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River Street Historic District

Wilkes-Barre City, Luzerne County, PA

River Street Historic District

Roth Residence Hall, crca 1860, part of the River Street Historic District listed on the National Register in 1985.. Photographed by wikipedia username: Smallbones own work, 2011[public domain], accessed July, 2022.

The River Street Historic District [1] was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.


The River Street Historic District is a residential neighborhood dating from 1860-1920 at the center of which is an institutional core of civic and ecclesiastical buildings. It is organized linearly with respect to the Susquehanna River, from which the District derives its character and pattern of land use. Along the banks of the river is a park, held by the city as a town commons. Paralleling the Susquehanna are River Street and, one block east of River Street, Franklin Street, upon which the most-elaborate houses are constructed. These houses are three-story, freestanding houses, of masonry construction, and designed in a variety of historical styles. Corner sites are given special attention through turrets or projecting bays, and it is here that the most lavish houses are erected.

Bisecting the linear district is West Market Street, which formed the traditional financial and commercial core of the residential neighborhood during the 19th century. While there are several three-story, later 19th century commercial buildings, this street serves as the institutional focus of the district and contains its three major bank buildings and its hotel. Concentrated around the intersection of West Market and Franklin Streets are located Wilkes-Barre's library (Osterhaut Free Library), Museum (Wyoming Historical and Geological Society) and buildings connected with its major fraternal institutions (Irem Temple, Masonic Temple, and the Odd Fellows' Building). The important civic role of this short section of street is related to its location between the Market Street Bridge, the principal crossing over the Susquehanna River since the early 19th century, and Public Square, the original site of the city's courthouse.

The scale of the District is characterized by freestanding houses on large lots, set back from the street by tree lawns and front yards. Nearly all of the houses are architect-designed and demonstrate the rapid pace of changing stylistic preferences during the late 19th century. The houses are generally of brick, either left exposed or stuccoed, with brownstone trim. Part of the homogeneous character of the district derives from the use of a local stone for foundations and dressings. Wyoming Bluestone, a brownstone with a blue-gray cast, was quarried locally from the quarries of J. Brownscombe and is used extensively throughout the district.

Among the best examples of Wilkes-Barre's changing panorama of styles are the S. L. Brown home and the George Bedford home, both on South River Street. The Bedford home is the city's best known High Victorian building. Built in 1875, it displays the polychromatic brickwork and picturesque asymmetrical massing of the High Victorian version of the Gothic style. The S. L. Brown home is an intriguing example of an 1840s symmetrical Greek Revival home given a stylistic "facelift" in the Queen Anne style in 1886. This remodeling featured heavily rusticated blue-stone trim, and a shingled corner tower served as the paradigm for much Queen Anne architecture during the next 15 years.

A major modern institutional presence in the district is Wilkes College, which owns a large number of the buildings on either side of South River Street and most of the block bounded by River and Franklin Streets, between Northampton and South Streets. While the new buildings of the college have been listed as intrusive to the district, Wilkes College also possesses a number of buildings which contribute to the character of the district, and some of which have been sympathetically restored (Kirby Hall; the student center in the former Conyngham Home; and the guidance office in the former Andrew McClintock Law Office, etc.) Many of the older houses are of the central plan type, with principal rooms arranged on either side of a stair-hall running perpendicularly through the building.

The River Street Historic District includes four church buildings erected between 1848 and 1900 and all situated on Franklin Street. Their steeples (and the extraordinary campanile of St. Stephen's Church) provide the principal features of the District's skyline. These are high-quality designs, reflecting a cosmopolitan civic image based on the metropolitan architecture of New York and Philadelphia. In large part, it was architects from these cities who were brought to Wilkes-Barre to design churches as well as homes and commercial buildings; among those whose work in the District survives are James Renwick (Osterhout Library, formerly the Presbyterian Church, 1843-1852); F. C. Withers, and J. C. Cady (the "new" Presbyterian Church of 1889), all from New York and architects of national renown. From Philadelphia came architects such as John Fraser, best known as Frank Furness' mentor; Wilson Eyre (the Phelps home, currently the American Legion Post) and Charles Burns, a prominent designer of Episcopal churches and the architect of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.

While the residential streets of the district are of a domestic scale and character, the institutional core at the corner of West Market and Franklin Streets is different stylistically, in its Beaux-Arts buildings, and in its scale, determined by tall office buildings. Chief among these are the United Penn Bank Building, built by the nationally important Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham in 1911, and the First Eastern Bank, built in 1907 by important local architects McCormick and French. These white terra cotta buildings of the financial zone provide a contrast to the smaller-scaled red brick and brownstone of the nearby houses. This contrast between the White City ideal of the civic and financial buildings with the red brick industrial city of the coal magnates' mansions provides an insight into the social history of Wilkes-Barre; while the city's mansions address the pastoral beauty of the riverfront, they are built in the shadows of the great local banking institutions made wealthy by intensive anthracite coal mining less than one mile from the scenic river bank.


The River Street Historic District contains, in a spatially compact and visually coherent neighborhood, Wilkes-Barre's finest examples of late 19th and early 20th century architecture. Primarily a district of wealthy industrialists' mansions and upwardly mobile merchants' houses, the district is organized spatially and hierarchically about a central core of the city's principal civic and financial institutions. The district is an important document of Wilkes-Barre's social and economic history during the years of the anthracite coal industry, roughly 1865-1925. It records the aspirations and living conditions of the district's inhabitants as reflected in their architectural preferences and decisions.

The River Street Historic District consists of River Street and Franklin Street, the Susquehanna River Common, and the smaller cross streets which run from the river. The architectural development within this District is closely connected to the economic history of Wilkes-Barre. The boundaries of the present District derive from the mid- 19th century pattern development. Between 1828 and 1832, the North Branch of the Pennsylvania canal system was built and connected Wilkes-Barre's coal resources to a transportation system which made large-scale mining profitable. Within the city, the canal was located to the east of the downtown, preserving the River Common as a desirable residential area. This compressed the further development of the city into narrow bands parallel to the river and created the linear character of the District. Between Jackson and Union Streets, the canal cut tack toward the river, creating a boundary between the socially elite character of the neighborhood to the south with the middle- class neighborhood to the north; this section of the former canal bed forms the northern barrier of the District. The eastern edge of the District runs along the rear property line of the buildings on the east side of Franklin Street. It does not include Main Street to the rear of these buildings for several reasons, related to the historical forces creating the district and to the present condition and coherence of the District. Unlike Franklin and River Streets, whose character was established early in the 19th century in response to the view and economic benefits provided by the Susquehanna River and its banks, the development of Main Street occurred primarily in the decades after the Civil War and in response to the railroad lines just to the east of the city. In addition, the extensive demolition and new construction of the commercial buildings along Main Street in the period from 1950 to 1980 has destroyed the original historic coherence of the street.

Although South Street was the southern boundary of the original town plot, by the decade of the Civil War it had been extended one block further south to Ross Street. This street marks the southern boundary of the District. While not as immediately visually apparent as the other three boundaries, this line marks the effective edge of Wilkes-Barre's socially elite neighborhood. Just south of Ross Street, the character of the architecture immediately changes from one of substantial, three-story masonry houses built from architects' plans to one characterized by two-story contractor-designed houses usually built of wood.

The western edge of the District is formed by the Susquehanna River; included within the District is the River Common. The River Common remains an important part of Wilkes-Barre's history and reflects perhaps the last surviving legacy of Wilkes-Barre's origin as a town founded in 1770 by Connecticut settlers with their New England tradition of the "town commons." The River Common was originally the focus of Wilkes-Barre's economic life, and was originally the site of timber and coal shipping, boat building, and shad fishing. While its economic role is gone, the impact of the river on the development of the District is still apparent. The concentration of hotels and banks around the Market Street Bridge, which still persists, can be dated to the opening of the second Market Street Bridge around 1820. The handful of three-story brick commercial buildings on West Market Street, in immediate proximity to the bridge, documents all that remains of what was once the commercial center of Wilkes-Barre.

Although the appearance of the North Branch Canal spurred Wilkes-Barre's development, it was not until 1865 with the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the local railway era that the anthracite coal industry began to boom. ,The prosperity of the Anthracite industry lasted until the 1920's, when the crippling labor strike of 1926, the Depression, and the growing national shift to natural gas heating led to the collapse of the local economy.

The District regards the architectural fabric of the city as it was formed during the era of the prosperity of the local industry. It is reflected best in the domestic architecture. These houses are nearly all architect-designed, many by prominent New York and Philadelphia architects. The appearance of these architects in Wilkes-Barre itself is a document of the city's prosperity during this period, as well as of Wilkes-Barre's capitalists' values, as they tried to identify themselves in lifestyle with their metropolitan counterparts. Architects whose work survives in the district are New York's F. C. Withers, one of America's leading Gothic church architects, who erected the S. L. Thurlow home in 1872, now Kirby Hall, and Charles H. P. Gilbert, a major New York residential architect at the turn of the century, who designed Weckesser Hall in 1916. Philadelphia architects are represented, including Wilson Eyre Jr., who designed the Phelps House, now the American Legion Post, in 1901; and Willis Gaylord Hale, who designed the Volney Maxwell mansion in 1876, now the Wyoming Historical Society Library. Hale was an extremely important architect in Philadelphia, designing large real estate developments in the northern part of the city for Peter Widener, whose mansion Hale also designed; the Maxwell mansion is Hale's oldest known building and documents the start of the architect's private practice as a local architect before moving to Philadelphia in 1877.

Another architect whose career the district documents is one of national importance, Bruce Price (1845-1903). Price practiced in New York, designing the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City and Pierre Lorillard's exclusive Tuxedo Park development in New York. Price began his independent career in Wilkes-Barre, where he practiced from 1873-1877. Within a few short blocks the District includes no less than eight surviving works by Price. The high quality of work by Price may have contributed to the high quality of work by local architects, who worked in a Price-like manner after the architect left for New York.

Testifying to the District's architectural character is the relatively large number of buildings which were published in American architectural periodicals. Accepting Wilkes-Barre designs were the American Architect and Building News (F; C. Withers' S. L. Thurlow House; C. M. Burns' design for St. Stephen's Church; and, three plates of Bruce Price buildings in the district); the Builder (Kipp & Podmore's design for the Benjamin Reynolds' Block on Northampton Street, 1887) ;the Brickbuilder (Wilson Eyre's Phelps House); the Architectural Record (McCormick & French's Second National Bank); and the Architectural, Review (Charles Gifford's stable for the Conyngham Home, 1902).

Besides recording the work of important local and national architects, the frenetic pace of changing architectural taste in the District documents a stylistic insecurity on the part of the original residents and a constant need to update their houses in accordance with prevailing architectural preferences in New York and Philadelphia. A striking example of this process is provided by three originally similar Greek Revival houses on the first block of South River Street. Catlin Hall preserves its original 1840s form, while McClintock Hall was given a round-arched villa-style facelifting in the 1860s; Weiss Hall represents a similar home given an 1880s Queen Anne treatment, complete with corner tower.

Besides its domestic architecture, the District possesses a number of noteworthy institutional structures. These are arranged along Franklin Street and originally provided a transitional area of mixed institutional and residential land use between the purely residential pattern of River Street and the purely commercial development of Main Street to the rear. Several of these buildings are significant in their own right, and they display among them a stylistic variety as great as that of the domestic architecture. There is a Renaissance Palazzo Y.M.C.A. at the corner of Northampton and South Franklin Streets while a Stripped Classical, all marble building is used for the Kirby Health Center, both buildings dating from about 1930; coming at the end of Wilkes-Barre's more than half century of economic growth, they document the last privately funded buildings of any size erected within the District for almost a quarter of a century.

Two institutional buildings are worthy of special attention. First is the Luzerne County Courthouse, 1899-1909, which was designed by F. J. Osterling of Pittsburgh, the architect who completed H. H. Richardson's work at the Allegheny County Prison. It is a massive Beaux-Arts structure of local Campbell's Ledge sandstone and contributes to the character of civic grandeur which dominates the River Commons; also lending monumentality to the river bank is the Market Street Bridge; a triumphal example of Roman Classicism design by the noted New York firm of Carrere and Hastings.

The second unusual institutional building is the Irem Temple, an auditorium erected for a local masonic lodge. Designed by the local firm of Fred Olds and F. Willard Puckey in 1907, the building is in the Moorish Revival style, an unusually early example of a style which was popular in the 1920s.

While the architecture of the District can be linked to the work of important national and local architects, it also reflects and documents the lives of the city's civic and financial leaders. Among those local elite whose homes still survive is that of F. M. Kirby, whose fortune derived from the Woolworth's chain which he- founded. Not only does Kirby's home survive as Kirby Hall of Wilkes College, but his importance in the city's civic life is also documented by the Kirby Health Center on North Franklin Street, a bequest of Kirby's which provided for a permanent endowment as well as a Classical Revival building by local architect Thomas Atherton. The close connection between the city's social and financial elite and philanthropic architectural patronage is also documented in the buildings associated with a leading woman of 19th century Wilkes-Barre, Priscilla Lee Bennett. The P. L. Bennett home was designed in 1882 by American architect Bruce Price, the husband of Mrs. Bennett's niece. Bennett also commissioned Price to design the First Methodist Sunday School (1876) and Church (1884) buildings, which she largely funded herself. All three buildings survive in the District, exemplifying the interlocking pattern of residential and institutional land use within the district.

The homes along River Street were also important as the meeting places for the financiers and merchants of the city and the state. Andrew McClintock (b. 1810) was a local lawyer whose Vaux and Withers-designed home still stands in the district. Philadelphian Sidney George Fisher, whose diary is a crucial document of mid-19th century Pennsylvanian social history, describes a visit to McClintock's law office, one-story brick building which still stands next to McClintock's home on South River Street. Typical of the city's civic leaders was a man such as Harry H. Derr, whose John Hawkins-designed house still stands on North River Street. Involved in the city's financial life (through his insurance business and his connections to coal mining interests), Derr was largely responsible for the development of North Wilkes-Barre in the late 1880s through the introduction of passenger street railway service; Derr was also a school board member. The interconnection of Wi1kes-Barre's financial ,industrial, and legal communities is illustrated strikingly by George R. Bedford (1840-1927), whose High Victorian Gothic home on South River and South Streets was designed by Bruce Price in 1875; Bedford, an attorney who practiced for local coal companies, was also a director of the Wyoming National Bank, one of the city's most important banks.

While the homes of other prominent Wilkes-Barre citizens and Pennsylvanians have been demolished, such as that of former Pennsylvania governor Henry Hoyt, a large enough- number of houses survive, along with the institutional buildings with which their owners were associated, to provide a coherent document of the social organization and lifestyles of the inhabitants of the district from c. 1860 to c. 1930.

Although the collapse of the coal industry in the 1920s introduced an age of economic stagnation, this same stagnation has repressed building activity and allowed the District to remain intact. It continues to reflect the splendor and prominence that was so important a part of Wilkes-Barre's image during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

  1. Adapted from: Lewis, Michael, Conner, Michael, Sgromo, V Joseph, River Street Historic District. Wilkes-Barre PA, 1985, National Register of Historic Places Nomination, National Park Service, Washington D.C.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
Franklin Street • Market Street • Northampton Street • River Street • South Street • Union Street