In 1733, the site of present day Reading was chosen. It was set at the intersection of two great valleys, the east Penn-Lebanon Valley and the Schuylkill River. This site was known as Finney’s Ford until 1743 when Thomas Lawrence, a Penn Land agent, made the first attempt at the layout for Reading. In 1748, the town was laid out by Thomas and Richard Penn, the sons of William Penn. The name was chosen after Penn’s own county seat, Reading, in Berkshire, England. In 1752, Reading became the county seat of Berks County.
During the French and Indian war, Reading became a military base for a chain of forts along the Blue Mountains. The local iron industry, by the time of the Revolution had a total production that exceeded that of England, a production that would help supply Washington’s troops with weapons including cannons, rifles and ammunition.
The center of Reading was known as market square, with open sheds where farmers would sell their produce and hold a yearly fair. Later the square became the center of government and commerce with the County Courthouse, banks, stores and hotels located on the site. The construction of the Reading Railroad, its lines radiating in all directions from the City, was probably the greatest single factor in the development of Berks County. Established in 1833 to transport coal, its operations grew to include coal mining, iron making, canal and sea-going transportation and shipbuilding. By 1870 it was the largest corporation in the world.
Reading did not officially incorporate as a city until the 1840s, when its population had grown to 12,000 people living in rows of red brick houses. In the fifty years following the Civil War, Reading continued to grow as an industrial city, supporting one of the most diverse manufacturing bases of any city in the country. Bicycles, wagons, hats, cigars, clocks, shoes, brass, bricks, steam engines, rope, beer and pretzels, and many other items were all manufactured in the city or the surrounding area. In 1900 Charles Duryea came to Reading to make one of the earliest automobiles. Duryea Drive on Mt. Penn still carries his name and is the site of an annual car race up to the top of the mountain.
Our walking tour will begin in City Park, or Penn’s Common, just east of city center...
Penn’s Common (City Park)
11th Street at the head of Penn Street
This large parcel of land was set apart as early as 1749 by John and Richard Penn as public commons, although the land was not formally conveyed to the city until November 19, 1800. Despite the Penns’ wishes that the common remain, in its totality, a place for “public recreation” the park saw numerous early uses including washing clothes in the stream that ran through the property, mustering of troops, iron-mining and even public hangings at “gallows hill,” a prominent point in the Commons, located within the triangle bounded on two sides by Perkiomen Avenue and Hill Road. That hill was leveled by extensive grading in 1878. Beginning in the 1820s recreation took a back seat to other uses deemed in the the public good. The Reading Water Company constructed a waterworks and reservoir in the Commons and later a prison and a fairground followed. Eventually an act was passed that stated that Penn’s Common could never be used for any purpose other than as a public park and parade ground. Today a number of statues and memorials can be seen in Penn’s Common:
The first statue erected in Reading was that of Frederick Lauer, the pioneering Reading brewer. Lauer was born on October 14, 1810 in Gleisweiler, Germany. At the age of 12, his family immigrated to the United States, settling in nearby Womelsdorf. Under his father’s tutelage he quickly learned the brewing process. By age 16, Fred was foreman and accountant of the brewery, now in Reading. In 1835, he became proprietor of the new plant on North Street, and remained there until his retirement. In 1885, the United States Brewers’ Association hired Henri Stephens to create the Lauer statue as the first monument erected in Reading because he embodied the ideals of a large part of his community. The physical structure is quite tall, and consists of two parts. The top part of the monument is a life-size likeness of Lauer, cast in bronze. He is portrayed wearing a suit which is covered by a long overcoat.
First Defenders Monument
The First Defenders Monument was dedicated in the park on July 4, 1901. Berks County had its First Defenders in two wars. When Boston was besieged by the British and the Continental Congress issued a call for troops in 1775, three companies of Penn’s riflemen were summoned because they were such expert shots. One of these came from Berks and was commanded by George Nagle, of Reading. In 1861 Reading sent the Ringgold Artillery of Washington with that famous body of soldiers known as the First Defenders, the men who were the minute men of the Civil War.
