her generally poor singing ability, legions of people came to see Florence perform, thanks to her highly eccentric behavior.  It is rumored that she would often order massive bouquets of flowers to be delivered to her concerts, and then genuinely forget that she‘d done so, thinking they were from her throngs of admirers.  She wore ridiculous costumes, in Lady Gaga-esque fashion, that she made herself, often featuring wings and tinsel.  Ms. Jenkins once pulled an “Axl Rose” by hurling a basket at the audience. And after an accident, she rewarded a taxi driver for injuring her because she was convinced that she could “sing” a higher F than ever before (after the incident).  When faced with ridicule and criticism, Ms. Jenkins had the amazing ability to rebrand herself as a victim of “professional jealousy”.

The only way to obtain a ticket to one of Ms. Jenkins’ performances was to purchase one directly from the Diva herself!  She certainly understood the “leave them wanting more” theory since she refused to appear in New York more than once a year, often restricting attendance to her annual recital to a select few loyal admirers.

According to Carnegie Hall, it is Ms. Jenkins who has the honor of being the performer of their most requested archival concert program.

Seeing Ms. Jenkins, who was independently wealthy, perform at small venues like fashionable hotel ballrooms became “the thing to do”.  Everyone wanted to listen to her screw up every song she tried to sing.  Her concert-goers always had such a great time that they convinced her that she needed to make her Carnegie Hall debut, which she did on October 25, 1944.  The performance sold out in just two hours!  And the audience would not let her go home.  And like the Diva she was, she died one month and one day after that performance.  Forever leaving her fans wanting more. IMG_1879 (2) sig

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Hotel Sterling Demolition: One Year Later

NOTE:

To mark the one year anniversary of the demolition of the Hotel Sterling, Welcome to the Zombie Hotel Sterling will be available as a FREE digital download on Amazon from July 25th thru July 29th.  Get ’em while you can!  If you don’t have a Kindle, the  app  is free too.

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Once upon a time, the city known as Wilkes-Barre enjoyed days of prosperity, primarily because of the growth of the anthracite industry in neighboring towns.   This hub of transportation and business activity  created a need within itself  to build a new hotel, during the golden era of the Grand Luxury Hotel.

When newspaper headlines said “Construction Work on Sterling Will Begin This Month”, a survey by “recognized authorities” concluded that the original plan for a strictly commercial hotel would not sufficiently meet the needs of the community.   It was “decided advisable to provide for a first class modern building in every way”.  The construction cost was estimated at $225,000.

In 1897, the Wilkes-Barre Times ran these GROUND PLANS for the hotel:

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That edition of the paper was so popular, due to the community buzz about the construction of the hotel, that the paper had to reprint the edition “by the request of those who wish, but cannot get copies to send to friends and relatives in other cities”.

Alongside the plans were some of the names suggested for the hotel by readers of the paper.  The suggestions included The Susquehanna, Hotel Hollenback, Hotel Anthracite, The Anthracite, Rivera Hotel Sterling, Hotel Susquehanna, The New Century, The Keystone, Hotel Ganoga, Riverside, Hotel de Sterling, Hotel Farragut, The Phoenix, The Gertrude, The Waldegrave and The Parish.

The Hotel opened in 1898, and the good times began!

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Hotel Sterling Crystal Ballroom during an event

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Hotel Sterling, Crystal Ballroom 2012

Sadly, a little over a hundred years later, the Hotel Sterling found itself in a community struggling to find a practical use for its aging and now out-dated structure full of history and sentiment.  Wilkes-Barre is a community struggling to reclaim a sustainable economy and way of life,  and memories aren’t enough to fund historical preservation projects.  Demolition began on the Hotel Sterling on July 25, 2013.

