Historic Preservation Feature is a series of articles on the efforts to save and reuse historic buildings, districts and sites in Pennsylvania.

Travellers, visitors, or out-of-towners have associated Reading, Pennsylvania, at various times in its history with its most sa­lient industry or activity. In the eighteenth century, had our ancestors been as ready as we to identify a per­son or place solely by one feature, Reading could have been known as “Felt Hat City.” In the nineteenth century, when railroading became one of Reading’s prime ind us trial activities, the city and the Reading Railroad were associated nationally as one and the same entity. In our own century, additional but not as complimentary designations have periodically been associated with Reading. “Sin City” is one such example; “Pretzel City” is another; and in our own present period, Reading has the peculiar dis­tinction of being known as the “Out­let City.”

Fortunately, the reality of the City of Reading cannot be this easily de­fined; nor can it be this easily dis­missed. As one becomes familiar with the place, one soon realizes that there are many facets of the town which deserve appreciation. Actually, Read­ing’s citizens have always tended to underplay their own city’s virtues; too often, local denizens are apologetic or perhaps too modest to praise the city’s genuine assets. This attitude may have originated either in the Pennsylvania Dutch temperament or perhaps during the mid-nineteenth century, when Reading’s precipitous rise to industrial and economic power was followed in the early twentieth century by a fairly long decline.

In recent years, the trauma of the early phases of urban renewal severely eroded the city’s self-confidence. The indifferent wrecking ball smashed through a century of downtown land­marks, leaving behind, in the words of Byron Vazakas, a Reading poet, a “Rue of Ruins.” It appeared for a time that Reading was, like so many other cities, suffering from a terminal case of urban blight. Eclipsed by the pride sur­rounding suburban affluence, the citi­zens of Reading itself seemed con­fused and hesitant about the city’s future. However, this confusion was not permanent.

Resilient, having experienced more than once the feeling of success, the City of Reading has once again entered into an era of reassessment and rebuild­ing. Although it is true that a number of architectural and historical land­marks have been destroyed either through ignorance or indifference, or by the devastation of the 1972 Agnes flood, the recent and almost completed Reading portion of the Statewide Comprehensive Survey has confirmed what many of Reading’s citizens sus­pected: that the city nevertheless presently possesses an extremely large amount of outstanding nineteenth­-century row-house architecture and an extant impressive inventory of locally manufactured architectural crafts.

The city’s two hundred and thirty­-one year history is a story not unlike stories of other Northeastern manufacturing cities which grew from fledgling settlements into industrially thriving towns.

Reading is situated in southeastern Pennsylvania fifty-eight miles from Philadelphia, and almost equidistant from Harrisburg, in the rich farm country of the Schuylkill Valley. One of the city’s most immediately obvious assets is its location. On its eastern boundary, it is partially circled by forested hills, and below, in the valley, the city spreads out north and south to the banks of the Schuylkill River.

Reading originated in the early 1700s, when the first white settler to the area and his family, the Finneys, erected a primitive inn at a passable ford in the area of what is now Third and Franklin streets. Not until 1748 was Reading actually founded, al­though its founders, Richard and Thomas Penn, were illustrious enough. Their original town plan which was limited to the area immediately sur­rounding the present Penn Square, followed the same grid pat tern as that used for the design of Lancaster and Phila­delphia. This type of plan, although an efficient method of delineating lots and streets, tended, when it was utilized for Oat terrain, to create a certain spatial monotony. But because Read­ing’s hilly topography allowed numerous vantage points to be created where citizens could view the architec­tural richness of the city, this monot­ony was avoided. In an era of steel and glass skyscrapers, there is something poignant about still being able to see a nineteenth-century skyline and be­yond it an unencumbered countryside. Looking out from a mansard window over the roof tops of two and three­-story row houses, spying here a church steeple, there a factory smokestack, an onlooker may find it difficult to be­lieve that he is in an American city and not in an Alpine village somewhere on the European continent.

To see the stepped descent of pointed slate roofs silhouetted against an expanse of sky is one of those sights which one can discover at var­ious unexpected junctures throughout the city. There is no doubt that the picturesque aspect of Reading is one of its less tangible assets and as yet not fully appreciated by its own inhabi­tants.

Reading is a city of brick row homes on half streets, of brick alleys, of brick factories and brick-colored sunsets. Reading is a city of scalloped slate and red-tinned gabled roofs, mansards, steeples and jutting factory smokestacks.

Reading is its aging railroad. stout women shopping on market days, high school marching bands, and jeweled stained-glass windows. Reading is its alley-ways alive with children, barking dogs and rumbling trash trucks.

Reading is the working man’s two­-story brick row home. with its rose bushes’ and flapping laundry in “post­age-stamp” back yards. It is the Queen Anne rows of its mercantile class, the Victorian elegance of tree-shaded streets, pedimented porches, beveled­-glass doors and gaily striped cloth awn­ings.