The addition of William McKinley to “monument row” occurred shortly after the Ohioan became the third United State President to be assassinated by an anarchist in Buffalo, New York in 1901. Much of the funding came from “penny, nickel, and dime” donations from city schoolchildren.
The monument to Christopher Columbus was donated to the city by the Italian community in 1925. The statue is on a marble pedestal with with four bronze bas relief tablets with scenes from Columbus’s life. On October 11, 1992, rededication ceremonies of the newly restored statue marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage.
At the entrance to City Park stands the Volunteer Firefighter Monument. The Reading Fire Department was officially organized on March 17, 1773, with the founding of the Rainbow Volunteer Fire Company. According to legend, the new company’s name was being boisterously debated in the tavern where the meeting was being held, when a rainbow appeared in the eastern sky following an early spring thunderstorm, thus giving birth to the name. The Rainbow company was formed on St. Patrick’s Day and a shamrock became the company’s insignia.
WALK NORTH ALONG 11TH STREET.
Berks County Conservancy
25 N 11th Street
This well-turned out brick Victorian was once the Reading Bureau of Water building and today serves as the headquarters for the Berks County Conservancy.
USS Maine Anchor
City Park, just south of the intersection of 11th Street and Washington Street
An explosion that sent the battleship Maine to the bottom of Havana harbor in Cuba on the night of February 15, 1898 triggered the Spanish-American War. In 1914, one of the Maine’s six anchors was taken from the Washington Navy Yard to City Park and dedicated during a ceremony presided over by Franklin D. Roosevelt, then assistant Secretary of the Navy. The ceremony commemorated those who died in the explosion.
TURN LEFT ON WASHINGTON STREET. TURN RIGHT ON 10TH STREET.
Bethel A.M.E. Church
119 N 10th Street
This church building. Was erected in 1837 by free African Americans and it became an Underground Railroad station for escaped slaves seeking freedom. The church was rebuilt in 1867 and remodeled in 1889. The congregation, dating from 1822, moved to Windsor Street in 1974.
RETURN TO WASHINGTON STREET AND TURN RIGHT (WEST).
Zion’s United Church of Christ
824 Washington Street
The United Church of Christ in Berks County dates to 1760 when members of the Lutheran and Reformed congregations did the uniting near Windsor Castle.
815 Washington Street
The current City Hall replaced an overwhelmed old one at Fifth and Franklin streets. In 1925 the voters by referendum decided upon a $750,000 bond issue for the purpose of securing a site and erecting a new building. For some reason no action was taken until 1928, at which time the old High School for Boys was purchased at a cost of $510,000. The 1904 Beaux Arts building was designed by the Philadelphia firm of Davis & Davis. The imposing granite facade was retained during alterations. The refurbished City Hall was dedicated in 1929.
631 Washington Street
The first meetings of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Reading were held in early 1858, a little more than six years after the founding of the first YMCA in the United States in Boston. The first “reading rooms” were located on the northeast corner of Sixth and Penn Streets. The first YMCA-owned building was erected at 628-630 Penn Street at a cost of $65,000 and dedicated on June 9, 1895. The present-day Central Branch YMCA was dedicated on May 24, 1914.
Trinity Lutheran Church
531 Washington Street
Trinity Lutheran Church was founded in 1751 by Henry Melchoir Muhlenburg as a congregation of the “Ministerium of Pennsylvania.” It is now the “mother church” of the city of Reading. Built in 1791, the Georgian Colonial church now has Greek Revival and Victorian details. The majestic steeple, towering some 203 feet in the air, at one time, was the tallest structure in the state of Pennsylvania. Dr. Bodo Otto, chief surgeon of the Valley Forge encampment during the winter of 1777-78, is buried in the churchyard.
The Berkshire Hotel
501 Washington Street
The classically designed 8-story Berkshire was built in 1914. The venerable hotel was converted into multi-use office space in 1986.
Abraham Lincoln Hotel
100 North Fifth Street
The Abraham Lincoln Hotel opened its doors in 1930. Throughout its history, a host of distinguished visitors including John Philip Sousa patronized this grand hotel named for our 16th President. After closing in the late 1900s the building was renovated and revived in 2001.
