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See inside: Luzerne County Historical Society hosts walking tour on Wilkes University’s campus

Weckesser Hall, built in 1914-1916 for philanthropist Frederick J. Weckesser, is now home to administrative offices at Wilkes University.
Lydia McFarlane
Visitors to Wilkes University's campus enter the grand doors of Weckesser Hall to explore the Beaux-Arts style mansion and learn more about its history during the tour.

Historic mansions house students, classrooms and administrative offices at Wilkes University.

The former Victorian and Tudor-style homes, acquired by Wilkes over decades, contrast with more modern art, science and technology buildings. To invite the community to observe this contrast, Wilkes on Sunday hosted a tour of Gilded Age mansions in partnership with the Luzerne County Historical Society.

The tour took participants on a self-guided stroll through Wilkes University’s Rifkin Hall (1875), Conyngham Hall (1897), Weckesser Hall (1914-1916), Kirby Hall (1873-1874) and Chase Hall (1917-1918). Armed with maps and excitement, participants toured the houses in any order they pleased, with a volunteer stationed at each house to provide the walkers with background information and historical facts.

People dressed in period-appropriate clothing, channeling the late 19th and early 20th century eras in which the houses had been built. Those in period dress came from all up and down the East Coast, jumping at the opportunity to join friends in bringing an era- appropriate atmosphere to the tour.

Sue Fisher joined friends she’s met through dressing in period clothing and vintage dancing in dressing up in 19th century garb to welcome tour participants. Coming all the way from Winchester, Virginia, Fisher excitedly made the trek to Northeastern Pennsylvania to be a part of the tour.

“My friends are all here in costumes, so I thought I would join the party,” Fisher said. “It's a good chance to see houses that usually are not open to the public.”

Wilkes happily agreed to collaborate with the society.

“We were immediately interested in bringing people to campus and getting them inside some buildings that few people really get a chance to see and supporting the historical society by allowing them to raise some money in the process," said Mike Wood, the university’s special assistant to the president. "So it was pretty much a no-brainer for us to collaborate with them from the very beginning.”

The historical society worked on planning a tour to this extent for years, and this is the first time they have executed a tour of the mansions since 2005. The society happily offered locals a peek inside at the history they pass on morning commutes or daily walks but have rarely had the opportunity to step inside.

“The general public definitely wants to take a look at these,” said Mark Riccetti, Jr., the historical society’s director of operations and programs. “They want to get in there. They want to learn the history of the houses. They want to learn the history of the people that lived in the houses.”

The proceeds from ticket sales for the event went directly back into the society, helping to fund the upkeep of the many buildings within the society’s care and the planning of more events in the future.

“It allows us to do educational programming, like the author events, or lectures and also, quite frankly, it just lets us keep the lights on and the AC going,” Riccetti said. “With the old historic houses, utilities can be a challenge, so it will help us in numerous ways.”

The historic and devastating flood of 1972 caused by Hurricane Agnes Many affected many of the historic buildings, and Wilkes is honored to have a part in the preservation efforts of buildings that could have been lost to the flood.

“We're a proud steward of the ones that we were able to hang on to and preserve, even after the flood made a lot of them not in any condition to keep,” said Wood.

Wood shared that Wilkes hoped tourists would come away from the tour with an appreciation of the amount of upkeep the university puts into these mansions.

“I hope it demonstrates to the community our commitment to maintaining and keeping up these old, storied mansions that are so much part of our history,” he said.

WVIA took the tour to capture the excitement of the community and to explore the hidden gems Wilkes University has on its campus. The historical society and school provided visitors with background on each home.

Rifkin Hall

Built in 1875 and formerly known as the Ricketts/ Reynolds House, Rifkin Hall, once home to Civil War heroes and coal barons, is now home to undergraduate Wilkes students.

Acquired by Wilkes in July 1989, the university converted the Victorian-style mansion into student housing. Colonel Robert B. Ricketts, who was a hero of the Battle of Gettysburg, a lumber baron and an early nature conservationist, eventually made a name for himself in the area once he donated the Ricketts’ Glenn Park to the people of Pennsylvania.

The house was originally built as a double block, with Wilkes-Barre native Constance Reynolds and her family, including her husband who was a Civil War hero from Northern Virginia, living on the other side of the house.

Arching windows, original woodwork, ornate details in places like door knobs and molding rounded out with beautiful views of Wilkes-Barre’s South River Street make Rifkin Hall a unique and ornate dorm building far from the typical image that comes to mind when one thinks of a college dorm.

“It’s going to be where I live next time I go to college,” joked volunteer tour guide Mary Walsh.

Conyngham Hall

Conyngham Hall, built in 1897 and acquired by Wilkes in the 1970s, was once home to Wilkes’ student center, but now serves as a space for classrooms and student meetings.

