Look Back: South lawn of courthouse once held tennis courts, playground and green house

Soon after the 1909 opening of the Luzerne County Courthouse on North River Street in Wilkes-Barre, the city’s park commission began deliberating ideas to develop the land along the Susquehanna River between the Market Street and North Street bridges.

Ideas were discussed including a proposal by the Wilkes-Barre Bridge Company to construct a third toll bridge from Union Street in Wilkes-Barre into today’s Nesbitt Park on the west side. The land was acquired from the DL & W. Coal Company in exchange for three acres in Parsons.

“The plan to use the river common as a playground at the north end has been discussed for some time and it is at the request of many prominent business men that tentative preparations are being made,” the Wilkes-Barre Record reported May 14, 1912 .

Any development had to incorporate the Laurel Line, which took passengers from Wilkes-Barre to Pittston and Scranton that passed the Temple of Justice.

What opened in late June 1912 were five tennis courts.

“The new tennis courts on the upper river common were opened Saturday and attracted quite a number of tennis players. The courts are considered the best in this part of the state,” the Wilkes-Barre Record reported June 24, 1912.

The tennis courts were considered a success as they attracted hundreds of players both men and women of all ages and occupations. Clergymen and lawyers wearing suits were often seen playing tennis and leagues and tournaments were held on the courts.

“Occupied on every day that an out-of-door sport is permissible, the city courts are engaged by young people and people not so young,” the Record reported Sept. 4, 1912.

More ideas were discussed to develop the river common that included large gardens and walkways.

“This includes a big flower bed opposite the end of Union Street, larger than any of the single beds now laid out, and one that will greatly beautify that section,” the Record reported Oct. 4, 1912.

The big flower bed blossomed into the city park commission constructing a green house that officially opened to the public Nov. 22, 1913.

“Declared by many to be the most modern structure of its kind in the country, the green house located on the river common near Union Street will be ready for occupancy and public inspection in the near future,” the May 23, 1913, edition of the Record reported.

William Latton, of Jersey City, NJ, constructed the green house, which was widely known as the Palm House, at a total cost of $10,000.

One of the features of the green house was its curvature design corresponding with those of the courthouse.

Decades passed until more recreational development of the river common came to prominence with the Col. Ernest G. Smith Memorial Playground in 1948. The playground was constructed between the greenhouse and the tennis courts and included a shallow wading pool, a roller skating rink, swings and a bath house with showers and toilets.

More than 1,500 people attended the grand opening of the playground held Aug. 17, 1948.

“The entire center will be enclosed by a high wire fence for the protection of children from the Laurel Line trains and the river,” the Times Leader reported July 28, 1948.

The playground was the site of popular hopscotch tournaments during the 1950s.

Unfortunately, flooding by the river forced the closure of the recreational jewels on the courthouse south lawn.

The St. Patrick’s Day Flood in March 1936 damaged the green house and it never recovered. By the late 1950s, the green house fell into disrepair and became a liability for the city, eventually demolishing the once grand structure.

The Agnes flood in June 1972 ultimately changed the landscape of the river common as the playground and tennis courts were removed to make way to heighten the levees.

Today, a gazebo stands on the site where the greenhouse once stood.

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