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Working on the railroad to turn it into a restaurant

By Peter TongeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 1985



Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Time was when Jane Roth spent her summer days on the golf course and her winter afternoons around a bridge table -- day in, day out, one year after the other. At the time, she couldn't imagine any other life style. Now she says she couldn't imagine ever going back to it. Today Mrs. Roth is occupied in a markedly different way: as hostess at one of the country's more unusual and elegant restaurants. ``I love every minute of it,'' she says.

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What brought about such a marked change? Tropical storm Agnes and what is still referred to here in somewhat awed terms as ``the flood of '72.''

When the swollen Susquehanna River roared through the valley, it took much of Mrs. Roth's home and much of the rest of Wilkes-Barre with it. After it was over, the Roths reestablished their home. Then, as the mud and debris were being cleared from the streets, they learned a decision had been made to level the old railroad station, a town landmark since 1868. Architectural gem

To Mrs. Roth this was a very logical step in the citywide renovation that was going on all around, but to her husband it was appalling. In fact, Marvin Roth was all but outraged. He'd grown up within sight of the station and was determined to save what he saw as an irreplaceable ``architectural gem.'' When his protests were of no avail, he did the only thing he could: he bought the place, handing the keys to his wife with the comment, ``I've a present for you.''

Mrs. Roth recalls thinking the flood had ``got to him'' at the time. The station had been an abandoned and vandalized relic long before it took a battering from the flood. Now it was her turn to be appalled. Innovative thinking

What followed, however, is a testimony to innovative thinking and the determination to see things through.

When Mr. Roth set out to buy the station he had no goal in mind other than to save the century-old building from the jackhammer. Once it was his, however, he had to decide what to do with it.

Ideas tumbled in by the score, but most of them were instantly dismissed. The place certainly would never become a gas station or a video arcade, and it seemed worthy of something better than a professional office building or even a series of quality boutiques. Perhaps an art gallery?

Most insistent and appealing of all the ideas was the thought of turning the station into a restaurant. With the right memorabilia patrons could dine in the atmosphere of yesteryear, in that period when the railroad did so much to make America great -- when it was never less than a heroic enterprise. A new venture

There was one problem with this thought. Mr. Roth's entire business career had dealt exclusively with vending machines. He knew absolutely nothing about the restaurant business. Come to think of it, he knew very little about railroads either. He'd only been on a train once in his life.

For her part, Mrs. Roth had never been inside a restaurant other than to eat. To be on the serving side of the operation would be something unique for her. To see her at work today is to wonder how she ever had any self-doubts.

At first it was thought that only the station itself would become a restaurant. But during the restoration of the building -- a painstaking procedure because so much of the interior had all but rotted away -- it became apparent that if the true atmosphere of a station were to be recaptured, there would have to be a railroad car or two pulled up alongside the platform. In fact, they now have several.

Restoring old railroad cars is much like restoring antique autos. You find the rusting and battered remains of one and painstakingly bring it back to mint condition.

With railcars, however, getting these old ``finds'' to where you want them is more difficult and costly. Often it involves laying additional track to bring them in over the final miles. If you own an old railway station, chances are that some of the needed line is already in place. Then comes the renovation.

One of the Roths' acquirements, discoverered rotting on an abandoned line in New Jersey, was once the private coach of Henry M. Flagler. Mr. Flagler was a partner of John D. Rockefeller and the owner of the Florida East Coast Railway. The exterior of the train car was sound, but what was left of the interior had to be gutted and rebuilt using records and old pictures as guides. Returned to its former ornate splendor, it is now one of the dining cars.

A greenhouse-style roof complete with stain-glassed ceiling covers the platform linking the station building with the railcars. Furnished with Victoriana that includes a towering hand-carved sideboard from the Vanderbilt home, the platform now forms the foyer for both the dining rooms within the station building and the dining cars on the adjacent tracks.

For such elegant and atmosphere-filled surroundings, meals at ``The Station'' are moderately priced: $19 including tip when I was there for soup, salad, lobster stirfry, dessert, and a beverage.

The rooms at the neighboring ``inn'' are similarly inexpensive. This motel on wheels (railroad wheels, that is) is a series of railcars each converted into two motel rooms, again richly decorated in the Victorian styles of the 19th century but with modern plumbing, lighting, and color television. To get to your room, you drive alongside the track to your appointed car and then ``climb aboard.''