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How did the Hotel Sterling morph from a much anticipated Grand Luxury Hotel into a hopeless abandonment?  Hear the tale as told by the Hotel Sterling in:

WELCOME TO THE ZOMBIE HOTEL STERLING

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July 25th Thru July 29th on Amazon.com

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Cheri Sundra © 2014

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Abandoned Firework Factory: They Always Go Out With A Bang (Part 1)

Happy 4th of July

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Plugging the terms “Scranton & Black Powder Plant & Explosion” into a search engine can yield some horrific results. (WARNING to the faint of heart: Just stop reading here and wait for the less graphic follow-up post that will be available soon)

Apparently during the late 1800s and early 1900s, newspaper editors felt no need to shield the public at large from the graphic details of violent, industrial-related death.

Headlines like “Victims Blown To Pieces” and “One Man’s Heart is Found On The Roof Of Another Building” will leave even the most disgruntled office worker feeling slightly relieved that they get to earn their living shackled within the bland walls of their veal-pen-like cubical, away from material that is likely to blow them to smithereens at any given moment. It’s highly doubtful that you will ever be blown 150 feet in the air while responding to even the most explosive email, or that you will be violently repelled 200 feet away from your work station while employed as a corporate paper pusher.

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These historic newspaper accounts about black powder plant explosions tell the tale of those who report to work only to end up “horribly mangled” and “charred”.

One exceptionally gory account, published in 1892, about a black powder plant explosion in Moosic, Pennsylvania, describes a scene with bodies scattered in all directions, and a man who was hurled four hundred yards with his hands and his legs burned off. The majority of the victims were granted the “blessing of instant death”.   Emergency responders spent hours searching for the limbless trunk of one victim who was “hurled fully 400 yards away” when 50 kegs of powder exploded at the plant.

One survivor gave the following account of his experience to reporters:

“I was at work at the press with THERON COOLBAUGH. We heard the report from the glazing mill and we ran out. Then the Corning Mill blew up. We dashed wildly into the woods, expecting that the press would go next. There we saw GEORGE ELLIS all on fire. He was running around, and when he saw me he shouted: ‘DAVE, pull off my clothes. Oh, hurry and help me.’ I ran up to him, and in an instant my clothes were ablaze, too. They were my powder clothes. Whether they caught fire by my placing my hands on ELLLIS, or whether the burning grass did it. I cannot tell. I tried to tear my clothes off and fought the fire as hard as I could. Then WILLIAM WEIR, who was washing in the wash shanty, came running out with two coats that had been soaking in the trough. He said: ‘Lie down quick, DAVE.’ I did so, and he threw the wet coats over me. This put the fire out and I was saved except as to my feet. My work in the press was to shovel powder, and my shoes for that reason easy to be set afire. The flames were worst about them, and that is the rason (sic) my toes are so badly burned. WEIR and COOLBAUGH also succeeded in helping ELLIS, but he was badly burned.”

He went on to describe one of his co-workers: “arms had been burned off to the elbow and his face greatly disfigured. His appearance was still more terrible on account of the fact that the culm into which he had fallen made him still more blacker than the devastating powder had originally made him. His body was nearly burned in two at abdomen.”

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Most reports about black powder plant explosions during that era end by saying something such as “whatever of the remains of the victims could be found were gathered together and placed in rough wooden boxes”. And then the  final word goes to the monetary loss that will be experienced by the owner of the plant. In the case of the plant in Moosic, it was expected to be $10,000. No mention is made about the loss that was going to be experienced by the families and loved ones of the deceased workers.

Please have a SAFE and happy holiday weekend!~~Cheri

P.S.  Be sure to check back soon for Part 2!

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Cheri Sundra © 2014
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A Resurrection Reversed: The Playboy Bunnies & The Death(s) of the Wilkes-Barre Train Station (Part 2)

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Photo courtesy of George Foster

(If resurrection is the concept of coming back to life after death, how do you measure the success, or failure, of one?)

Wilkes-Barre Train Station 2014

Wilkes-Barre Train Station 2014

Some townspeople, in a “has-seen-better-days” place named Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, are looking for someone to save their tragic little train station……again. This is unquestionably a noble goal. But any potential philanthropists, preservationists and “do-gooders-in-general” should be forewarned that this is a community with a history of its own—a history that includes squandering the gift of historic resurrection.