The “Chateauesque'' style mansion was built for William Hillard Conyngham and was designed by architect Charles Gifford. Conyngham was the founding president of the Eastern Penn Supply Company, which started as a leading force in the anthracite mining industry at the time and is now a heating and plumbing supply company.

William Hillard Conyngham’s grandson, Will Conyngham, is the Luzerne County Historical Society’s newly minted board president, and offered photos of the mansion from decades ago as well as his own insights about the house that he had from visiting his grandparents there.

Wilkes only acquired the mansion after his grandparents had passed, and he still has fond memories of growing up in the mansion on South River Street.

Wilkes-Barre native and tour participant Tom Mooney was excited to get back into some buildings he had not been in for several decades.

“I was in one building for the last time, 65 years ago, so I renewed acquaintances with that building today,” Mooney said excitedly.

Conyngham happily showed visitors photos of the house when his grandparents lived in it and expressed gratitude at being able to show visitors the place he spent so much time in as a child.

“I used to visit my grandmother [here],” Conyngham shared.

Weckesser Hall

Weckesser Hall was built from 1914-1916 for Frederick J. Weckesser, a local philanthropist and the then Wilkes College’s Board of Trustees president.

The building, designed by architect Charles P.H. Gilbert, who also designed the house of Frank W. Woolworth, is an example of that time period’s popular Beaux Arts style of design. Weckesser was an associate of F.M. Kirby and also served as a district manager and eventually the director of the F.W. Woolworth Company.

It was acquired by Wilkes in 1956 when Weckesser passed, and has been used since as an administrative building, housing the university president's office and others. Even though faculty and staff work in the building everyday, they still appreciate the beauty of the grand, historic mansion throughout their work days.

“I don't think it's lost on any of us that are [working] in these buildings every day just how grand they are,” Wood said. “I work in Weckesser Hall, and I am just impressed every day and enjoy the opportunity to bring people to campus to show off some of these buildings.”

At the time it was built, Weckesser Hall was celebrated as one of the grandest and most beautiful buildings in the area.

The volunteer tour guide in Weckesser Hall shared with the walking groups, “There are newspaper articles when this was finished, saying this was the most sumptuous house ever built.”

Kirby Hall

While initially built for and lived in by coal baron and businessman Stephen Leonard Thurlow, Fred Morgan Kirby eventually bought the house for himself and his family in 1905. Kirby was a local business giant at the time, having started Wilkes-Barre’s first five-and-dime store. He later merged his business with Frank Woolworth’s, becoming a founder of the F.W. Woolworth Company.

Kirby’s son Allan P. Kirby donated the mansion to Bucknell University Junior College, which would one day become Wilkes College and then Wilkes University, in 1941. Now, Wilkes-Barre boasts many landmarks with Kirby’s name besides the High Victorian Gothic stone style mansion, including Kirby Park and the F.M. Kirby Center.

Kirby Hall now houses Wilkes’ English department, where students sit around long conference tables dissecting classic literature with a backdrop of rich wood, marble busts and ornately detailed ceilings. One of the classrooms is ringed by an original mural, painted by a French artist for the Kirby family.

The beauty and romance of Kirby Hall are a perfect home for the fantastical, creative and whimsical minds of Wilkes’ English students and professors.

In Kirby Hall, Helen Pickering of Forty Fort appreciated the local history and beauty of the mansions right in her backyard. After traveling to do mansion tours, she decided to take advantage of one right in her home county.

“I have an interest in history, and it sounded like a wonderful tour," Pickering said. “I actually had an interest in the Gilded Age. I’ve spent a little time touring the mansions in Newport [Rhode Island], so I wanted to see what we had locally in the area here.”

Chase Hall

Wilkes’ Chase Hall, built from 1917-1918 and acquired by Wilkes (at the time Bucknell University Junior College) in 1937, became the institution’s first acquired mansion. Chase Hall now houses Wilkes’s admissions office.

Fred M. Chase, the president of the Lehigh Valley Coal Company, and his wife, Ellen Stark Chase, lived in the Tudor revival style mansion. Chase was the sister of U.S. Admiral Harold R. Stark, who served as the chief of naval operations as well as the commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe.

Serving as the admissions building, Wilkes admissions counselors hope to boast the unique buildings that enhance Wilkes’ campus when prospective students and their families visit for the first time.

The university wanted to use the tour as a chance to show off the contrast between the mansions and modern buildings to participants in the tour, allowing community members to appreciate the uniqueness of Wilkes’ campus.

“I hope they come and see the glory of these buildings in their mostly original condition, and enjoy the juxtaposition of the modern science labs and how they are intertwined with these historical buildings,” said Wood. “I think [this] is one of the things that makes Wilkes’ campus truly unique and truly beautiful.”