The Pagoda

The Pagoda


Rising 886 feet above the city of Reading, the Pagoda, that odd, enigmatic, yet well loved structure atop Mount Penn has been a familiar fixture since 1908. Few Berks Countians alive today can recall a Reading without a Pagoda. The community identifies so strongly with the structure that it has come to be used not only in the logos of many civic organizations and area businesses but as a symbol of the city itself. Although the Pagoda is only 86 years old, its history is mired in myth, lore, hearsay and legend, making the truth difficult to ascertain. Let us explore the elusive history of Reading’s signature building.

It was on August 10, 1906 that the Reading Eagle announced with bold headline, “Reading to Have Japanese Pagoda.” The article that followed stated that William Abbott Witman (Sr.) planned to construct a “building similar to a Japanese pagoda.” This “pagoda” was to become a luxury resort, providing competition with several other mountain retreats operating on Mount Penn and the Neversink Mountain. The article went on to explain that the building would be 5 stories high with dimensions of 48′ x 70′ and would be constructed of stone from the “Witman quarry”.

The site chosen for the Pagoda was the quarry itself, which had been operated by Witman and his brother. Witman purchased his brother’s interest in the property prior to the start of construction on the Pagoda. Local tradition holds that Witman, a politician and one time mayoral candidate, had suffered much public criticism as a result of his stone quarrying operation, which had defaced the mountain’s western slope. The quarry became so controversial that Witman was eventually persuaded to abandon the operation. His announcement of August 10, 1906, was made in an effort to win favor with voters.

The pagoda itself was designed and constructed by the father and son contracting team of James and Charles Matz. Charles, who had just returned from a tour of duty in the far east, is said to have based the design on a photograph he had acquired. Some claim this was in a picture book on the Shogun dynasty, while others maintain that it was actually a postcard. Considering the popularity of postcards at the time, one could easily have been the inspiration for Reading’s Pagoda. An account on file at the Historical Society of Berks County contains a reference to an “unusual postcard now in the collection of the Historical Society.” Perhaps this could have been the very postcard used by Matz.

The pagoda was completed and ready to open for business in 1908. Witman applied to the county for a liquor license. However, according to Ralph G. Hill, Judge Endlich denied his application. Some believe the Judge’s decision was unfairly based on the politics and the personalities involved. Without a liquor license, Witman’s plans for a mountain resort dissolved and the Pagoda was never opened. By 1910 the Farmer’s National Bank had foreclosed on the property.

Enter, local merchant, Jonathan Mould, owner of the Bee Hive Department Store at 647-649 Penn Street. For many years Mould served as a director of the Farmer’s National Bank. In 1910 to save the bank from a loss, Mould purchased the Pagoda with ten acres of surrounding land. The following year, 1911, he and his wife, the former Julia E. Bell, presented the Pagoda property to the city of Reading as a gift. The gift was accepted as an extension of the present park and boulevard system (Penn’s Common and Duryea Drive) by Mayor William Rick and the members of both Select and Common Councils. Thereafter, the Pagoda belonged to the people of Reading.

Over the next two decades additional land was acquired and many improvements were made to the property now known as the added Mount Penn Reserve. In 1913 an electric pump and pump house were added to supply the Pagoda with water. In 1914 the wooden balcony railing was reinforced with iron stringers posts and columns encased in wood. The Berks County Conservation Association founded in 1914 planted over 10,000 trees on quarry scarred Mount Penn. However, the greatest number of improvements took place during the 1930’s.

Government programs such as the W.P.A. and the C.C.C. were responsible for the majority of projects. By 1933 recreationers could climb up 295 wooden steps from Penn’s Common (City Park) to the rock garden below the Pagoda. From there three flights of stone steps led up to the Pagoda itself. Work begun in 1932 to create Skyline Boulevard, as it was then called, was completed in 1935. The original ten acres of land in the Mount Penn Reserve had grown considerably by this time to contain 1595 acres of municipally owned land. Several beautiful, rustic picnic areas and camp sites were constructed and maintained by the C.C.C.

Unfortunately, this era of improvements came to an end with the advent of World War II. The free flowing funds and plentiful laborers of the W.P.A. came to a halt. With so many people absent from Reading serving in the armed forces, there were few left behind to continue the work. This was a constant lament of the City Parks Director during these years. By the mid-1940s the Pagoda had fallen into disrepair. The wooden balconies were declared unsafe, and closed by the City. Citizens penned letters to City Council asking that the hazardous, ugly, Japanese structure be demolished.

Though the balconies had been declared by City Council to be rotted and unsafe, one wonders how much of the huge outcry for demolition was based on the anti-Japanese sentiments of the time rather than the physical condition of the Pagoda. Considering the amount of maintenance and care lavished on the structure dating the 1930s, it is hard to imagine that deterioration had progressed to the extent where demolition was necessary.

