Archive for the ‘ Hotel Sterling ’ Category

An Anniversary of Decline: The Significance of the Demolition of the Hotel Sterling

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This is every community’s story in 2016 America. Crazy as it sounds, as you hear residents debate about the possibility of “saving” an abandoned or endangered  building, especially one of historical significance, have you ever considered the issue from the building’s point of view? Now you can, for free (at least from July 27th thru July 29th, 2016) at Amazon.com.

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I had the opportunity to photograph what remained of the historical Hotel Sterling, prior to demolition, and I swear, it “spoke” to me–about the price of preservation, and the cost to communities when non-action occurs, while waiting for some unknown entity to step up with a solution and much needed funding.

First published in July of 2013 and currently ranked on Amazon’s Historical Preservation world-wide category at #121**, Welcome To The Zombie Hotel Sterling, will be available for free, in honor of its demolition anniversary, until Friday, July 29th, 2016.

**(Update: Currently #1 in Pop Culture on 7/27/16 & 7/28/16.  Sorry Taylor Swift!  Just kidding, I love Taylor….)

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“History meets Pop Culture in a tale about time, consequence, and unrealized visions for the future, as an entire community attempts to outrun diminished expectations for a way of life they can no longer hope to maintain. Abandoned and rotting away along the banks of the mighty Susquehanna River, the zombified Hotel Sterling tells its tale of fading grandeur and woe to a photographer visiting the deteriorating structure, seeking to document the reality of the condition of the building, as the hotel waits for its beloved community to decide its fate, once and for all.”

So grab a digital copy for yourself, while you can, for free.  If you don’t have a Kindle App, you can get one, for you smartphone, computer, or tablet at:  Amazon Free Kindle App  .

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 What does local Abandoned Pennsylvania History

have to do with the 2016 Presidential Race?

Visit:

Abandoned Scranton Lace:

A Visual Autopsy of The American Dream

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Cheri Sundra © 2016 All Rights Reserved

 

 

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:

 Sterling Plans

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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Return To Guerrilla History

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Cheri Sundra © 2014

All Rights Reserved

Hotel Sterling: Yesterday’s Papers are Such Bad News

Apartments for Rent HD

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As Mick Jagger used to sing, “Yesterday’s paper’s are such bad news”,  and no truer words could be spoken about the Hotel Sterling, which has been reduced to rubble,  as of last week.  While demolishing the Hotel is still a controversial issue  among community members,  looking back at newspaper coverage since 2001, provides some important clues about why the project may have ultimately failed.

I did have this information up in another post titled “The Undead Days: Part 2”, which I am currently developing into another project about the Hotel Sterling, and as a result, had to remove the post from my website.  While much of the post was just a silly mash-up story, I think it is important to put the newspaper excerpts back out there for anyone who would like to read and digest what nuggets of insight may be contain within the facts that local journalists covering  the story felt were important to convey to the public.  This is by no means a complete list of all news stories about the Sterling.  But it may provide a starting point for anyone else who may be interested in delving into the topic, as reported to by the local newspapers in the past.

Hotel Sterling in the News

The advance state of disrepair the Hotel Sterling has fallen into in downtown Wilkes-Barre has local historians worried about its future.”—The Valley’s Vanishing History”, Citizens’ Voice, March 18, 2001  

Congressman Kanjorski has also been working behind the scenes for years to create opportunities for the resurrection of the Sterling.  On Wednesday, the federal lawmaker confirmed that last week he led a developer on a tour of the Sterling.  He has been in touch with four different developers over the past year.  He declined to identify them but stressed that it is important to get the Sterling in the hands of CityVest so that redevelopment proposals could be solicited to get the project moving forward.” — “Developers interested in Sterling”, Citizens’ Voice, May 9, 2002

The 425 room hotel was a symbol of Wilkes-Barre’s prominence.  Now, it’s a symbol of the city’s decay.–“Saving City, Sterling Go Hand in Hand”, Times Leader, December 17, 2002

CityVest is working to put the vacant hotel in moth balls and prevent additional damage from the elements“–Saving City, Sterling Go Hand in Hand”, Times Leader, December 17, 2002

Private development is the key to resurrection for the quickly declining hotel–“Saving City, Sterling Go Hand in Hand”, Times Leader, December 17, 2002

If projects like the inflatable damn, the downtown museum and the River Commons recreation area pan out, it will make the Sterling more attractive to developers.  But it won’t be enough.–“Saving City, Sterling Go Hand in Hand”, Times Leader, December 17, 2002

