WILKES-BARRE — The landscape of the city’s downtown started to change Monday morning with the demolition of several historic buildings on South Main Street.
Shortly after 10 a.m. crews from Stell Enterprises Inc., of Plains Township, began tearing down the first of four buildings with the hope of saving two other buildings that are home to businesses.
Stell will be paid $194,861 for the work to raze a cluster of properties , including four owned by the city, at 61, 71, 73 and 75 S. Main St.
South Main Street was temporarily closed between Northampton Street and Public Square, and Northampton Street was closed between South Main and South Franklin streets to allow for the demolition work.
About 50 onlookers stopped, many with cameras in hand, to observe the work that began at 75 S. Main St., the building that once housed Deli Divine.
Before demolition began, Colleen Connolly, DEP spokeswoman, said Datom Enterprises inspectors went through two buildings to check for asbestos and both buildings were clear. They will inspect the other buildings today. Stell Enterprises paid for the inspections, Connolly said, as part of its contract with the city.
The demolition comes more than a week after the city condemned the buildings when results of an engineering study revealed they were unsafe.
The Place One at the Hollywood dress store at 67 S. Main St. and its next door neighbor Frank Clark Jeweler at 63 S. Main St. are to remain standing after the demolition. The owners have other locations where they can relocate temporarily.
Last week, Ilona Bruns, owner of Frank Clark Jeweler, packed up her inventory and moved it to her other store, Ocean Gold Jewelry in Nanticoke.
But the move for Michaelene Coffee, owner of Place One at The Hollywood, was not as easy. She was in the process of packing the gowns, dresses and other merchandise on Friday and Saturday.
Coffee and the city reached an agreement Thursday night that calls for the city to pay $8,800 to Matheson Transfer of Forty Fort to move her store contents to Coffee’s store in Scranton. She closed that one with the intention of consolidating it into her Wilkes-Barre store that she’s operated for 22 years.
Her building, determined to be structurally sound, shares an approximate 40-foot section of wall with the next door, vacant city-owned property at 69 S. Main St., complicating the demolition process.
When the dust settles, the city is hopeful that Coffee’s building and facade of the Engle Building will remain upright with Frank Clark’s.
Veterans Day meant no school for some local students. Bradley Higgins, 8, and Gavin Higgins, 2, convinced their mother, Kerry, to walk over to the demolition site to check things out. The Higgins family was in the city for dental appointments and they stood at South Main and East Northampton streets to observe the demolition.
“I guess if those buildings were never going to be used, it’s best to take them down and build something new,” Higgins said. “I’d like to see more stores — unique shops that you don’t see anywhere else.”
Higgins said she often visited the downtown when she was a child. Her grandmother brought her on the bus and she remembers the pet shop in the basement of Woolworth’s and she shopped at Pomeroy’s.
“This was always a busy city,” she said. “I hope that returns soon.”
Rebecca Allen of Dallas was finishing up an appointment at X-Treme Salon on Northampton Street, directly across from the demolition.
“I hope we see development like across the street,” she said. “Retail stores with apartments above them.”
Allen was talking about the new stores and movie theater complex that start on South Main Street and wrap around to East Northampton Street. She also favors keeping Place One at The Hollywood and Frank Clark Jeweler.
“Those are established, thriving businesses,” she said. “Why shouldn’t they be saved?”
Jerry Smith of Scranton has worked at the salon for just over two years, but he has been coming to downtown Wilkes-Barre much longer. He said any new development should include destinations for the city’s college students.
“Wilkes-Barre is destined to be a college town,” he said. “We should more things for younger people to do — businesses that are geared at the students’ wants and needs.”
Mike Simonson, the city’s deputy director of operations, said the project should take two weeks to complete. He said the building at 73 S. Main will come down today and then the project will move to 61 S. Main St., the former Humphrey’s Shoe Store building.
“Once that is down, then we will begin taking down the rear section of the Engle Building,” Simonson said. “We’ll take down about half of it — some 40 feet — then clear the debris away.”
Simonson said at that point architectural engineers will assess the stability of the building that is separated from Coffee’s building at 67 S. Main St. A firewall sits between the former Norton’s Store and Place One at The Hollywood. Simonson said the engineers will recommend how to stabilize Coffee’s building while the rest of Norton’s is removed.
Traffic patterns in the downtown may have to be altered from time to time as the demolition project progresses, Simonson said.