Advocates celebrate protection of Wilkes-Barre’s historic architecture


WILKES-BARRE — Vaughn Koter adores his 91-year-old historic home on West Ross Street, he loves the character of his neighborhood and he’s grateful the city council has taken action to help protect both.

“I remember when I was probably in junior high, King’s College tore down all the brownstones on Union Street. I remember seeing all those beautiful buildings being demolished,” Koter, a 49-year-old working in health care technology sales, said.

“I just didn’t get it. Other communities are preserving their history, but we have a way of tearing these beautiful architectural gems down and then put up buildings that don’t necessarily fit in with the landscape,” Koter lamented. “I think we’re losing a lot of our history, and it’s not a good thing for our city.”

Koter’s home, which lies in what the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office recognizes as the River Street Historic District, and other buildings in that district are now protected from neglect that could lead to condemnation as well as from developers with plans to demolish them and replace them with something different.

Wilkes-Barre City Council on Nov. 5 passed on final reading an amendment to the city’s zoning ordinance, authorizing an historic properties overlay for the zoning map and establishing an Historic Overlay District Advisory Committee that will designate historic properties in the city and review any applications that seek to make changes to properties included in the district.

The district can be designated to include any property in the city that the committee deems historic.

Applications for building permits, land development plans, land subdivisions and demolition permits for buildings in that overlay district will have to come before the committee for review, and the committee will make recommendations for approval or denial to the issuer of a permit.

“I am very glad to see the initial step of putting that into effect,” Koter said. “If we keep tearing things down and putting up parking lots or prefabricated buildings, we’re losing the charm and the blood, sweat and tears that people put into building our community.”

Protecting the past

Koter used to live about a quarter mile from his current home, and he put that home on the market in 2018 with plans to move out of the city. But while he was out on a run one day, he noticed a “for sale” sign in front of the Ross Street structure, which he had always admired and had once served as the quarters for the Wilkes University wrestling team.

“I immediately called my Realtor. I wasn’t in the door three steps and I knew I was going to buy it. I think it was an overall feeling of the history of the home. And the exterior architecture is something you don’t find in today’s buildings. The brick work outside is spectacular,” Koter said.

Many homes in that area have their own historic charm that adds to the character of the neighborhood. In fact, employees of the city health department are using a state grant to develop a smartphone app that will assist users with a self-guided tour of the historic district, which runs along River and Franklin streets between Ross and North streets.

“Historic preservation is what makes each community unique,” said city Councilman Tony Brooks, who has been working with Larry Newman, executive director of the…

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