And unless we turn the tide, we’ll forever be a city that has seen better days, and the shell of the Sterling will stand as proof.  We can still hook a developer for the Sterling if things don’t turn around, but we’ll have to use smoke and mirrors. We’ll have to hide the newspapers when prospects visit, so they won’t read about our dirty politics, disappearing doctors, etc.–“Saving City, Sterling Go Hand in Hand”, Times Leader, December 17, 2002

 “In the past few months, other developers near and far have shown interest in the hotel, (Alex) Rogers said.  In addition, he added, residents, architects and others have offered to assist CityVest, which has secured the complex of buildings in an attempt to reduce further weather-related damage.”  — “Some Sterling Examples”, Times Leader, April 3, 2003   

Lincoln was chosen to find a developer (for the Hotel Sterling) because the firm has acquired a lot of experience in the region.  It has played a major role in guiding commercial development on Highland Park Boulevard near the Wachovia Arena in Wilkes-Barre Township and recently completed a detailed market study of Wilkes-Barre for the Diamond City Partnership. —“National Firm Will Market Sterling”, Citizens’ Voice, September 16, 2003

Gary Brandeis, senior vice president of Lincoln Properties and James Stevenson, vice president, were introduced, and both expressed confidence that the Sterling complex would be successfully transformed. —“National Firm Will Market Sterling”, Citizens’ Voice, September 16, 2003

CityVest paid $1 million for the dilapidated Sterling complex in November 2002 at sheriff sale, a benchmark event following years of abandonment, decay and protracted litigation. —“National Firm Will Market Sterling”, Citizens’ Voice, September 16, 2003

CityVest was provided with a $1 million federal grant from U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-11 & a $4 million loan from the Luzerne County Office of Community Development.  Wilkes-Barre City, the Wilkes-Barre Area School District and Luzerne County agreed to forego $1 million in back taxes and penalties to facilitate the purchase and redevelopment of the Sterling. —“National Firm Will Market Sterling”, Citizens’ Voice, September 16, 2003

In January 2003, CityVest retained a team of local architects and engineers to assist them to stabilize and protect the complex from further decline. —“National Firm Will Market Sterling”, Citizens’ Voice, September 16, 2003

 With $9 million already raised, the corporation must look for new ways to come up with the remainder of the cash (to cover the first part of the project in excess of $29 million). “We anticipate raising private sector money and will continue to seek public assistance as well”, the chairman said.  Rogers said that with the capital that CityVest has already secured, the corporation could actively market the building. –- “Imagine the Possibilities”, The Sunday Voice, October 10, 2004

Renovations to the Hotel Sterling will begin this spring and will not be completed until at least 2007, according to CityVest Chairman Alex Rogers.  However, he said he has already fielded over 20 inquires about the proposed condominiums and offices. – “Market Shows interest in Condominiums”, The Sunday Voice, October 10, 2004    

Working from the seventh floor down, obvious challenges to redevelopment could be seen everywhere.  The building has problems with infestation and mold, and also sustained heavy water damage due to prolonged leakage in the roof.  A hole opened in the seventh floor penthouse suite, and Rogers said water came pouring into the building for four months.  Because of that, the suspended ceilings in many of the former apartments have crumbled, sending debris onto the floor.—“Imagine the Possibilities”, The Sunday Voice, October 10, 2004

 The commissioner (Vonderheid) said the Sterling project was specifically important because he feels there is a need for high end housing in the City of Wilkes-Barre.—“Market Shows Interest in Condominiums”, The Sunday Voice, October 10, 2004

The mayor agreed there is a market for upscale housing in the city of Wilkes-Barre.  “I’ve been told that if the housing industry changed in the city of Wilkes-Barre, people who live in the suburbs would seriously consider moving back into the city”, Leighton said.—“Market Shows Interest in Condominiums”, The Sunday Voice, October 10, 2004

 “The governor’s award of $3 million made it clear that we had sufficient capital to complete the project”, Alex Rogers, City Vest executive director — “Sterling Gets Developer”, Times Leader, December 1, 2004 

“CityVest, the nonprofit corporation driving the rehabilitation of the Hotel Sterling is no longer shopping the decrepit landmark to private developers, but is planning to take on the project itself”……“Interest in a reincarnated Sterling has already begun to manifest itself, (Alex) Rogers said.  “The number of inquiries we have received from people waiting to live or work in a refurbished Hotel Sterling has vastly surpassed any of our individual expectations.”—“CityVest To Do the Job Using Millions in Grants”, Times Leader, December 1, 2004 

