The Story of the Pagoda— This is the saga of a pagoda that grew out of a stone quarry
At the turn of the century, Mr. William Abbott Witman, Sr., bought ten acres of land on the southern tip of Mount Penn with the intention to quarry its stone. The resulting scar on the mountainside was so offensive to the residents of the city below that he was persuaded to discontinue the venture.
At this turn of affairs, Mr. Witman was shown a picture of Nagoya Castle in Japan by his friend Mr. Charles C. Matz, then just returned from a tour of duty in Japan. This oriental structure so fascinated Witman that he hired Mr. Matz and his father to build a similar structure to replace the eyesore left by the quarry. This to be a luxury hotel . . . but the ensuing application for a license to sell alcoholic beverages was denied. As a result, the posh inn never materialized.
Now in the hands of a local bank, the land and the seven storied pagoda were sold in 1910 to Jonathan Mold, who after one year, re-sold the property to the City of Reading for the sum of one dollar.
Murals of oriental theme and certain Japanese artifacts had been added by that time and as part of the Reading Park System, the “Pagoda” was opened to the public. Most of these artifacts and furnishings have been lost, but still remaining on the top floor is the temple bell, cast in Obama, Japan, in 1739. From that date, it hung in Shogenji (Buddhist Temple) until 1907 when it was purchased by Mr. Witman. The bell arrived in Reading via the Suez Canal.
The stylized dolphins on the rooftop and the torn at the approach add to the authenticity of this oriental structure in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch area.
Since November 7, 1972, Reading’s Pagoda has been listed on the national Register of Historical Places of the United States Department of Interior, thanks to the efforts of the Pagoda-Skyline, Inc.
The Pagoda has been a popular rendezvous for both citizens and visitors, and hardly a traveler that comes across the Penn Street Bridge into the city of Reading fails to comment about the structure that sits atop Mount Penn.
Notes of Interest
The three mile Skyline Drive connects McKnight’s Gap with the Pagoda and like the Pagoda, it commands a panoramic thirty mile view. Stone walls along the road, three look-outs for parkers and the fire tower were built by W. P. A. workers in the 1930’s.
In 1914, an organizational meeting of conservationists took place at the Pagoda. This was an event heralded by the press as a forerunner of our National Conservation Movement.
On March 7, 1942, the Pagoda was “blacked out” for the duration of World War II. In May, 1945, Nagoya Castle in Japan was destroyed. Fortunately, the battlements of the center were undamaged. These were to figure later in the restoration of our pagoda.
After World War II, extensive repairs were needed and there were those who would have razed the structure. However, so strong was the feeling among others of the citizenry to “Save the Pagoda” that the City Fathers ordered the necessary repairs, and the building was opened again to the public.
In the last 15 years, repairs and improvements to the extent of $125,000 have been possible because of the generosity of civic minded individuals and organizations.
- 1960 – The red neon lights to outline the roofs were installed.
- 1972 – The building was repainted. The onetime Japanese garden was cleaned up and replanted. The torn gate was replaced.
- 1974 – Flowering cherry trees were planted on the mountainside. Some were dedicated to prominent citizens.
- 1975 – Although attempts to replace the traditional dolphins started in 1956, it was not until the Spring of 1975 that the glistening animals were hoisted into place. (According to legend, they protect the building from damage, especially fire.) These dolphins are the work of Mrs. Bess Best, a well known Berks County Sculptor.
- Height: Seven stories – 886 feet above the City of Reading! 1200 feet above sea level.
- Cost: Original cost was $50,000.00.
- Shape: Rectangular -28 feet wide, 50 feet long, 72 feet high.
- Walls: Five feet thick at the base, tapering to two feet at the top of the second story. From the second story to the top, the walls are frame covered with red tile shingles.
- Roof: Five overhanging with upswept corners; each recedes two feet back from the one below.
- Portico: Originally of wood, in 1949, the original flooring was replaced by one of concrete. One hundred steps to the woodland below.
- Interior: The walls are of concrete plaster. Floors are concrete. Eighty-six steps lead to the top of the building. The trim is of solid oak.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 1988 issue of The Historical Review of Berks County.