Reading is a city built in another century. when automobiles did not exist and the railroad was king. This is a time when the first nickering lights illuminated Penn Street in the 1880s and trolleys threaded their way through the press of people and horse-drawn carriages. This was a boom town. But Reading had known a quieter epoch. There had been a time between the American Revolution and the Civil War when Reading was still a village and depended for existence on its agricultural produce and light indus­trial goods. The city had not as yet become a sort of Victorian Levittown where entire blocks were built by speculators, using the popular pattern books of the day. The city had not yet begun the changing of ownership of land, buildings and fortunes. This early time was a time before the invention of the steam engine and the appear­ance of the first steam locomotive, when Reading’s main transportation access was the Schuylkill River, and when riverboat men, transporting grain downstream, fought hand-to-hand with fishermen for rights-of-way.

From this period of Reading’s his­tory few houses remain, although the extant Federal two-story brick homes in southwest Reading are reminiscent of the Federal style of those times. The mining of anthracite spawned a new era. In the 1820s, Reading’s popu­lation was about forty-two hundred persons. The Schuylkill and Union canals were built during this period and over three million tons of anthra­cite were hauled on these waterways between the years 1826 and 1832. Yet, after a decade of canal operation, the Reading Railroad was soon trans­porting a greater percentage of this tonnage; by the turn of the century, the railroad transported eight million tons of coal a year. This canal-barge transportation system continued its struggle for economic dominance and survival until after the Civil War. It has Jong since disappeared, leaving only some ruins hidden in the river under­growth.

It is ironic and a little sad that the Reading Railroad is a victim of the technical progress which at an earlier time created its brightest moments. The yards, the car shops, the endless gondolas of anthracite rolling through the city, the arrival and departure of passenger trains have all but disap­peared. Today, the Reading Railroad, in spite of having been one of the major forces in the growth and devel­opment of Reading, lies in unkempt, dissipated condition, a ghost of its former self. Rails are overgrown with weeds, structures are abandoned and landmarks such as the “Outer Station” (a passenger terminal which was built in 1874 to accommodate a burgeoning population) all have vanished.

One of the most unusual landmarks stands forlorn above the semi-deserted railroad tracks. It is known as the “Swinging Bridge,” a pedestrian sus­pension bridge built by the firm of Roebling, of Brooklyn Bridge fame. This structure, a tracery of steel gird­ers and cables. in itself not large or imposing but somehow wistfully beautiful, is one of Reading’s finest steel sculptures. Efforts have been made in the past to save it from dissolution, and it is hoped that as Reading becomes more sensitive to its historic and architectural landmarks, it will succeed in keeping this bridge from ultimate destruction.

Although the Reading Railroad’s insolvency is obvious, and so much of its plant languishes, one can still appreciate its outstanding architectural brick edifices. Its locomotive and car shops are like great cathedrals built to commemorate the glory of nineteenth-century technology. They are of immense size, nearly two blocks long and from five to six stories high. Their great space, massive trusses and clerestory roofs project a feeling of awe to the viewer. It should be noted that these particular structures are not located somewhere in the great ex­panse of the yards but instead parallel the row homes on North Sixth Street. Although one might speculate that their size would overpower other buildings in the environment, instead the varying sizes serve to complement each other. Some reasons for this may be that the, texture of the larger build­ings, their brick facades and the grace­fulness of their fenestration, are pleas­ing to look at and add to rather than detract from the attractiveness of the street.

In 1910, during Reading’s industrial peak, there were one hundred thou­sand people living in the city. Today that figure is eighty-one thousand. Although knitting mills, box and shoe manufacturers and other industries have long ago departed, with them too have gone many of the problems asso­ciated with manufacturing towns. The spewing smoke of factory chimneys no longer permeates the atmosphere; the piercing wails of factory whistles are now unheard above sounds of other activities.

The city is alive, but it is no longer entirely dependent on its mills for economic survival. Although less af­fluent, it is more livable. It is fortunate that many of the factory buildings which were constructed in the mid and late nineteenth century and which ex­emplify some of the best brick archi­tecture in the city, are still standing. Some house the original industries which had been established over one hundred years ago. Others have been readapted for different functions. For example, clothing and household out­let stores have now moved into what had been deserted buildings and are doing a brisk trade as bargain meccas for both local and out-of-town shop­pers. One wonders if these avid bargain hunters perceive the beauty of the factories they visit or anything other than that which hangs upon the clothing racks.

During the period of intense industrial growth from the 1860s to the 1900s, the majority of Reading’s pres­ent housing stock was constructed. This explains why there is such a wide variety of Victorian architecture; at least ten distinct architectural styles can be distinguished from this era.