“CityVest shifted gears from marketing the Sterling to developers to becoming the developer after receiving millions of dollars in state funding in September.”–“CityVest To Do the Job Using Millions in Grants”, Times Leader, December 1, 2004

The initial phase of the project has been projected to cost about $22 million.  Thus far, about $8 million in cash has been promised by federal, state and county sources, and $1 million in tax forgiveness has been by the city, county and school board.  “We are going to need a lot of private financing to go with the public money”, Rogers said.  -– “Firms:  Sterling Project Can Thrive”, Times Leader, April 15, 2005

He (Rogers) agrees with Congressman Paul E. Kanjorski, that the Hotel Sterling might be eligible for federal tax credits meant for development projects in low-income communities. –“State Ensuring Preservation of Hotel Sterling’s Legacy:  Bureau for Historical Preservation Will OK CityVest’s Progress”, Citizens’ Voice, June 7, 2005

 “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

 

The building schedule has not been established.  That’s up to CityVest which is still making environmental inspections and consulting with the state Bureau for Historical Preservation to make sure the landmark’s historical integrity is protected.–“Historic Landmarks Offer Potential, Pitfalls for Architects”, Citizens’ Voice, June 7, 2005

To date, the bureau remains pleased with the relationship with CityVest.–“State Ensuring Preservation of Hotel Sterling’s Legacy:  Bureau for Historical Preservation Will OK CityVest’s Progress”, Citizens’ Voice, June 7, 2005

 

Currently, CityVest has accounted for about $9 million of the projected $20 million to $22 million needed for renovation.  But Rogers is optimistic about CityVest’s chances of raising the needed $10 million to $12 million..–“State Ensuring Preservation of Hotel Sterling’s Legacy:  Bureau for Historical Preservation Will OK CityVest’s Progress”, Citizens’ Voice, June 7, 2005

 “The state is filled with historic structures facing demolition, he said. He’s been working with the owners of the massive former Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Chester County, which has an unknown future.  One of Kimmerly’s (of Preservation Pennsylvania) colleagues is involved in the potential demolition of a vacant former brewery in Allentown. “These are difficult times economically. Private funders don’t have money. The government doesn’t have any money, and typically that’s where money comes for historic preservation,” Kimmerly said. – “Preservation Pennsylvania is monitoring Hotel Sterling”, Times Leader, April 3, 2011

As the nonprofit CityVest embarked on the Hotel Sterling renovation project in 2001, officials and residents in a smaller Ohio city were taking on a similar project to try to save their deteriorating historic hotel. But while the Hotel Sterling is facing possible demolition, the Fort Piqua Plaza in Piqua, Ohio, is now home to a library, coffee shop, banquet hall, community museum and art gallery, said James Oda, director of the Piqua Public Library housed in the building. “It was a controversial issue locally. We had people who said, ‘Why don’t we tear it down and start over?’ Others said, ‘No. This is part of our community’s heritage,’” Oda said. “Fortunately, people who wanted to preserve the building opened their pocketbooks,” Oda said…….. “The private donations came from sources as diverse as an elementary school selling popsicles to some multimillion-dollar donations primarily from a prominent family,” Oda said. –“Ohio City’s Hotel Saved”, Times Leader, April 3, 2011   (NOTE:  The building opened in 2008)

The owner of the landmark Hotel Sterling wants Luzerne County government to determine the fate of the deteriorating structure, which would cost up to an estimated $26.8 million to $35.6 million to fully restore, according to a new study. CityVest asked county commissioners to decide whether the building will be saved or demolished because the county provided $6 million in funding for the nonprofit to acquire and preserve the building. “In recognition of the substantial investment the county has made and the broad community interest, we ask the county to review this study, select the preferred future direction, acquire title and serve as project manager,” the study says.—“Sterling’s Fate in County’s Hands”, Times Leader, April 16, 2011

The possibility of demolition of the River Street landmark has generated lots of debate since it became public last month, after a decade of promises that the building would be restored. Picketers have urged officials to save the once luxurious hotel, while others have demanded an end to government subsidy of the project. . ..CityVest, known as a last-resort developer, assumed ownership of the building from a back-tax sale in 2002.—“Sterling’s Fate in County’s Hands”, Times Leader, April 16, 2011

