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Building History: Wilkes University’s Kirby Hall

  • 11/06/2017
  • By Sarah
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Building History: Wilkes University’s Kirby Hall

At the corner of River and South streets in Wilkes-Barre’s Downtown Historic District is a building not like any other.

Today, were you to visit 202 South River Street, you’d find yourself in the home of Wilkes University’s English Department. There you’ll find (besides students milling about), decorative hardwood details on doors, windows, and the main stairwell; Italian marble fireplaces; a late-19th-century mural; and, well, maybe even a ghost.

Kirby Hall might just be one of the most beautiful buildings you’ll ever encounter within the Greater Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area.  And while I say this with a little bit of bias (I spent a majority of my college career in this very building and have a lot of fond memories here), I don’t think anyone would disagree with me. Have doubts? Well, all I can say is maybe seeing is believing.

When you’re an English Major and forging strong bonds with friends, professors, and advisors alike, it’s easy to get swept up in the building’s romance (even if completing your final paper on time led to some tears). Even without such a personal connection to an inanimate work of architecture, the building’s history and historical significance is enough reason to swoon—am I right?

Residential History

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This particular building history begins before there was even a building to begin with.

Where 202 South River Street now stands was once the site of a log house. While this in and of itself is not altogether uncommon, it was in this house where Colonel Denison (next in command to Colonel Zebulon Butler at the Battle of Wyoming) married Elizabeth Sill. This union marked the first marriage in the Wyoming Valley.

Rosewell Welles later built a large frame house in this location.

During the 1800s, the waterfront area along the north branch of the Susquehanna River grew in size and wealth. Between 1873 and 1874, the present mansion was constructed for Stephen Leonard Thurlow, designed by architect Frederick Withers. Withers considered the residence to be his most important work and it was featured in the December 1876 issue of Architectural Digest.

This particular building, though not yet known as Kirby Hall, was one of the 19th Century mansions built by the Wilkes-Barre elite—men who earned their wealth through industry and the region’s rich deposits of Anthracite coal. Thurlow himself was a successful coal dealer.

When Thurlow died in 1880, the house was sold to an undisclosed buyer. In 1886, the house was then sold to local banker and philanthropist, Rueben Flick.

In 1906, Frederick Morgan Kirby purchased the property for $55,000 (about $1.4 million today). Kirby was a prominent local businessman (he created the 5-and-dime store concept and was one of the founders of F.W. Woolsworth Co.) and a philanthropist.  In 1908, additions were made to the terrace.

Academic History

After Frederick’s death in 1940, his son Allan P. Kirby donated the residence to Bucknell University Junior College. This was the fourth building given to the school which was established in 1933 by Bucknell University. The other buildings were Conyngham Hall, Chase Hall, and the first Weckesser Hall. On December 2, 1941, the building was officially dedicated as the Kirby Educational Home of Bucknell Junior College.

Initially, the first floor was used by music students, the second floor was a library, and the third floor served as the residence for the school’s first president and his wife, Dr. and Mrs. Eugene Farley. Eventually, the library expanded to all three floors of Kirby Hall until the Farley Library opened in 1968, replacing it.

“A diamond in the rough.”

–or maybe, a shiny piece of Anthracite coal. 

After more than 100 hundred years, the building was starting to show its age—and not really in the best ways possible. In 1992, then-president Christopher N. Breiseth announced extensive restoration plans for Kirby Hall in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Allan P. Kirby’s birth. The restoration was completed in 2000, which brought the mansion back to its original Victorian splendor. Kirby Hall even received the annual “Pride of Place” Award from the Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business & Industry.

Today, Kirby Hall is the hub for the University’s English Department. It holds offices and classrooms throughout its three floors. Public events are also sometimes held on the first floor in the Kirby Salon, such as the Allan Hamilton Dickson Spring Writers Series.

The building, in its architectural splendor, also continues to represent the area’s prosperity during the time of its construction and its history as a private residence.

The building also makes an appearance on ghost tours of downtown Wilkes-Barre for reports of it being haunted. Supposedly, before F.M. Kirby purchased the property, Reuben Flick had a billiards room on the second floor. Legend has it a player named Poker Pan was killed in the residence during a gambling dispute. Some say they can feel a presence on the third floor, even feeling a hand on their back, while others have reported shadows walking up and down the stairs and strange mist by the stained-glass window.

While I personally never experienced any potential hauntings during my time there, “I want to believe.


Sources:

http://www.wilkes.edu/about-wilkes/campus/buildings-academic-administrative/kirby-hall.aspx

http://hcap.artstor.org/cgi-bin/library?a=d&d=p1998

https://archive.org/stream/historyofwilkesb06harv/historyofwilkesb06harv_djvu.txt

http://www.wilkes.edu/include/wilkesmagazine/fall09/5_feature_hauntedwilkes.pdf

By Sarah, 11/06/2017 Sarah is a content writer and social media assistant with a BA in literature/creative writing from Wilkes University. When she’s not spending her days at work writing, reading, and drinking coffee, she’s usually at home reading, writing, and drinking coffee. She also devotes a fair amount of time to HGTV, drawing, and doting on her dog. As a creator, Sarah believes in emphasizing personality through design and DIY projects.

Sarah

Sarah is a content writer and social media assistant with a BA in literature/creative writing from Wilkes University. When she’s not spending her days at work writing, reading, and drinking coffee, she’s usually at home reading, writing, and drinking coffee. She also devotes a fair amount of time to HGTV, drawing, and doting on her dog. As a creator, Sarah believes in emphasizing personality through design and DIY projects.

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