Allow me to photographically illustrate a story that will break your heart. It is a tale about a man with a dream, who invested millions of dollars, in a labor of love, to give the gift of history and heritage back to his hometown.

I’m talking about an old-school, self-made, “no-government-grant-money-needed”, community philanthropist with a vision for the future, who spent his own cash to restore a vacant and quickly deteriorating historical landmark.

What did that community do with the living piece of history that he so lovingly and generously invested in for them to enjoy for years to come?

In an act of betrayal, the town just complacently watched, as the property reverted back into a state of abandonment and ruin once again, very shortly after their benefactor entrusted the train station’s care to other community members. This is a frightening tale about what can happen to history when commercial non-profitability and loss of accountability in local government collide.

Let’s begin our story right here:

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Once upon a time, many years ago…..in 1974, to be exact…..there was a historic little train station who had seen much better days. After playing a major role in the prosperous years of the fair city that it calls home (See Part 1), this particular train station was viewed as an abandoned building merely existing in a state of ruin, and standing in the way of “progress”. It was nothing but a hopeless abandonment, plagued by vandals, and slated for demolition. The Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority planned to remove the structure, since it was in the direct path of an extension planned to make way for a downtown automobile traffic distributor—whatever that is! But the community stepped up and got involved in trying to rally support for this endangered landmark.

First, there was a Senator named Hugh Scott who urged local communities in Pennsylvania to try to save old rail depots throughout the state so they could serve as museums or something useful.

Then people began writing letters and articles urging the community to save Wilkes-Barre’s little monument to the halcyon days of passenger train service, which usually began with statements such as:

“No longer the trim, ornate passenger station it once was back in the hey-day of rail travel in Wyoming Valley, the Central Railroad depot now is a run-down, dilapidated structure; its boarded-up lower floors, broken windows and mouldering (sic) cupola stand as mute evidence of Wilkes-Barre’s historic past.”

While that newspaper blurb sounds eerily like it could be pulled from 2014, it actually ran in the September 28, 1974 issue of the Wilkes-Barre newspaper! Forty years ago, this community was looking at the SAME train station, in the SAME condition that it sits today, wondering what to do with this magnificent piece of history that sat in ruins. What has transpired in Wilkes-Barre over those four decades is a tale of hope, transformation, and then a decline that should make the business leaders and elected officials in that community hang their heads in shame.

Wilkes-Barre Train Station 2014

Wilkes-Barre Train Station 2014

In 1974, their local newspaper was saying things like:

“Time is running out for the old Central Railroad of New Jersey passenger station, whose 106 years of history cover the major span of the once great railroad industry, second only to anthracite mining as the greatest employer in Wyoming Valley. Now, vacant and deteriorating rapidly since the shutdown of all CNJ service in Wilkes-Barre on March 31, 1972, the historic building awaits its fate. “

What happened next was nothing short of miraculous in the world of historical preservation! It was almost inconceivable that anyone would really be interested in salvaging such a deteriorating structure, especially since its small size mitigated against any otherwise major redevelopment that could grace the seven acre tract of land that it sits upon.

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Photo courtesy of George Foster

But against all odds, amazing things happened! The Greater Wilkes-Barre Jaycees took on the responsibility to get the ball rolling. They organized a “Save Our Station” committee and embarked on a quest to secure “historical landmark” status for the structure. They didn’t have the resources or knowledge required to do the restoration job themselves, but they were successful in having that little train station placed on the National Register of Historic Properties and the Pennsylvania Register of Historic Sites and Landmarks. Now all that the story needed was a hero to save the day! And that’s when a man named Marvin Roth came to the rescue.

Marvin Roth & His Restored Train Station

Marvin Roth & His Restored Train Station

Mr. Roth was a novelty and toy wholesaler who grew up a block from the train station, watching the trains come and go. He decided to re-create the hustle and bustle of the busy rail terminal, without involving actual train travel and the end result was a unique motel, restaurant and bar experience.

“I didn’t want the railroad to disappear entirely from Wilkes-Barre, and this is my way of keeping it alive,” he said in a 1987 Los Angeles Times interview about his project to convert the abandoned station into a useful parcel of real estate once again, as a gift to his economically struggling hometown.