Renovating and converting the downtown Wilkes-Barre property into 32 condos, offices and retail space would generate an estimated $15.3 million in revenue, leaving a net government investment in the project of $11.5 million to $20.2 million, said the study released Friday by the building’s nonprofit owner and developer, CityVest. Demolition and site preparation would cost $900,000 to $1.2 million, the study says.—“Sterling’s Fate in County’s Hands”, Times Leader, April 16, 2011

The study is packed with deficiencies in the building.    Roofing experts estimated it would cost more than $1.4 million to complete permanent repairs to the roof framing and install a new rubber roof and roof drainage.  Despite roof shoring in 2007, some portions of the roof are collapsing, and water is getting into the building in “significant volumes,” the study said. The floor is sagging in numerous areas, and there’s evidence of mold and other potential toxins, including a “pretty, green ‘carpet’ of moss on some floors, ceilings and walls.” “If there is mold growing in the cells of the floor system (or even if public perception is that it is there), the building might not be insurable at an economic level,” the study says. The building’s structural steel system appears sufficient, but beams that have been regularly exposed to moisture may need to be repaired and replaced. The windows would also have to be replaced. Water is getting into the building in “significant volumes,” according to Keast & Hood Co. The brick masonry at the rear of the structure needs “considerable repair, re-pointing and cleaning.” The study says a major snow load, high wind storm or movement of the make-shift support bracing could result in a catastrophic failure of the building or integrity of the exterior façade. “The observations of local contractors and engineers further confirm these conditions to the point where concern has been expressed about the safety of anyone entering the upper portion of the building or performing any work in that area,” the study says.—“Sterling’s Fate in County’s Hands”, Times Leader, April 16, 2011

CityVest has provided detailed funding and site information to potential private developers, met with them and in one instance signed a letter of intent, the study says. “Every potential developer – including the firm that had signed the letter of intent – ultimately withdrew themselves from consideration,” the report said. All the developers who walked away from the project identified the cost of repairs as the reason, particularly when they couldn’t guarantee they could sell or rent the residential and/or commercial space at price points that would cover their expenses, the study said. —“Sterling’s Fate in County’s Hands”, Times Leader, April 16, 2011

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

The building has “physically and functionally” lost its status as a center of downtown Wilkes-Barre over the last 40 years..– “Sterling’s Fate in County’s Hands”, Times Leader, April 16, 2011

“Vacant, stripped of every item that contributed to a memorable experience, the remaining shell is cold, damp and lifeless,” said the study, which was prepared by Susquehanna Real Estate LP. “The current condition is not only poor, but also dangerous.” —“Sterling’s Fate in County’s Hands”, Times Leader, April 16, 2011

County Controller Walter Griffith told commissioners Wednesday that he is still auditing records on how the $6 million was spent, though his findings to date convince him that the county should have been more closely monitoring the project..  —“W-B building ‘emergency’ “, Times Leader, April 21, 2011

CityVest officials defended their handling of the project in a letter to citizens, saying the government funding was used to pay inherited back taxes, demolish an adjoining structure, acquire land to make the parcel larger and remove “cheap and rotting” interior walls in drop ceilings in the 113-year-old hotel. —“Sterling’s Fate in County’s Hands”, Times Leader, April 16, 2011

CityVest on Wednesday issued a statement in response that said a developer pulled out of the Sterling Hotel project in early 2010 when it was learned the $3 million was redirected. CityVest disputes the city’s claim that certain conditions were not met.—“CityVest, City Clash on $3M”, Times Leader, June 23, 2011

“Federal investigators following up on a grand jury subpoena issued last week to the Luzerne County commissioners took possession Monday of hundreds of documents chronicling the failed rehabilitation of the historic Hotel Sterling in Wilkes-Barre, officials said.”—“Feds Seize Hundreds of Hotel Sterling Documented”, Times Leader, December 7, 2011

If an agreement isn’t reached, Wilkes-Barre eventually may be forced to demolish the city-condemned structure at its expense. The city would then have to put a lien on the property in an attempt to recoup the money, though the county would also be in line with its own lien for $6 million.—“ CityVest yet to sign deal on Sterling”, Times Leader, February 9, 2012

CityVest owes the county $6 million loaned to preserve and market the structure, and the county has set aside another $1 million in community development funding for demolition. The nonprofit asked the county to take over the project last year because it’s out of money.  —“Architect wants to mothball Sterling”, Times Leader, February, 21, 2012

(Carl) Handman, who had worked on the Sterling project in 2003, has publicly criticized the building’s nonprofit owner, CityVest, for failing to heed his past recommendation to mothball the structure to prevent further deterioration. CityVest representatives have said the nonprofit relied on project manager Lincoln Property Co.’s expert opinion on what work should be completed with the limited funds allocated for the project. —“Architect wants to mothball Sterling”, Times Leader, February, 21, 2012

What did the interior of the Hotel Sterling actually look like at this point?  