A much smaller number survive from the federal period, while few buildings remain from colonial times. While Penn Square is the oldest constructed area in Reading, having been the city’s central market and business district from the earliest times, frequent reconstruction and demolition have obliter­ated nearly all of its original landmarks. However, a fine variety of late Victori­an and turn-of-the-century architec­ture still prevails, while twentieth-century architecture such as Art Moderne and Deco, and Post International styles are also well represented.

Federal and Italianate rows are con­centrated in the southwest neighborhoods of the city. In the 1830s to 1860s, this area was the first to develop away from the original settle­ment around Penn Square. Queen Anne and Richardsonian Romanesque styles appear in uniform and basically unaltered quantities in the northwest and southeast neighborhoods, all having been built from the 1870s to 1900s, while Tudor Revival and pseudo­Georgian styles appeared on the fringes of the northeast during the 1920s and 1930s.

One of the many valuable and fas­cinating revelations emerging from the Statewide Comprehensive Survey which the city’s Bureau of Planning is now completing is the fact that outstanding architectural contributions are not limited to the single homes and mansions, although indeed, in a num­ber of cases, these types of buildings are some of Reading’s show pieces. Instead, much of the best architecture in Reading is found in the typical and far less imposing working-class row houses. Except for the extremely wealthy, nearly everyone in Reading, from baker to banker, lived in these homes. However, just because these homes are typical does not, in this instance, imply they are banal. There are real and easily discernible aesthetic qualities in the design concept of rows, thousands of which were planned as single architectural units or composites. This is especially true of the Victorian Romanesque and Queen Anne styles. These rows usually share pedimented or arched porches, are accentuated by alternating dormers, either of a Flemish or Classical motif, and are unified, at both ends, by turrets.

The quality of adornment varies, but these three-story rows are usually found with exquisite stained or beveled-glass transoms and doors, brownstone facades, delicately worked scalloped slate roofs and bay windows, as well as other less obvious details. Their elegance is often further accen­tuated by their location, such as when they face Penn’s Commons, Reading’s oldest and finest park. Other three. story rows were built at about the same time as the Queen Annes and can be identified by the stylistic mixture of Gothic Revival and Stick Style ele­ments. These three-story buildings are frequently located on major streets either as rows or as semi-detached dwellings.

Row homes. as was mentioned earlier in this article, were built for almost all segments of Reading’s popu­lation. On half-streets, a different. modest type or home can be found. These were the houses of the mill workers, craftsmen and artisans who contributed heavily to the wealth of the city. These homes, like the largest proportion of Reading’s housing stock, were built by speculators during the city’s frenzied period of development, and were bought by working men and women with money oftentimes lent by building and loan associations. They were built on a production line basis. with large numbers being identical except, in some cases. where the pro­spective home owner chose to request

a few extra details, such as an especial­ly fine beveled-glass door or transom. But all of these homes, even those with the least detailed facades. are nevertheless ornamented with incised geometric floral patterns on cornice and window sashes or with brick cor­belling. Stained-glass doorway entrance transoms with the house number in­corporated as part of the design and cast or wrought-iron basement grills with floral or representational patterns adorn nearly all the row houses of Reading regardless of their location.

The preponderance of two-story, tin-roofed, gabled rows is easily di­vided into two major categories or types. The earlier version, of which there are a smaller number, are, as was stated earlier, from Reading’s federal period. Some of these date from the 1820s, but most were built during the 1840s and 1850s. These later Federal styles are characterized by a narrower frontage, many no more than thirteen and a half feet wide, with a vertical emphasis in window design. “Chalet” or Stick Style dormers are, on some of these rows, flush with the facade. Their first floors are often character­ized by a single arched window and door. Conversely, in the earlier version with its larger frontage, two-window openings were more nearly typical.

Two other striking features of this later Federal style should be noted. The tunnel passageway constructed be­tween each of the homes in a row per­mitted the residents a shoulder-wide access to their rear yards. The ubiqui­tous wrought-iron railing porch, not much larger than a dinghy, served as a place from which residents could greet each other or rest during their leisure hours. Although most of these homes were constructed of brick. a large number have since been perma­-stoned or covered with aluminum siding. This phenomenon is unfor­tunate but its effects are not irrevo­cable. A smaller percentage of these little row houses were built as wood frame structures with clapboard siding. Of these, only a handful retain their original appearance: most are hidden under various layers of tin, brick, asphalt or asbestos shingles, or stucco, often in that order.

As the Bureau of Planning sifts and collates the data culled from its archi­tectural and historic sites survey, these observations have emerged: half of the thirty thousand structures of Reading retain their original character and beauty. Most of the architectural crafts, such as stained glass. wrought and cast iron, was manufactured locally. An unexpectedly large number of potential historic districts have been mapped out. Nearly two thousand structures have been rated as outstand­ing. These include primarily row homes. mansions, churches, bridges, factories and schools. The wealth of historic and architectural landmarks is staggering when one considers Reading’s relatively small size. While it is impossible within the scope of this article to enumerate these sites, it is important that Reading’s first histori­cal district be mentioned.