Before Mr. Roth stepped up, the elegant brick station had been last used by the Central Railroad of New Jersey, successor to the old Lehigh, Lackawanna, Delaware & Hudson, and Pennsylvania railroads that served the area into the early 1960s after Wilkes-Barre’s coal mines, flooded by the Susquehanna River, stopped operating.

Passenger rail service, which started there in 1843, ended July 1, 1963. Next the station was subjected to the ravages of time and weather, in addition to the day-to-day destruction inflicted by vandals who shattered glass, destroyed moldings, and pilfered valuable and difficult–to-replace originals. The structure was so devastated in the 1972 flood caused by tropical storm Agnes that the local Redevelopment Authority planned to raze it.

Marvin Roth purchased the train station in late 1977 and embarked upon the kind of successful redevelopment project that everyone hopes to achieve as an end result. He filled the tracks with dining, parlor and sleeping cars, cabooses and freights, using them as a means to add extra commercial space to the tiny train station. Finding the old railroad cars was easy, but getting them into Wilkes-Barre, where track had been torn up, proved to be quite difficult.

Roth Restored Railroad Car

Marvin Roth Restored Railroad Car

Railroad Car Post-Roth- Restoration

Railroad Car Post-Roth- Restoration

“We had to lay track from the site to some freight lines still operating,” Mr. Roth told the LA Times. “That’s how we were able to move a private coach once used by Henry Flagler, the owner of the old Florida East Coast Railway and a partner of John D. Rockefeller.”

In local newspaper interviews, Marvin Roth was hailed for his “restless search for historically significant artifacts” to place throughout the complex, which included the acquisition of an enormous hand carved sideboard from the Vanderbilt home to be used as the focal point of the lobby. And there was detailed work underway on the train station’s second floor where a cabinet maker from Israel—Nissim Rabbe—labored for months in a room named the “Library Room” , creating walls made out of fine, hand carved walnut.

Marvin Roth Library Room

Marvin Roth Library Room

Library Room Post-Roth- Restoration

Library Room Post-Roth- Restoration

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rogers

The adjacent room, named the “Billiard Room” because of its large billiard table, was another dining area decorated with stately oak. Newspaper articles went to great lengths to describe how “little expense was spared in selecting appointments, furnishings and decorations to be consistent with the Victorian era in this non-rolling railroad complex.”

The Once Grand Room.

“Billiard Room” Post-Roth-Restoration

Photo courtesy of George Foster

In an interview about his restoration project for the Revel R.R. Resister, Roth “dwelled on his commitment to authenticity in the restoration—even to the tin and copper roof being replaced with all copper.”

In 1979, the local paper declared:

“Perhaps the grandest part of the station is the cupola; Roth said before restoration, the cupola had no access. “When we got up here for the first time we found that the only others ever up here were the pigeons”, mused Roth. From the cupola, one is afforded a grand view of the city.”

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The View–Photo courtesy of George Foster

Mr. Roth continued, “Also, when standing at the top of the grand structure, the new clean slate and copper roofing on the station is eye-catching. “–Citizens’ Voice, April 27, 1979

Sign For Potential Copper Thieves, Post-Roth- Restoration

Sign For Potential Copper Thieves, Post-Roth- Restoration

(Note to readers: Early in 2013, thieves successfully removed the copper roofing material.)

Roth described the cupola as “pure gingerbread” because it served no purpose, but anyone entering it would be unlikely to forget it because it was completely lined with cedar wood.

Cedar Lined Cupola

Cedar Lined Cupola

Marvin Roth did considerable research to find out what he needed to restore the former New Jersey Central Railroad Station. He enjoyed spending the time, money and effort that he put into the project. In a 1979 interview, Mr. Roth said that when he completed his restoration project, that the station would be the showplace of Northeast Pennsylvania. “The bottom line of this project is that it’s not profit oriented. And I look upon this project as being owned by the people of Wilkes-Barre.” OWNED by THE PEOPLE of Wilkes-Barre….