See for yourself at

Hotel Sterling video: As The Vultures Picked Her Bones

A March 2011 report released by the Sterling’s nonprofit owner, CityVest, contained a $1.2 million estimate to demolish the property. The study also references a 2009 roofing company estimate of $1.4 million to redo the roof, replacing the wood framing with steel and metal. Other portions of the CityVest study say it will cost anywhere from $5 million to $7.7 million to stabilize and mothball the 114-year-old building at the corner of River and Market streets. —“Architect wants to mothball Sterling”, Times Leader, February, 21, 2012

Mothballing would involve structural work, roof repairs, window sealing and ventilation.  –“ Several Luzerne County Council members are willing to consider mothballing the landmark Hotel Sterling for potential future development, but most are leaning toward proceeding with demolition”, Times Leader, February 23, 2012

 The demolition of the Hotel Sterling began on July 25, 2013

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You can see Hotel Sterling Time Lapse Demo Video HERE

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Return To Guerrilla History

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

Cheri Sundra © 2013
All Rights Reserved

Hotel Sterling: History Deconstructed

Hotel Sterling:  History Deconstructed

Whose Version of History Gets to be Saved?

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Featuring a “Grand Luxury” Finale

of Hotel Sterling Demolition Photography

by Steve Woitkowski of

Capture the Moment Photography Studios

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The definition of “history” is the past considered as a whole.  So until last week, the Hotel Sterling wasn’t “history”, it was actively part of the present.  The Hotel Sterling was still a “verb” in our community. 

This is what I find myself contemplating:   Considering that since 1964 the building had seriously declined way past the point where it was even being used as a hotel, which historical version of the building were historians and preservationists trying to “sell” to us as part of our collective history?

And, more importantly, whose history were they actually telling with that version?

Are there more people alive today, who have experienced the Hotel in the way that its history was being packaged for consumption, or do the majority of Luzerne County residents who are still alive, have a much different, and more important, history to recall about the Hotel Sterling?

To me, as an Urban Explorer, documenting the fallout from the financial decline of our community, it represents something MUCH different than a fancy Grand Luxury Hotel where people used to dine in The Palm Room, and dance the night away in the ballroom.

It's a Zombie Ballroom now at the Hotel Sterling

To most people in Generation X, Generation Y and whatever generation we are at now, the decrepit Hotel Sterling has never been anything close to that vision for them either.  In fact, for more than HALF of the years in the “life” of the Hotel Sterling, it looked NOTHING like the image that preservation proponents were trying to spoon-feed to the public.

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For the majority of her years as a part of Luzerne County’s history, the Hotel Sterling was not THAT hotel being portrayed by preservationists—that “history” is only true for the years occurring between 1897 and 1949, which is only 52, of the Hotel Sterling’s 116 years, as a part of the Luzerne County community.

Then from 1949 to the day demolition began, 64 YEARS LATER, the reality is that the Sterling existed as a downgraded, community-centric version of its former self, until it eventually declined to the point of existing as a mold infested, water damaged, hunk of derelict, community resource pillaging,  real estate for the last few generations of Luzerne County residents to experience in the physical form.

How do you really interpret “collective history” when everyone’s experience, even of the physically present, can be so vastly different?  How do you ultimately decide whose “history” is most important to consider, and what gets to be documented, remembered and revered?

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Whose story gets to be told—the living or the dead?  The rich or the poor?  The young or the old?   And how long is it OK to put off creating the history of the future, in order to attempt to save the history of the past?

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I take real issue with people trying to sell any community on an historical preservation attempt that may not necessarily be in their best financial interest, based upon the assertion that buildings somehow ARE the heart and soul of that community.  Buildings and institutions are often more exclusionary in nature, than inclusive.   And I don’t mean that these places openly segregate community members in an overt fashion.  I’m talking about the kind of subtle socioeconomic based exclusion, that often goes unacknowledged by the people doing the excluding, but is felt at a core level by those being excluded.

