As you approach Reading, the majestic Pagoda, towers over the city. At night, illuminated by lights, the Pagoda appears magical, certainly not the intention of its builder and original owner. William Witman planned the Pagoda as a hotel and restaurant, part of a luxury resort to cover the eyesore created by his stone quarry on Mt. Penn. In turn-of-the-century Berks County, there were several such resorts in the area, making Witman’s plan not as unusual as it may sound today. The 7 story structure, anchored to the side of the mountain by 16 tons of bolts, was completed in 1908 for $50,000. It is the only pagoda in the world with a fireplace and chimney. Unfortunately, circumstances interfered with Witman’s plans. He was denied a liquor license and in foreclosure before he could open his hotel to the public. In 1910, businessman, Jonathan Mould, paid off Witman’s bank note in exchange for the deed to the Pagoda. The following year, he and his wife sold the building with its 11 acres to the City of Reading for $1. Since then, the Pagoda has been cared for by the citizens of Reading.
In turn, the Pagoda has served the community well. Prior to broadcast radio, the Pagoda was used to direct fireman, promote fundraising campaigns, even provide results of sporting events to residents through the use of Morse code. During World War II, there were calls to demolish the building. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and in 1949, the structure was restored, with its lower story and balconies rebuilt in stone. The neon lights that outline the roof were installed in 1960, and Japanese cherry trees were planted on its grounds. The fish sculptures that sit atop the roof are the building’s lightning rods. In 2009, 100 years after its construction, the Pagoda was a filming site for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. Today, the Pagoda continues to fascinate the public. Open on weekends, visitors can climb the 87 steps to the top floor for the incredible views, and to see the massive bell, cast in Japan in 1739, and housed there as well.
Part of Pennsylvania’s Americana Region’s history and tradition, the Pagoda is a welcome sight to residents, after a long journey. It is a symbol of home, and a place we proudly take our guests. On Christmas Eve, all eyes, especially those of our children, look to the Pagoda, for with a flash of its lights, we know Santa is on his way. Stand outside and watch the lights of the city come on at dusk – as the twinkling landscape settles into darkness. Awesome!