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The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

Roth’s efforts paid off tremendously and the site quickly became a hot-spot enjoyed by community members of all ages. In January of 1981, The Citizens’ Voice, in a recurring section called “Up with Teens” declared, “The Station is Alive”!

The article went on to describe The Gandy Dancer Room, which featured both live bands and DJs. The venue was fully equipped with lights, sirens and a moving iron horse where, “teenagers danced disco to the latest tunes.” And as Generation X-ers may recall today, “There was a cover charge for the disco when a band played, and you had to be 18 to enter.”

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

There were pinball machines and Space Invaders if you didn’t like to dance. Or you could have a nice quite meal in one of the box cars, which were neatly designed like they were during the Golden Era of Railroad travel. Each car had a dining table, mirror sink and some even had a pull-out bed.

Station Railroad Car: Post-Roth-Restoration

Station Railroad Car: Post-Roth-Restoration

Or patrons could choose one of the dining areas upstairs. The most popular room was the “Bullet Hole Room” which was rumored to have the actual mirror Jesse James was standing in front of when he was gunned down by the Ford brothers because of the $10,000 reward that was on his head. The crack in the mirror is said to be from the bullet that killed him.

The Marvin Roth Bullet Hole Room

The Marvin Roth “Bullet Hole Room”

The Marvin Roth Station

The Marvin Roth Station

The Station Post-Roth- Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

By the time renovations were complete, there were more than 60 railroad cars on the site that Mr. Roth named the “Choo-Choo Inn”. It provided 90 private rooms for overnight accommodations. Inside were brass beds, Victorian-style furniture and overhead fans. In 1987, the tab for a night in a restored rail car was less than $50. In an interview from the same year, Mr. Roth said “people love the overnight stay in the ambiance of our sleeping cars. It’s an experience they like to recount to their friends and relatives back home.”

To further explain the ambience, The Los Angeles Times ended the article with:

“The depot, called The Station, is used for dining and dancing. Its freight platform was converted into a tavern called “Gandy Dancer” after track workers, making it one of Wilkes-Barre’s most unusual night spots. Outside The Station entrance is an old red-and-white crossing watchman’s shanty and nearby, a signalman’s tower. A side-tracked locomotive now and then sounds its whistle to reacquaint visitors with what used to be.”

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

Then in December of 1987, The Playboy Steakhouse, with a licensing arrangement with Playboy for an undisclosed fee, opened at the Station Complex, employing 30 women as Playboy Bunnies.

(Admit it, if you are from Wilkes-Barre and part of Generation X or later, you are thinking “We had freakin’ Beer, Peanuts, the Golden Era of Train Travel AND an internationally known concept like Playboy Bunnies, which still enjoys tremendous popularity today?!….how did we NOT become a tourism hot-spot?” Mr. Peanut Guevara  is still waiting for The Revolution to begin…..)

During the 1960s and 1970s, Playboy Clubs were considered the height of citified elegance – or at least opulence. In a 1988 interview, Station manager Jack Cantor said, “We were looking for a new concept to liven up the place. Wilkes-Barre had only read and heard about Playboy clubs. Now we have the concept here.”

“We just want to be brand-new in every way,” said Robert Habeeb, the Steak House’s director of food and beverages, in that same interview. “It’s a revival of the Playboy idea, in a popularly priced restaurant, for the general public. Look, like Philadelphia, Wilkes-Barre has the image of being a little prudish,” said Habeeb. “When Playboy clubs were at their height, it never would have flown here. We’re ready for this kind of thing now. The Playboy standard of service is something this town has never seen.”

Apparently, not everyone in the small town was ready to embrace the Playboy Bunny-themed affordable restaurant. “We had a local minister writing lots of letters to the newspapers when we started hiring bunnies in November and we got a little flak when we opened because it was in the middle of the Jessica Hahn deal,” admitted Habeeb in that interview. Ironically, newspaper accounts mentioned the local desire to attract other “themed” restaurants, such as Bennigan’s, to act as “tourist magnets” instead of the Playboy franchise.

