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RENOVATING OUR HISTORY

By KALEN CHURCHER kchurcher@leader.net

Saturday, February 02, 2002     Page: 1D

WILKES-BARRE - Standing in the Stegmaier Mansion entrance and gazing three stories to an intricately constructed and refinished stained-glass skylight, it's not hard to feel the history that consumes the more than century-old building.
    Built in 1870 by locally renowned architect Missouria B. Houpt, the building has had its share of familiar owners, including Houpt, Abram Nesbitt and Frederick J. Stegmaier, whose family owned and operated the Stegmaier Brewery in Wilkes-Barre.
    Joe Matteo, a pianist who says that he has traveled throughout Europe giving performances, purchased the building for $205,000 from Graysha Harris of Tunkhannock in September. Within the next few years, the Wilkes-Barre resident plans on turning the historic structure into a bed-and-breakfast.
    ``One of my dreams was to buy the Harry Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe,'' said Matteo, seated in a first-floor nook. ``Granted, Wilkes-Barre is not Jim Thorpe, but because we're the county seat, we have the potential to do something here.''
    An antiques collector for all of his adult life, Matteo, who declined to give his age, has scattered his treasures throughout the Stegmaier Mansion, although eventually all photographs and paintings must be removed to give the walls with a fresh coat of paint. But the real treasures are the building's delicate intricacies.
    Cataloged in the National Register of Historic Places by the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, the building is part of the River Street Historic District of Luzerne County under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.
    Still under renovation, the building at 304 S. Franklin St. boasts a heavy, original Gothic influence between its walls. The pieced tiling in the building's entrance and intricate, hand-carved woodwork could not be replicated today for lack of money and skill.
    ``The walnut woodwork is of the same heaviness as the Kirby Mansion (on South Franklin Street),'' Matteo said. ``I don't think you have a craftsman around today who would know how to do this, because it's not taught.''
    Amazingly, the mansion and its charm were not destroyed by four floods, including the 1972 Agnes flood. As the original structure changed into apartments, however, partitions were added, altering its original design. Matteo hopes to eventually return the building to its original state, which includes a wrap-around porch and Victorian gate. City assistance has been promised to help with the porch construction, Matteo said. Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom McGroarty did not return phone calls seeking comment.
    Returning to a time of chivalry, the front of the building will house an open gentlemen's and ladies' parlor, separated by a long table. The ladies' parlor also will be the music room, complete with a piano - Matteo's first passion - and a floor-to-ceiling fireplace.
    Once complete, the bed-and-breakfast could boast as many as six or seven guest rooms with Matteo living in one room.
    A zoning variance must be awarded before all of the guest rooms may be utilized.
   
    The rooms will vary in price, depending on size, but all will have a private kitchenette - excluding stove - and some type of special ``old-world charm,'' including Murphy beds, old-fashioned radiators, pitched ceilings from dormers and palatial windows.
    Matteo, who has completed some of the renovations himself, also plans on tearing out the commercial carpeting and laying Victorian rugs. Greek-patterned flooring also will be continued throughout the rooms. Original shutters found in the mansion's attic were just one of the hidden bonuses Matteo encountered - and plans to use.
    Matteo says that when he purchased the building his knees were knocking. A week later, the terrorist attacks on America rattled his nerves more.
    ``I thought, I just bought the mansion of my dreams and Armageddon is here.''
    Matteo persevered and remains confident the mayor and local businesses will live up to their promises to continue to revitalize the city.
    ``I would hope they would all unite and sing off the same page,'' he said. ``This is not about personal agendas. We're at a turning point.
    ``I am taking a big risk here, but the city seems to be behind me 100 percent.''
    Kalen Churcher, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 831-7329.
   
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