Metropolitan Edison Building
412 Washington Street
This is one of the best Sullivanesque style skyscrapers in Pennsylvania based on the work of Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. The Sullivanesque style developed in response to the emergence of tall, steel-frame skyscrapers in the 1890s. Sullivan’s approach was to use ornament and design to delineate a tall building into three distinct parts, an entry level with prominent window and door openings, a mid section with bands of windows with vertical piers, and a top with a highly decorative cornice, often featuring round porthole windows. The effect was to simulate a classical column.
2nd Street and Washington Street
In 1871, during a time when the United States depended solely on Europe for optical lenses, Thomas A. Willson & Co. erected the first factory to manufacture optical glass for lenses and reading glasses at the corner of Washington and 2nd Streets. Founded by Gile J. Willson and son Thomas, their first innovation, among many that would follow, was a protective lens that blocked dangerous and blinding rays produced by metal processing equipment. The National Safety Council was created in 1913, and T.A. Willson & Co. Inc. helped to set the bar for the establishment of uniform safety standards in industry. By 1981 the company was manufacturing more than 3,000 separate items in protective gear, and at that time became Willson Safety Products. The company did not survive into the 21st century but the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts has become a prime example of adaptive reuse in architecture.
TURN LEFT ON 2ND STREET.
Keystone Hook and Ladder
2nd Street and Penn Street
The Queen Anne-style firehouse dates to 1886. Its central tower articulated on the main building facade by piers or pilasters, and capped by a pyramidal roof, strongly marked horizontal facade stringcourses, and symmetrical compositions is typical of architectural pattern books of the day.
TURN LEFT ON PENN STREET.
Peanut Bar Restaurant
332 Penn Street
The Peanut Bar Restaurant traces its roots back to Wernersville in the 1920’s. Founder Jimmie Kramer moved the business around a lot during Prohibition before settling on Penn Street in 1933, where it has become a local institution.
Reading Eagle Company
345 Penn Street
The first Daily Reading Eagle appeared on the street on January 28, 1868. It was the descendent of a handful of Reading newspapers that date to the Adler, a German weekly, published by the Ritter family in 1797. J. Lawrence Getz attempted to print the city’s first daily newspaper, the Reading Daily Gazette, in 1847 but the paper lacked advertising and readers and folded in 1857. The Reading Daily Times quickly followed in 1858 but was sold a year later to one of its biggest advertisers, Henry A. Lantz, a bookseller, for $150. In 1861 Lantz went off to fight in the Civil War and sold the paper for a penny. After the war the two newspaper companies stabilized and prospered for more than a century. In 1982 the staffs merged. On June 28, 2002, the last edition of the afternoon Reading Eagle and the last edition of the weekday daily Reading Times were published. The Eagle nameplate moved to the morning publication. In 2007 the Reading Eagle Company began construction of a 77,000-square-foot addition to its facility at 345 Penn Street.
TURN RIGHT ON 4TH STREET.
Log House, Hiester House, and Market Annex
30 South 4th Street
Joseph Hiester was born on a Berks County farm in 1752. After leading Pennsylvania militia in the American Revolution he went into the mercantile business but did not linger long as a merchant. He served in the state legislature and the United States Congress before winning election as governor of Pennsylvania at the age of 68.
RETURN TO PENN STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
Farmers National Bank
445 Penn Street
This was the site of the Federal Inn beginning in 1763; President George Washington was entertained here in 1794. Beginning in 1814 the building was used as a banking house. A century later, in 1925, the current Neoclassical structure, for the Farmers National Bank, was opened.
Colonial Trust Company
northwest corner of Penn Street and 5th Street
The Colonial Trust was organized on July 2, 1900, with resources of $375,000. A series of mergers during the Great Depression allowed Colonial to not only survive but be designated as one of the two banks in Reading that was financially healthy enough to open for business after the “Bank Holiday” imposed by the Roosevelt administration in March 1933. The Colonial Trust Company building has lorded over Penn Square for more than a century.