The Playboy Steakhouse days in Wilkes-Barre were short lived. Just six months later, in June of 1988, Thom Greco, Rick Kornfeld and Mitch Kornfeld entered into a lease-purchase agreement with Marvin Roth’s Revel Railroad Company, which operated the Station Complex. (Two years later, Marvin Roth suffered a heart attack and died) Shortly afterward it became very apparent that they did not support Roth’s vision for the facility at all. First they banished the Bunnies.

Grimy Kitchen The Station Kitchen: Post-Roth-Restoration

Photo courtesy of George Foster

The new owners said the image change would not only recognize the emergence of feminism but would also broaden the establishment’s clientele. “A lot of times, husbands would stay in the rooms,” Mitch Kornfeld said, “and wives would call up and say, ‘You’re staying in the Playboy club?”

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rogers

In June of 1988 Mitch Kornfeld told the Inquirer, “It didn’t work in New York or Chicago, why would it work in Wilkes- Barre? It’s a little passé. If we were in the late ’70s it would work, but we’re in the ’80s. Women are just different. People are different.”

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rogers

The new owners decided to get rid of the Playboy franchise in order to open a new restaurant and nightclub called Norma Jeane’s. They renamed the entire facility Market Street Square. The complex remained open through the 1990s, touting a succession of different nightclub and restaurants names, with none of them ever really becoming successful ventures. At least not successful enough to keep the place open for very long.

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

Photo courtesy of the League of Gentlemen Explorers

In 1991, The Morning Call reported that the new owners were experiencing some drawbacks attributed to having 90 guest rooms in train cars. “The cars are narrow, require a great deal of maintenance because they are exposed to weather, and are expensive to heat and cool. Also, guests have to go outdoors to get from their rooms to the restaurants, nightclubs or lobby. Some older people don’t like having to use steps to get to their rooms.”

Recently Removed Railroad Dining Car: Post-Roth-Restoration

Recently Removed Railroad Dining Car: Post-Roth-Restoration

The Kornfelds walked away from the business arrangement in 1992, while “entertainment magnate” Thom Greco remained involved. By 1994, the “Choo-Choo Inn” was closed for good. The entire complex shut down completely in 2001, just 24 years after Marvin Roth rescued the train station from demolition by purchasing the property it sits on for $80,000, and investing more than $3 million dollars of his own money into restoration.

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

Photo courtesy of the League of Gentlemen Explorers

In 1999 it was reported by the Times Leader that within that past year, city firefighters were often called to put out fires at the abandoned “Choo-Choo Inn” because homeless squatters were igniting items to keep warm, or vandals were setting fires inside the cars. In an interview at that time, Fire Chief Bruce Reilly said that he’s afraid one of his firefighters will get hurt responding to those train car fires. “Some have Plexiglas windows,” he said. “You can’t bust them. Every time they get boarded up, somebody breaks into them.”

Recently Removed Railroad Car: Post-Roth- Restoration

Recently Removed Railroad Car: Post-Roth- Restoration

The mayor at that time, Tom McGroarty, who seemed ambivalent about the history of the property in newspaper interviews, just wanted the cars removed. A youngster when the motel first opened, the mayor stated in 1999 that he only “kind of” remembers the inn and described the area as nothing but a mess. He gave Greco until October of 2002 to remove the train cars from the property.

On March 30, 2002, according to the Citizens’ Voice, Greco was still looking for new owners for the splendid rail-cars that Mr. Roth so carefully restored as a gift to the citizens of Wilkes-Barre. He had to clear the property and pay off back-taxes. The cars were now “eyesores, attractions for the homeless and fire hazards”, according to the newspaper.

Greco noted that a great deal of money had gone into renovating the railcars to bring them back to their historical nature. “When we closed the hotel”, he said in that interview, “they were in perfect shape. We didn’t put the graffiti on them, set fires or steal from the rooms. We once had a historic area”, he added, “Unfortunately, the railcars ended up in this condition because the people here destroyed them. They were redone and the community destroyed them.” It should also be noted that Greco obviously did very little himself, as the owner, to protect these treasures in his possession from vandals, thieves and homeless people, who don’t exactly view themselves as part of “the community”.

