The Pagoda: What you should know about Reading's iconic landmark

·7 min read

Sep. 2—A seven-story Japanese-style temple protrudes from Mount Penn and overlooks the city of Reading, offering views of Berks County and all the way to Pottstown in neighboring Montgomery County.

The brightly lit building glows atop the mountain at night creating a distinct skyline for the city.

Why is there a pagoda in Reading?

The curiosity was commissioned by businessman and politician William Abbott Witman Sr. in 1906 soon after a 5-acre tract that straddles Lower Alsace Township and Reading was conveyed to him as sole owner by John A. and Annie R. Witman on July 21, 1906, according to the property deed on file with the Berks County Recorder of Deeds.

According to several accounts, the Pagoda was commissioned by Witman to cover up the stone quarry he ran on the mountainside that many people complained defaced the area.

Corrie Crupi, chairman of Pagoda-Skyline Inc., a local historian and author of "Footprints on the Mountain," said Witman was unable to get a liquor license for the Pagoda and his hopes for establishing a resort there were dashed.

Financial difficulty ensued, and Farmers National Bank ultimately foreclosed on the property.

A deed dated Dec. 23, 1910, conveyed the property from William and Kate Witman to Jonathan Mould.

Less than four months later, the city received the Pagoda from Jonathan and Julia Mould for $1 on April 21, 1911.

Both deeds mention that there were two pagodas constructed on the nearly 10-acre site, and a vintage postcard shows a smaller pagoda-like structure slightly north of the Pagoda.

Local historian and author George M. Meiser IX of Exeter Township said he had very little knowledge of the structure, but did offer a few hints.

"That was Billie Witman's clubhouse," Meiser said in 2019, noting it was not very long-lived and likely succumbed to structural difficulties, much like the base of the Pagoda has suffered over the years.

Crupi said the clubhouse building was used by Witman and friends as a place to play cards and smoke cigars.

Meiser and Crupi said the roof of the clubhouse was salvaged and used as a roof for a garage at one of Witman's homes in northeast Reading. Crupi said that structure was torn down to make way for the 12th and Marion Elementary School.

Inside the Pagoda

On the top floor of the Pagoda, a large bronze bell, or more accurately a gong, is installed.

A July 31, 1923, Reading Times article explained the bell's history based on an account provided to City Council by William A. Witman Sr.

"The Japanese bronze gong in the upper story of the Pagoda was secured from the Buddhist temple Shozenji, at Kahuosan, near Tokyo, Japan," the article states. "Many people were under the impression that the gong was merely a copy of a Japanese bell cast in this locality."

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It goes on to explain the bell was cast in 1789 at Obata in central Japan, about 84 miles northwest of Tokyo. It hung in the Shozenji temple until 1906 when William A. Witman Sr. purchased it to hang in his pagoda.

The article says the Pagoda was constructed between Sept. 9, 1905, and April 20, 1906.

Maintaining an icon

The Pagoda has survived over the years, despite calls for its demolition during World War II as anti-Japanese sentiment swelled.

Its base has had numerous repairs over the years. The latest retaining wall repairs at the Pagoda were needed in 2016.

Reading Mayor Eddie Moran announced on Aug. 27, 2021, that the building will be undergoing a long list of upgrades and remain closed in the process. A geotechnical and structural assessment is planned for early spring. Greater accessibility for people with disabilities, road improvements, new lighting on the structure itself and in the area is planned as are repairs to sidewalks, stairs and railings and the interior of the building.

First on the agenda is installation of gates that City Council approved in July. They will limit access to the parking lot from dusk until dawn. Construction is set to begin after Labor Day weekend.

Partying and loud music at night in the parking lot has been a complaint from nearby mountain residents for years, ramping up in the last five each spring. Contracted security guards did not fix the problem.

Christian Crespo, communications coordinator for the city, said during a Zoom interview Aug. 27 that removal of a traffic island on Duryea Drive is also on the list of upgrades.

"Some traffic enhancement is going to happen there," Crespo said. "There is going to be some assessment of the current parking spaces there."

He said more could be added and that Americans with Disabilities Act ramps will be installed as well as ADA-compliant parking spots.

"Traffic patterns and street widening also will occur during this phase, after Labor Day weekend," Crespo said.

After the engineering studies are completed, work will begin on the interior.

"It's going to be followed by mechanical, electrical and plumbing upgrades that will include the stairs inside the building, the sidewalk accessibility throughout the surrounding areas and common areas," Crespo explained.

Other projects will be put out for bid, too.

"We've come a long way and we need to let the public know and, more importantly, we need to let them know that there is going to be a time, for whatever time it takes — I don't even want to predict, that the building is going to be closed to get us to the point that it is going to be reborn," said Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz, foundation president, a member of City Council and director of planning and resource development for the Council on Chemical Abuse.

She noted that when City Council looked at installing gates at the Pagoda, they wanted it to be treated like any other park in the county.

"Most of the parks — all of the Berks County parks, some of the city parks — are gated at night," Goodman-Hinnershitz said during the Aug. 27 Zoom meeting. "This sort of respects this as a park rather than as a place you can just drive by and hang out."

Views and event venue

The Foundation for the Reading Pagoda took over management of the Pagoda in September 2012. It includes a 12-member board appointed the city administration and City Council.

Kim Woerle, owner of Evoke by Design LLC and a foundation board member, is giving the group's website, readingpagoda.com, a makeover. It will be a place where future events, once the Pagoda reopens, will be listed. Currently, there is a survey seeking the public's input on a strategic plan for the Pagoda.

"COVID gave use a timeout and time to reorganize, we're just getting started with this little building," Woerle said during a Zoom meeting Aug. 27.

The building has served a variety of purposes over the years, but its main attraction has remained the views that it offers to visitors.

It is a great place to take photographs. If you would like to find out how former Reading Eagle photographer Natalie Kolb captured the amazing full moon shot that served as the main image with this article, you can read the in-depth explanation online.

If you want a sneak peek of the view from the Pagoda, but cannot make the trip there yourself, Pagoda-Skyline does have a web camera installed so you can take a snapshot. View it online at webcam.pagodaskyline.org/cam2.php .

It also serves as a beautiful backdrop to bicycle rides and races of the road and mountain bike variety, runs, car shows, the Duryea Hillclimb and Pagoda Hillclimb car races, or just as a spot to have a picnic.

"We're very hopeful that we're going to be able to help spread a message far and wide for this being a destination to tie into economic boosting opportunities for the city in the future," said Suzanne L. Cody, a foundation member who works for Muhlenberg Greene Architects Ltd. in Wyomissing, during the Aug. 27 Zoom interview. "It's part of our longer term plan, to draw and attract people to the city, because it has so much to offer."

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Pagoda by the numbers

Address: 98 Duryea Drive, Reading PA 19602

Constructed: 1905 to 1906

Height: 7 stories, about 72 feet

Width: 28 feet

Steps to the top: 87

Tons of terra-cotta roof tiles: 60

Sources: Foundation for the Reading Pagoda, Reading Eagle/Reading Times