This district is known as the Callow­hill Historical District and is located on Fifth Street from Laurel to Button­wood streets and includes Penn Square. This 253-acre district derives its name from the maiden name of William Penn’s second wife, Hannah Callow­hill. While much of both the history of eminent personages and the beauty of Reading’s architecture is reflected in the buildings of the Callowhill district, this does not mean that this neighborhood is, for that reason, necessarily more important or more valuable than other neighborhoods and potential historical districts in the city.

There are many architectural periods and styles represented in the Callow­hill district. In general, the residential structures along Fifth Street from Laurel Street to Walnut Street are representative or architecture span­ning the period 1830 to 1870. Federal, Early and Mid-Victorian styles are in evidence. The residential architecture north of Walnut Street dates mostly from 1870 to 1890 and is of Victori­an style.

Along South Fifth Street, the di­verse collection of architecture is arranged in small clusters of similar buildings which create an element of visual harmony along the street. The pleasant streetscape is frequently punc­tuated by Gothic Revival church steeples often set back from the street line. The west side of South Fifth Street between Chestnut and Spruce streets displays a typical array of three-story Italianate row homes. These imposing brick and stone struc­tures exhibit detailed wooden cornices and window lintels, handsome stoops leading up to massive arched doorways over finely carved wooden doors and ornamental stained glass and ironwork. This composition of row homes is complemented by the First Baptist Church on the southwest corner of Fifth and Chestnut streets. The bal­anced design of the church’s red sandstone facade lends a warmth to the Victorian streetscape. On the east side of the same block is a pleasant group of row homes dating from the federal period. These two-story brick struc­tures with small dormers projecting from gabled roofs possess a simplicity of design that is in marked contrast to the imposing nature of the Victorians across the street. In spite of this ob­vious contrast, however. an interesting and harmonious streetscape is afforded throughout South Fifth Street by the consistent arrangement or a diverse architectural stock into groups of simi­lar styles.

North of Penn Square, a blend of building styles from the Federal, Victorian and Contemporary periods greets the eye. The Christ Episcopal Church at 30 North Fifth Street was built in 1826, and is one of the oldest Gothic Revival churches in Reading. The rustic sandstone facade and spire lend an austere appearance to the church which is lightened by the pointed arch stained-glass windows. The eight-story Berkshire Hotel at 101 North Fifth Street possesses elements of Italianate ornamentation in its superb brick masonry. The outstand­ing patterned brickwork of this digni­fied structure reflects a quality of design and craftsmanship that is com­mon throughout the city.

Fifth Street north of Walnut Street was not developed until the late 1800s when Reading experienced its greatest period of economic expansion. As a result, this portion of the historical district offers an unusually pure collec­tion of Victorian architecture. The Empire style building at 227 North Fifth reflects a calm confidence in its graceful lines. Its form is accentuated by a mansard roof with Empire style dormers, and by double-story bay windows running smoothly down the brick facade. At the northeast corner of the intersection of Fifth and Elm meets is a Gothic Revival style church. There are recently restored Victorian homes on each of the other three cor­ners. These handsome buildings reflect Reading-German influence in their fine ornamental brickwork, and their having been restored makes this a particularly attractive intersection.

The northernmost part of the his­torical district is comprised entirely of buildings from the Victorian period. Outstanding brick and stone masonry, richly carved wooden cornices and window lintels, impressive arched doorways and ornamental details of stained glass and iron adorn the large three-story homes of this block. The uniformity of design and the simple restrained elegance of these Italianate row homes forms a scene of quiet beauty. The gently sloping street, the trees, and the handsome stone churches of the same period all further enhance this streetscape.

It took the initiative and persever­ance of interested citizens, the support of property owners, the technical assis­tance of the Redevelopment Authority, the cooperation and efforts of the Bureau of Planning and the leadership of the Mayor and City Council, to make the Callowhill Historical District possible. At the same time, a surprising­ly large number of persons residing in other parts of the city have also been strongly advocating the preservation and restoration of historically significant sites. Many property owners, as well as parishes and congregations of churches and synagogues, have been quietly at work on their buildings, setting an example of what can be done to preserve and enhance them. Unfortunately, until recently, they did not get the recognition they deserve.

Reading is headed toward revitaliza­tion and genuine efforts are being made to save the city’s rich heritage. With perseverance and a little luck, these efforts will be rewarded, and the city’s past will become part of its future.

 

Michel R. Lefevre serves as the Historic Preservation Specialist for the Planning Bureau of the City of Reading and has written extensively on preservations importance and utility. Currently he is coordinating the historic resources survey in Reading in cooperation with the PHMCs Office of Historic Preservation.