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Obviously, the more affluent classes had wider access to the Hotel Sterling during its prime years as a Grand Luxury Hotel.  It was ultimately constructed strictly for the purpose of meeting the needs of the elite and business classes, while they were here in Luzerne County, exploiting the lower classes for profit. Working class people didn’t have the financial or social privilege of accessing that “string orchestra/Lobster Thermidor” version of the Hotel Sterling nearly as often as the wealthy got to have it.  The coal miners, for example,  with their dirty clothing and soot covered faces couldn’t belly up to the bar on their way home from work, to throw back a few beers, next to the same kind of people who were exploiting them for profit.

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Sure as the “Grand” version of the Hotel began to slowly devolve, it became more inclusive to a larger portion of the Luzerne County community, as a venue for social club meetings and high school graduations.  More people of a different class structure began mingling at the bar. 

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And as the decline to eventual abandonment continued, the now decrepit Hotel Sterling became low income housing for the elderly, including some of those coal miners.  But much like the version of the Hotel Sterling that they lived in then, the retired coal miners were also slowly dying, because of the now diseased lungs that were inflicted upon them, as they worked for the people for whom the very Hotel Sterling was constructed,  for use as a Grand Luxury Hotel, and then cast aside, like the workers themselves, when no longer useful.

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Hotel Sterling Lobby During the 1972 Agnes Flood

And even at that point, a large portion of the Luzerne County population was STILL excluded from access to the now decaying Hotel Sterling,  based upon a different set of socioeconomic and age restrictions.  Until the day came when the doors closed for one last time, and an entire generation went through life in Luzerne County, with no active access to the Hotel Sterling whatsoever.  At least not by walking through the front door!  😉

Abandoned Hotel Sterling: The Harsh Light of Day

The Harsh Light of Day

Cheri Sundra–Guerrilla Historian

Actually, you could make a strong argument for the fact that the Hotel Sterling has robbed Generation X and Generation Y , of their own shot at experiencing a “Grand Luxury” version of their community and their future, because a blighted structure, with little hope of successful redevelopment, lingered for too long, on a prime parcel of real estate, impeding future economic growth in their hometown.   THAT’S the version of history that ALL of us will recall about the Hotel Sterling, and unfortunately, it’s the history that will have the most impact upon Luzerne County’s future.

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Sterling

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Photo Credit:  Steve Woitkowski

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Photo Credit:  Steve Woitkowski

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Photo Credit:  Steve Woitkowski

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Photo Credit:  Steve Woitkowski

4Photo Credit:  Steve Woitkowski

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Photo Credit:  Steve Woitkowski

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Photo Credit:  Steve Woitkowski

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Photo Credit:  Steve Woitkowski

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Return To Guerrilla History

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Cheri Sundra © 2013
All Rights Reserved

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. 

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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

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 Cheri Sundra © 2013
All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

Hotel Sterling: The UnDead Days

Abandoned Hotel Sterling: A Room With A View

 Zombie buildings are real.  It was a term first coined by financial analysts to explain the national collapse of the commercial real estate market as far back as 2006, and has expanded to represent all buildings that are unusable due to disrepair, because they are owned by entities that are too broke to fix them.

Based upon “Hotel Sterling: The UnDead Days”,  Welcome To The Zombie Hotel Sterling is now available for digital download at Amazon.com!  If you don’t have a Kindle device, don’t worry, you can download a free Kindle app for your smart phone or computer right here!

Book Description:

Abandoned and rotting away along the banks of the mighty Susquehanna River, the zombified Hotel Sterling tells its tale of fading grandeur and woe to a photographer visiting the deteriorating structure, seeking to photographically document the reality of the condition of the building, as the hotel waits for its beloved community to decide its fate, once and for all.

~*~

Read an interview about “Welcome to the Zombie Sterling” at: 570 Mine Fire

~*~

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Cheri Sundra © 2013
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As The Vultures Picked Her Bones—A Hotel Sterling Video

 

I’ve attempted to make a video about the Hotel Sterling that (tries) to capture my sense of chaos about the place…It was made with just a cell phone camcorder & a movie making program that came with a laptop.  Far be it from me to allow the lack of proper equipment or skill to get in my way when it comes to creative expression!  😉

For a video tour of the abandoned Hotel Sterling, check out:

 “As The Vultures Picked Her Bones”

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Cheri Sundra © 2012
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