Thursday, July 10, 2014

Is the Irem Temple next?

Architect offers alternative to preserve historic structure on N. Franklin Street

July 29. 2013 12:01AM

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WILKES-BARRE — At some point something has to be done with the Irem Temple, and Rick Williams and others hope it’s not torn down like the nearby Hotel Sterling.

Last week demolition crews razed a good portion of the rear of the hotel. They’re moving to the North River Street side today to continue to reduce the landmark structure to rubble.

The hotel opened in 1898, and nine years later, the temple, designed in Moorish revival architecture complete with four minarets and dome, was completed on North Franklin Street.

Like the hotel, it’s been vacant for years, and architect Rick Williams fears its brick walls could be bashed to pieces by the steel buckets and blades of excavators, like those leveling the hotel.

“My concern is it has the potential to deteriorate,” Williams said last week. “As a last resort I could imagine an adaptive reuse.”

Ideally, he’d like to see it restored to its original condition and used as a performing arts center. But the price tag is in the tens of millions of dollars, he said.

As a less expensive alternative, he’s suggesting that the minarets and dome, and possibly the barrel vault roof, remain to cover an open space below that could be used for performances, farmers markets, flea markets or any number of uses.

His idea calls for “selective demolition” of the existing stage area and filling in the basement.

It would “preserve the post card image as well as create a very interesting outdoor covered stage,” he said.

Time is not on the building’s side, and a decision on its future should be made in the next year or two.

“I’m not sure what the life expectancy is,” he said. “In some period of time something will fall off that.”

The building is owned by the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business and Industry, which bought it for $992,000 in 2005 from the Irem Temple A.A.O.N.M.S.

The chamber’s goal was to put it in safekeeping until a new use was determined and funding could be secured.

Calls left with Bill Moore, chief executive of the chamber, and Frank Joanlanne, chairman of the board of the chamber, were not returned Friday.

Earlier this year the chamber unsuccessfully sought $2.4 million in local share gambling funds to bring the building up to code for occupancy.

Ross Mccarty worked on the funding when he was former vice president of real estate with the chamber and hasn’t stopped pursuing other sources. Mccarty, of Wilkes-Barre, has been critical of the chamber for not making the building a priority.

“It’s the only asset that they have that they are in control of that they can do something with,” he said.

His efforts are focused on saving and restoring the building.

“I just don’t want to see the building crumble, because that would be criminal,” Mccarty said.

He has created a Facebook page in support of his efforts and been in touch with “some influential people from the area” as well.

The building has even attracted the attention of two photographers from France who want access to it.

They’ve photographed historic theaters across the country. Some are in ruins and some have been converted into stores and for other uses.

“Don’t ask me how the Irem Temple got on their radar screen in Paris,” Mccarty said.

He said he’s optimistic his work isn’t in vain.

“With each additional piece of exposure or public awareness that’s a step in the right direction,” he said.

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