The Reading Pagoda
A failed piece of Orientalism has become the proud symbol of a community.
Originally the centerpiece of a planned luxury resort, the Pagoda in Reading, Pennsylvania, has become a symbol for the entire town.
Built atop Mount Penn in 1908 by local quarry owner William A. Witman, the seven-story Japanese-inspired building was to be the main attraction at a tourist resort. Unfortunately, Witman was unable to obtain a liquor license and the project’s funds dried up, leaving the majestic pagoda as a strangely out-of-place oddity. In 1910, the building and its surrounding ten acres were given over to a local businessman who, recognizing the iconic influence the building was beginning to have on the community, sold the structure and its land to the city of Reading for the sum of $1.
Despite some neglect owing to anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II, the city of Reading has restored and cared for the grounds ever since, and the pagoda has indeed become the symbol of the community and has even been put to practical use. Before radio telephony was widespread, lights on the building were used to communicate via Morse code to local emergency workers, and today those same lights flash to alert the children of Reading that Santa is on his way. The building is open for visitors who can take in the picturesque, panoramic view of the city and examine the 16th century Japanese bell that hangs in the top story of the building.
The Reading Pagoda may have begun as a gaudy tourist attraction, but it now stands as a testament to a city finding its identity.
Know Before You Go
From the Penn Street bridge, travel east on Penn Street in Reading (you can see the pagoda from the bridge). Penn Street becomes Perkiomen Avenue at 11th Street. Turn left onto Hill Road (after City Park, it's a very steep street, and you can once again clearly see the pagoda). At the traffic light, make a left turn onto Clymer Street, then 100 feet after the light make a hard right onto Duryea Drive. Follow the signs and continue traveling up the mountain on Duryea Drive to the pagoda.
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