Despite those in favor of demolition, the Pagoda was repaired. In 1949 the old wooden balconies were removed. Limestone pillars were installed on the lowest level replacing the original wooden support brackets. The wooden columns and railings of the next two levels were duplicated in limestone. According to the Journal of Council for 1949, Dominic Maurer, Incorporated, was awarded the contract not to exceed $46,875.00, “substituting cut stone, columns, posts, beams, railings and appurtenances for the wooden, columns, posts, beams, railings and appurtenances.

Support for the repair of the Pagoda was due in part to an in formal “Save the Pagoda” organization formed about this time. The members of this group wrote to City Council urging that repairs be made to the structure. One thing was clear. For this group to obtain popular support in an era of anti-Japanese feelings, it was important for the Pagoda to be anything but Japanese.

Laura Matz, granddaughter of James Matz, recalls that her grandmother wrote letters to the newspaper and to the Mayor explaining that the Pagoda was not Japanese at all but was instead Filipino in origin. Ms. Matz remembers that her grandmother received a letter in return from the Mayor, thanking her for the information. The correspondence section of the City Council Journals from the 1930s, 40s and 5Os contain facsimiles of neither of these two letters. This is extremely odd since all correspondence received by and written by the Mayor and Council is recorded annually in the journals.

Reading Newsweek, the weekly edition of the Reading Eagle which was sent to Readingites serving overseas during World War II, contains several references to “Reading’s, ahem, Korean Pagoda.” A picture of the Pagoda featured in the October 26, 1943 edition bore the caption, “Hold Your Bombs, Boys, It’s Korean.”

The Reading Chamber of Commerce, in 1941, issued a report on the Pagoda stating that, “While not of true Japanese architecture, it is close enough to give the impression.” Interestingly, only a few years earlier, just prior to his death in 1936, Witman gave an interview (on file at the Historical Society) in which he claimed that the Pagoda was based on the Pagoda of Nagoya Castle, Japan. Unfortunately, Nagoya Castle was almost completely destroyed by bombs during World War II. It has since undergone restoration.

Still other accounts make additional claims. Witman’s nephew and ward, William Abbott Kershner claimed in a 1964 letter to the Berks County Historical Society that the Pagoda’s style was actually “Chinese not Japanese, but it seemed better at the time to say Japanese.” He offered no reason why Japanese would seen better, although certainly so called “Japanese” decorative motifs and items were extremely popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Pagoda as it appeared in 1954.

The Pagoda as it appeared in 1954.

Yet another story exists regarding the origin of the Pagoda’s design. Clement J. Cassidy, in a past issue of the Historical Review of Berks County, wrote that, “the Pagoda is supposed to be a replica of a palace used by Japanese Emperor Shogun, but details were actually copied from the Japanese tea garden at Coney Island [N.Y.].” However, Reading’s Pagoda bears little resemblance to the four story Pagoda that rose in church spire fashion, from the late Coney Island tea garden. Similarities do include the tapering stories, the tiled roof, and the soren on the rooftop. Incidentally, the Coney Island Pagoda was destroyed in the Dreamland Park fire of 1911, the same year Jonathan and Julia Mould presented Reading’s Pagoda to the city.

If one were to study the architecture of the orient, it would become quite obvious that Reading’s Pagoda is far more typical of Berks County architecture that any eastern architecture. The methods of construction and materials employed are typical of the Berks County region. The original tile roof (replaced about 1972) and many of the interior details, particularly the woodwork are in keeping with the architectural styles of the period of construction.

Yet, there is about Reading’s Pagoda a suggestion of Japan. The tapering stories, the rectangular shape, the hillside placement and the kicked eaves of the roof are all reminiscent of Japanese Pagodas. These features are quite unlike the Pagodas of China and India. As for Filipino Pagodas, they are actually Japanese and date from the days of Japan’s occupation in the Philippines. So, is Reading’s Pagoda Japanese, Chinese, Korean or Filipino? It is probably most accurate to say that the Pagoda is none of the above. It is actually an outstanding example of American turn-of-the-century, exotic revival architecture. What Reading has is an American Pagoda.

Since 1911 the Pagoda has been loved and cared for by the people of Reading. Primarily used as a public observatory, the Pagoda has also served the city in some unusual and functional ways. Its rooms have traditionally been used for civic meetings, including a 1914 organizational meeting of conservationists, believed to be a forerunner of our national Conservation Movement. The Pagoda was renamed the “Temple of Conservation” for the occasion. Before the days of radio, news and weather reports were flashed in code from a signal lantern atop the Pagoda. It was when this lantern was installed that the original soren was removed.

In more recent decades the Pagoda has been the home of Pagoda Skyline, Inc. a non-profit conservation organization responsible for many improvements to the Pagoda and Skyline Drive area. Today the Pagoda is beginning a new chapter in its fascinating history. After undergoing an extensive restoration including the reproduction of the soren from historic photographs,the Pagoda has become the headquarters of not only Pagoda Skyline, Inc. but the Berks County Arts Council as well. The refurbished Pagoda now features historical displays and the works of local crafts people. Open seven days a week from noon until 6:00 pm, the Pagoda continues as to serve the people of Berks and beyond as an unequaled observatory commanding a panoramic thirty mile view.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 1995 issue of The Historical Review of Berks County.