TURN LEFT ON 5TH STREET.
Christ Episcopal Church
435 Court Street, northwest corner of Fifth Street
The lot of ground on which Christ Church stands was number 71 in the plan of the borough to be “held in trust, for the erection of an Episcopal Church, whenever it should be found convenient, and as a place of burial, for the Episcopalians, within the town of Reading, and the vicinity, and of such other persons, not Episcopalians, as the said trustees shall permit to be buried therein, and for no other purpose whatsoever.”
RETURN TO PENN STREET AND TURN LEFT (EAST).
Reading Trust Company
515 Penn Street
The Reading Trust Company was organized in 1886; this headquarters building was erected in 1930.
TURN LEFT (NORTH) ON 6TH STREET.
Berks County Trust Company Building
35-41 North 6th Street
The Berks County Trust Company was organized in 1900 and this Neoclassical building with its march of Corinthian columns dates to 1910.
TURN RIGHT (EAST) ON COURT STREET.
Berks County Courthouse
633 Court Street
This massive and ornate 19-story Art Deco granite structure, built in 1932 to last a century, at a cost of $2,000,000 during the Depression, stands 308 feet tall, making it the tallest courthouse in the United States, and also the most expensive building in Berks County. It is also the second-tallest municipal building in the state of Pennsylvania. Only Philadelphia’s City Hall is taller.
WALK BEHIND THE PARKING GARAGE AND TURN RIGHT TO REACH PENN STREET.
Reading Railroad Massacre
7th and Penn streets
Located midway between Pennsylvania’s rich anthracite coal fields and the port of Philadelphia, the small city of Reading was at the heart of America’s rapidly developing coal, iron, and railroad industries. The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, popularly called the Reading, was a corporate giant during the 1870s. The Reading’s thirty-six-acre shop complex dominated the downtown area, and 1,500 of the city’s estimated 40,000 residents worked for the company. Under the iron-fisted rule of its president, Franklin Gowen, the Reading gobbled up coal mines, canals, and shipping vessels. Gowen ran roughshod over workers” attempts to unionize. Scorning his labor force, Gowen proclaimed that “a man with ordinary intelligence can become a conductor, a brakeman, or a fireman after an hour’s instruction.” In July 1877, after enduring 10 percent pay cuts, railroad workers revolted across the country in the Great Strike of 1877. The strike spread rapidly, becoming the first nationwide labor action and prompting governors in several states to call out their national guard units as well as, eventually, federal troops to maintain order. In Reading, on the nights of July 22 and 23, rioters burned the Reading’s Lebanon Valley Railroad wooden bridge over the Schuylkill River―severing its Harrisburg main line. Meanwhile, a mob of strikers and sympathetic citizens gathered in the center of Reading. On the evening of July 23, the National Guard’s Fourth Regiment arrived from Allentown. Brigadier General Frank Reeder of Easton ordered his men―about 253 strong―to march into a thirty-foot-deep, 300-yard-long man-made “cut,” or depression, where strikers had blocked a train. The surrounding mob, estimated at several thousand people, pelted the guardsmen below with rocks and bricks. In the violence and confusion that followed, panicked troops fired into a taunting crowd at the far end of the cut, killing ten people and wounding dozens more. Unlike the rioting workers in Pittsburgh, who avenged the shootings of their fellow workers by burning the Pennsylvania Railroad’s station and roundhouse, Reading strikers resisted calls to set fire to the shops and depots in the center of their town. On January 1, 1878, the city of Reading hosted the first national assembly of the Knights of Labor, which in the year that followed grew into the nation’s largest industrial union, and organized national campaigns for the worker benefits and rights.
TURN LEFT (EAST) ON PENN STREET.
700 Penn Street
The Sovereign Center is situated on the erstwhile site of the Astor Theatre, which finally closed in the year 1975. The theater lay vacant until it was torn apart in the year 1998 and space was made for the new arena, the Sovereign Center. Built in the year 2001, its seating capacity is 7,083.
CONTINUE ON PENN STREET TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT IN PENN’S COMMON.