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Picture this…you’re driving along a mountainous road in Pennsylvania, on the edge of what is known as “The Pretzel City,” when you come across…a seven-story tall Pagoda?? Most likely this isn’t something you would expect to see, but it exists! The Pagoda is a national registered landmark which stands 620 feet high atop Mount Penn, and keeps a watchful eye over the city of Reading.

READING...ISN’T THAT SOMETHING ABOUT A RAILROAD?

Reading is a city in Southern Pennsylvania, with a population of 88,232. Reading is a suburban area in comparison to the largest city in its general vicinity, known as Allentown, PA. The city of Reading was laid out in 1748 by Thomas and Richard Penn, none other than the sons of PA founder, William Penn. The city of Reading is notorious for its history as an iron-industry giant during the Revolutionary War through WWII. In fact, the Reading Railroad was created in 1833 with the primary intention of delivering coal to the city of Reading for use in iron production.

Another industry notorious to the Reading area is the pretzel industry! There are numerous pretzel bakeries in this Pennsylvania Dutch region, accurately earning it the nickname “The Pretzel City.”

WHAT EXACTLY IS A PAGODA?

reading pagoda artwork

A pagoda is a structure originating in India and East Asia, which is typically a multi-tiered tower known as a Hindu or Buddhist temple or sacred building. The structure of the pagoda is derived from that of the stupa; a hemispherical, domed commemorative monument that was first constructed in ancient India. Initially pagodas housed the relics of saints and kings and they symbolized sacred mountains. Over the years, the structure of the pagoda has evolved but continues to retain the same basic elements. As years have passed, styles have become distinguished as typical to particular regions.

SO... WHY READING?

reading pennsylvania aerial view

Given Reading’s historical significance in the iron (and pretzel) industry, one has to wonder how a pagoda came to symbolize the city? The story of The Pagoda began in 1906, when William A. Witman purchased ten acres of land on Mount Penn in order to use the land to quarry stone. Unfortunately the quarried area began to be an eyesore, and Mr. Witman devised a plan to construct a building to cover the area. As luck would have it, a friend of Witman’s shared a photo with him of Nagoya Castle in Japan, and he became immediately intrigued with the structure which was built in 1610.

Mr. Witman commissioned to have The Pagoda built for the sum of $50,000 (approximately $1.4 Million today) and intended to utilize the building as a luxury resort. An unfortunate denial of a license to sell alcoholic beverages caused The Pagoda to never fulfill its initial destiny as a high-class inn. In 1910, William Witman sold the structure to Jonathan Mold, who one year later, sold the property to the City of Reading for $1. The Pagoda then became open to the public and has been cared for by the citizens of Reading for the past 100 years. 

Most recently, The Pagoda houses a café on the first floor, rental spaces on various floors and conducts tours of the structure.  Unfortunately, The Pagoda has fallen victim to the COVID-19 pandemic and is currently not open to the public. However the grounds around the building are open for sightseeing, including the ability to take in the incredible view of Reading and the surrounding 30 mile area.

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THE IN’S AND OUT’S OF THE PAGODA

Construction of The Pagoda was completed in 1908, with the seven-story structure being anchored to the mountainside using 16 tons of bolts. The walls at the base of The Pagoda are 5-feet thick and taper to a width of 2-feet thick at the top of the second floor. The walls continuing to the top of The Pagoda are frame-covered with terra-cotta shingles. In total there are 60 tons of tiles on The Pagoda! The interior walls consist of concrete plaster with the trim and stairways constructed with solid oak. In order to reach the top of the structure, one would have to climb an astonishing 87 steps.

The Pagoda is not only unique to the area, but is also distinguishable as the only pagoda in the world to contain a fireplace and chimney. Fish sculptures on the roof of The Pagoda double as lightning-rods and also pay homage to its predecessor, the Nagoya Castle, which dones dolphin sculptures said to protect the structure from fires.

The Pagoda once contained oriental artifacts, which sadly have been lost over the years. However, a reward for climbing to the top of the structure is the opportunity to see an authentic bell, cast in Obata, Japan in 1739. Oral tradition tells that the bell was purchased by William Witman after recommendation by a Japanese family living in the Reading area. The bell was initially shipped to New York, and was carried to its destination by the infamous Reading Railroad.

Throughout the decades, The Pagoda, as out-of-place as it may seem, has served as a symbol of “home” for the residents of the area. It has secured its place in historical significance as it was once used as a method of communication through blinking morse code to firemen to provide direction. During WWII, there was discussion about leveling The Pagoda, which luckily was decided against. Extensive repairs have been completed throughout the years in order for The Pagoda to continue to amaze travelers and symbolize home to the residents of “The Pretzel City.”

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endnotes

  1. “The Story of the Pagoda,” Berkshistory.org, accessed January 18, 2020, https://www.berkshistory.org/multimedia/articles/the-story-of-the-pagoda/.
  2. “History,” Readingpagoda.com, accessed January 19, 2020, http://www.readingpagoda.com/history.html.
  3. “The Pagoda,” Visitpaamericana.com, accessed January 18, 2020, https://visitpaamericana.com/heritage/pagoda/.
  4. “Pagoda: Architecture,” Britannica.com, accessed January 19, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/technology/pagoda.
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