Today, for the second time in history, the fate of the little train station (which again sits abandoned, in ruins, unsecured, plagued by vandals and quickly deteriorating) is back in the hands of the Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority— just like it was, pre-Marvin Roth Rescue.

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rogers

In 2006, the Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority purchased the property from Thom Greco, becoming its owner for the second time using $5.8 million in taxpayer funded federal community development money. Since this is Northeastern Pennsylvania, where nothing seems to occur in local government without a scandal, the deal also included $10,000 in the form of television sets that were allegedly a “reward” from Greco to a county commissioner for his influence in making the sale happen. The TVs were to be used in a family owned sports bar and led to all kinds of legal implications for the people involved.

The Station:  Post-Roth- Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

Photo courtesy of the League of Gentlemen Explorers

A recent appraisal of the property estimated that it is now only worth about $1.88 million, which is significantly less than what the county paid to acquire it.

The Station:  Post-Roth- Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth- Restoration

Photo courtesy of the League of Gentlemen Explorers

Current plans for the train station include seeking a commercial real estate firm to market the historic property. In 2012, county manager Robert Lawton said he did not support a prior county decision to spend $2 million renovating the station. He asked the redevelopment authority to consider selling the train station and adjoining properties to a private owner (again). The Authority opened a competitive bidding period on the property. They received absolutely no offers from anyone.

Last July, Wilkes-Barre demolished another landmark structure, the Hotel Sterling, after a failed, government-funded attempt to preserve and market the structure.

Time is quickly running out (again) for the little train station in Wilkes-Barre. The current owner obviously cannot afford to even secure the property from further vandalism since the extent of their security measures begins and ends with a maintenance worker checking the property, along with other rail properties on “most days”, according to reports in the Times Leader.  It is speculated that homeless people currently use the building for shelter during inclement weather. There are also an awful lot of feral cats living there.

Cat Pan at The Station:  Post-Marvin-Roth-Restoration

Cat Pan at The Station: Post-Marvin-Roth-Restoration

Photo courtesy of the League of Gentlemen Explorers

Post-Marvin Roth Restoration, we live in a different age now, when historic preservation projects are often viewed as “money grabs” by developers nationwide just seeking to exhaust government grants before the buildings are ultimately demolished, just like the Hotel Sterling, simply because there rarely seems to be enough funding available to complete these kinds of projects in their entirety, without additional funding from private sources.

Zombie Ballroom at the Hotel Sterling

Zombie Ballroom at the Hotel Sterling

Cheri Sundra–Guerrilla Historian

When Marvin Roth purchased the train station while it was endangered the first time, he said, “I bought it because I was infatuated with the building, and I made it my hobby. I never went into it as a money maker. It’s not a business.” Unfortunately, for the train station, it ultimately ended up in the care of community members who were ONLY interested in the bottom line and nothing else.

Marvin Roth Wilkes-Barre Historical Train Station Restoration Project

Marvin Roth Wilkes-Barre Historical Train Station Restoration Project

Sadly, there just aren’t many people in the world like Marvin Roth. I wish my hometown had better managed his efforts to save our history when we had the chance.

Historical structures are lucky to get saved once, what are the chances that it can happen twice?

Sign 2

The sign reads:

MARVIN ROTH, A LOCAL ENTREPRENEUR, REHABILITATED THIS EDIFICE

SO POSTERITY MAY FOREVER ENJOY ITS PRESENCE.  AUGUST 15, 1980

The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rogers

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

Photo courtesy of the League of Gentlemen Explorers

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The Library

The Station “Library Room” :  Post-Roth-Restoration

Photo courtesy of George Foster

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

 Photo courtesy of Katherine Rogers

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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Scuba

The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

Photo courtesy of George Foster

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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DSC_1345

The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

Photo courtesy of George Foster

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

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The Station:  Post-Roth-Restoration

The Station: Post-Roth-Restoration

Photo courtesy of George Foster

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Cheri Sundra © 2014
All Rights Reserved

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