If you were driving on an American highway and saw a pagoda, you could be forgiven if the first thought that came to mind was "egg roll takeout" rather than "nexus of oriental spiritualism." So it's weird that a red and gold pagoda stands on a mountain in Reading, PA, not affiliated with any Asian community, not attracting any spiritual power -- and not filling any takeout orders, either.
In the early 1900s it occurred to Reading quarry owner William Abbot Witman, Sr. that his stone excavations were permanently scarring the slopes of Mount Penn, which overlooked the city. Witman decided to balance his yin with his yang by putting a stop to the quarrying and conjuring something sublime for the mountain. He found his inspiration on a postcard from the Philippines.
In 1908 he completed the Pagoda, a 72-ft. tall Japanese-style brick and tile structure on Mount Penn's southwest slope. Witman dreamed that it would be Reading's most glamorous luxury hotel -- 886 feet above the city.
The five story pagoda was visible across Reading, and it quickly became a landmark. The top floor contained a temple bell imported from Japan. An ornate, corkscrew "finial" tipped the temple, and also served as a lightning rod for what was now the tallest target in the county.
Lack of a decent access road foiled Witman's hotel plan, and in 1910 he sold the Pagoda to local businessman Jonathon Mould. The following year Mould donated it to the city.
Over the ensuing years the Pagoda has been used as a snack bar, an art gallery, and an office. Before the era of radio it served as a news transmitter, when colored lights on each tier signalled who had won an election or a sporting event. (The code was published in the local newspaper.)
The Pagoda remains a landmark and sightseeing destination, albeit on an occasionally erratic operating schedule. Visitors who miss the "open" hours for the fourth floor gift shop and museum settle for the scenic view and a walk around the outside. A copper plaque near the entrance reminds visitors that "James Matz, Carpenter-Contractor & Builder and Sons Chas. E. & Jas. A. Matz" were "Designers of This Pagoda."