Pagoda, Reading.

The Pagoda

Field review by the editors.

Reading, Pennsylvania

If you were driving on an American highway and saw a pagoda, you could be forgiven if your first thought was "spring roll takeout" rather than "exotic resort." So it's weird that a red and gold pagoda stands on a mountain in Reading, not affiliated with any Asian community, not attracting any spiritual power, and not filling any dumpling orders.

In the early 1900s it occurred to Reading businessman William Abbot Witman, Sr. that his quarry excavations were permanently scarring the slopes of Mount Penn, which overlooked the city. Witman decided to balance his yin with his yang by conjuring something sublime for the mountain, and turning his property from an eyesore into a money-making tourist destination. He found his inspiration on a postcard from the Philippines.

He hired Charles and James Matz to build a Japanese-style brick and tile Pagoda on Mount Penn's southwest slope. Eight stories high, it was completed in September 1908. The first three floors were made of stone from Witman's quarry. Its two large dining rooms on the main floor were furnished with Japanese rugs, dishes, lamps, and vases. Witman dreamed that it would be Reading's most glamorous luxury hotel -- 886 feet above the city.

Finial on top of Reading's Pagoda.
Finial on top of Reading's Pagoda.

The city had other ideas. It worried that drunken patrons would die on the twisty mountain road leading to the Pagoda. It also worried that Witman, who had a bad reputation, planned to turn the upper floors of the Pagoda into a brothel. The building, never opened, went into foreclosure, and was sold to Reading in 1911 for one dollar.

It quickly became a landmark. Thousands hiked the trail to the Pagoda and then climbed the 87 steps to its observatory. The top floor contained a temple bell cast in 1739 and 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.

Over the ensuing years the Pagoda was used as a snack bar, art gallery, and an office. Before the era of radio it served as a news transmitter, when colored lights on each tier signaled who had won an election or a sporting event (The code was published in the local newspaper). Anti-Japanese zealots tried to have it torn down during World War II, but the Pagoda survived the attack and was added the National Register of Historic Places in 1949.

City of Reading sign, Pagoda.

It remains a landmark and sightseeing destination, admittedly on an 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.

The Pagoda

Address:
98 Duryea Dr., Reading, PA
Directions:
Summit of Mt. Penn, E edge of Reading on Skyline Blvd.
Hours:
F-Su 12-4 (Call to verify)
Phone:
610-655-6271
Admission:
$1 donation appreciated to climb tower.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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November 19, 2018

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