Hotel Sterling: The UnDead Days
I was glorious when I came to be, no one can dispute that fact. Despite not functioning as an actual hotel for decades, I am The Hotel Sterling. I know that some of you still remember me, and I delight in that observation immensely!
When I opened in 1898, I was, and always will be, Wilkes-Barre’s grandest example of a luxury hotel, built during the Golden Era of luxury hotels. I was designed to evoke “big city sophistication” as a reflection of power, elegance and energy during some of the most prosperous days experienced by Luzerne County.
My interior was all decked out from top to bottom in the bling of the Gilded Age. I even had my own mega-high ceiling with a skylight, and of course, my now iconic columned lobby. The columns were faux marble, of course. But there is nothing wrong with a little cosmetic enhancement now and then, is there? Even today, my adoring admirers still like to compare me to the famed Plaza Hotel of New York City, which was not even conceived until 1902. Perhaps The Plaza should be compared to me!
When I first opened, I was the place to be seen in Wilkes-Barre if you had money to blow and an appetite for the pampered life. After all, coal was king, so was industry, and Luzerne County had it all! Trains were depositing and retrieving droves of businessmen at the now defunct train station, known long ago as the Lehigh & Susquehanna Railroad Station. It was because of the activity of this train station that I was actually created.
Once upon a time, before I stood at what was considered the gateway to Wilkes-Barre, at the end of the Market Street Bridge, there was a music hall, where popular plays and musical comedies were performed. Then the day arrived when that parcel of real estate seemed far too valuable for such a singular venue, and the music hall was removed to make room for me.
When I was being built, the city’s population was in the process of doubling in size within a twenty year span, and urban growth was creating a need for larger venues to accommodate travelers within close proximity to that bustling rail station and busy downtown area. While Wilkes-Barre had no shortage of places for travelers to stay, a new hotel with up-to-date amenities was needed to host meetings, conventions and banquets, where decision-makers could meet to enjoy coffee, liquor, gourmet food and cigars. I was more than happy to oblige.
Investors had grand plans for their new super-hotel, but they disliked the first design –a Victorian Chateau with two tall peaks & gabled dormers.
The hotel stockholders had a vision for me that was futuristic and urban, with clean lines and a modern design that was very different from the buildings that comprised the city at that time. They wanted Wilkes-Barre to look forward, not cling to an outdated past.
I was so spectacular that my opening ignited the demise of my main competition, the city’s very first luxury hotel—the Wyoming Valley Hotel. With its aging wood and airy porches that lacked the sophisticated character required in a thriving metropolitan area during the era of coal baron extravagance, located just a few doors down from me, full of my modern appointments and in-your-face splendor, the Wyoming Valley Hotel lost most of its customers and was subsequently demolished.
Change occurred rather quickly in Wilkes-Barre during its anthracite glory days, and within the next decade, more hotels, even more modern than me, appeared within walking distance to the railway station. Yet I always managed to maintain my position as a place of interest thanks to features such as my string orchestra and New York City style cuisine.
The first decade of the 1900s, when new modes of transportation were permitting easy travel into our community for the first time, was unequivocally my finest. Postcards were used as cutting edge methods of advertisement then, and with my proximity to the scenic Susquehanna River, I was a sure winner in that arena. In my very early years, I found ways to support Wilkes-Barre as Wilkes-Barre continued to support me.
During the thirties, anticipating that I would be needed to continue to meet the needs of the city’s local coal based economy, I enjoyed new growth. An addition was constructed, and an existing hotel was purchased, to build a bigger Hotel Sterling that included my now legendary hallway.
Tales spread of my new luxurious grand hallway, and the fine paintings and sculptures that I now housed in all of my public areas. For years I could boast of being the largest hotel around! But some would say that my tragic decline actually began with my expansion.
As soon as the expansion was completed, changes in the hotel industry were sweeping the country thanks to the Great Depression, and my elegant style now seemed extremely antiquated and overtly pretentious. Most hotels nationwide started scaling back their operations, and in order to maintain my usefulness, my image underwent a major demotion from worldly-sophistication, to being a less upscale, more community-centric version of myself. The bitter blow of my downgrade was softened by the fact that I still had fantastically exciting days ahead of me, and my magnificent reputation stayed intact in the eyes of the locals long after my grandeur started down that road to decline.
There were still weddings and debutante balls to host. Community leaders and local celebrities rubbed elbows in my lounge. I had retail space to fill and graduation parties to prepare. Local corporations wanted me for their Christmas parties, and service clubs, for their meetings.
During the 1960s, I maintained brushes with greatness, as well as a stylish smorgasbord dinner where local department store models strolled among the diners, yet I felt as if my elegant past, along with the twilight of my youth, were fading into oblivion along with the days of prosperity in Luzerne County.
As the local coal mining industry declined, along with the city’s population, community hotels were falling victim to the economy and demolition teams. In order to survive, I had to offer my now antiquated space to college students seeking dorm rooms. As the college took steps to better meet student housing needs, I morphed myself once again…<sigh>…this time into a low-budget, residential hotel. Then, in the year 1998, exactly one hundred years after I was born, the City of Wilkes-Barre had to order residents to leave me because the owner could not pay an electric bill in excess of $200,000.
I cannot say that the new millennium has been very kind to me. Today I still sit in limbo, without human habitation, despite a preservation attempt by a nonprofit developer with an approved budget of $6 million dollars in taxpayer money that essentially resulted in the demolition of my areas of expansion. All that remains of me now are the decaying ruins of my original structure. It’s been reported that the completion of my restoration would cost between $27 and $32 million dollars and no one seems willing, or able, to take on that kind of expense. Not for me. Not at this time. Not in Luzerne County.
In the interim, I languish here, day after day, season after season, with my interior exposed to the elements, actively rotting away near the banks of the mighty Susquehanna, because my beloved community not only lacks the resources to redevelop my historic structure, it also lacks clear-cut access to the funds needed to just relieve me of my misery forever.
Recently, I’ve come to the harsh realization that to an entire generation of Luzerne County residents, I am not even known as the once grand luxury hotel that I am…<sigh>… To these young people, I have never been anything but a mold infested, water damaged hunk of derelict real estate left lingering on their skyline, damaging their city’s fragile self-esteem.
Alas, I am once again a hot topic of conversation as decision makers and citizens engage in debate about what should be done with me. Some want me demolished, and others want to attempt to preserve whatever grandeur of my glory days may still be left within these decaying walls, for redevelopment in some far off future. I have no quarrel with either side, I don’t care who wins. It is the third group that I am most concerned with–the heartless bastards who want to do nothing with me.
The time is now for the community to understand who I really am, and what I have become, so they can make an informed decision, and take decisive action one way or the other. To leave me languishing in this state of active decay and ruin is just too much for me to bear. It would be cruel to allow my undead life to continue like this for much longer, I yearn to be released from it.
To be continued….
Hotel Sterling: The UnDead Days—Part 2:
It is an in-depth look at the Hotel Sterling failed preservation attempt, the zombies are just there to make it interesting! ;-)
****Don’t miss my Hotel Sterling Video:
My blog was recently featured on “PA! live” as blog of the week!
You can find the clip here:
I was also recently interviewed for an article about the Kirby Park Zoo Ruins: