WILKES-BARRE – For a city that was settled in 1769, it doesn’t take much more than a glance downtown to see the marks of the Wilkes-Barre’s rich history.
The River Street Historic District, for example, was officially established in 1985 and boasts over 200 Victorian-style buildings and homes, all within the space of about a mile.
Wilkes-Barré Preservation Society Director and Curator Tony Brooks has been a resident and on the society’s board for a long while now, and is happy to give tours to locals, out-of-towners, groups and organizations alike.
The tours, he says, began back in 2003.
“It was an outgrowth of a series of Victorian-themed Christmas tours given by Betsy Bell Condron, Harry Haas and myself,” Brooks said.
Since then, according to the society’s website, www.wbpreservation.org, “over 10,000 people have enjoyed the architectural walking tours,” of the aforementioned Historic District and Hollenback Cemetery.
Brooks says they’ve hosted locals, high-school reunions from the inner city’s three secondary schools (now consolidated into Wilkes-Barre Area High School), various youth scouting organization, bus trips from Philadelphia and others in series of public and private tours.
One cool aspect of giving the tours, he says, is, “The out-of-towners will come and marvel at the sheer amount of Victorian architecture.” But it’s not all about ‘wow-ing’ those who don’t hail from the region.
“It’s really important that the center of our community is strong, to instill a sense of pride in the area we call home,” he said. “One of the best things I always hear is that people from here are very pleased and proud to call it ‘home.’”
As a matter of fact, the walking tours of downtown were named one of the top 15 things to do in Luzerne County, according to a 2019 poll.
Many locals might be familiar with the Mary Stegmaier Mansion, or perhaps the River Common area – a particularly beautiful summer or fall stroll. The Preservation Society also saved the Zebulon Butler House – the oldest building in Wilkes-Barre – from demolition is 2017. They aim to turn it into a museum and local history library.
As stated on the Preservation Society’s website:
“Built in 1793 and incorporating parts of a 1773 log cabin, the Zebulon Butler House Museum will interpret the four generations of the Butler family that lived there from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. The house will be restored to the Federal period of the 1820s.
“To date, the exterior of the house was restored and painted, and the interior has been stripped down to the original floors and walls. Donations of Federal period (1790-1830) furniture, paintings, books and other household items are being accepted.”
While tours are generally not offered in the winter months, those interested will be happy to know they can schedule at their leisure for the other three quarters of the year by visiting the website and reaching out to Brooks. You can also watch the Diamond City: Trail of History series, hosted by Brooks, via the YouTube channel of the same name, which features tours and stunning drone and ground camera footage.
Brooks also serves the community as a member of city council and the Diamond City Partners – with which they aim to celebrate the rich, nearly 300 year history of Wilkes-Barre, while also continuing on to revitalize and re-establish the downtown area as a center of culture, cuisine, recreation and expression.