Rita Ritter almost didn’t see the dilapidated Victorian house on Perkiomen Avenue in Reading, Pa. “It was surrounded by mulberry trees and bushes,” she said. “It was a gem waiting to be polished.”
The house had been vacant for years, and water had leaked through three floors. Ritter uprooted poison ivy and “rehabbed, rewired” everything; $50,000 later, the slate roof has been patched and collapsed plaster walls have been rebuilt. The current occupant is Abigail’s Tea Room, replete with lace tablecloths, cherry-wood paneling and thick crimson draperies, a la 1883.
Ritter’s house is older than Reading’s landmark Pagoda, a 1908 Nagoyainspired temple that an aspiring politician had anchored on Mount Penn, which overlooks downtown, to hide a quarry scar. When both were built, the Reading Railroad was king and manufacturing was thriving. Resorts dotted the mountain. A gravity railroad, or funicular, provided scenic 30-mile views to the summit. After the Tower, a mountaintop resort, burned in 1923, that train stopped. Decades ago, all railroad passenger service ended.
Reading still made pretzels, beer and clothing. As a child, I lived in a rowhouse near Abigail’s, among immigrant families. The adults worked in factories, proud of their dirty hands. In the summer, I hiked to the Pagoda; in the winter, I ice-skated in my shoes on the City Park pond. Shopping meant walking to Pomeroy’s downtown department store, now long gone.
Reading’s decline continued in the recent recession, which zapped jobs, the real estate market and spirits. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2011 that 41.3 percent of Reading’s 88,000 residents lived in poverty — the top rate in the nation.
But now, the city seems to be reinventing itself, defining historic districts, re-purposing factory buildings, noting African American contributions, and acknowledging its large Spanish-speaking population, which was 58.2 percent in 2010.
Most of the energy centers around Penn’s Common, land that William Penn’s sons gave the citizens in 1749. Locals call it City Park; it once featured waterworks, a prison and fairgrounds. Since 2005, it has anchored the 116-acre Penn’s Common historic district and remains the people’s park.
“I’m proud of this area because of the history it represents,” City Council member Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz told me over tea at Abigail’s, which is in her district of San Francisco-like hills lined with houses. “I’m just passionate about this city.”
We visited the Pagoda, where a Japanese tearoom serves locally made Cho Cho ice cream, Berks hot dogs and Reading Draft root beer. We climbed the 87 steps to the top of the Pagoda, where, standing beside a bell cast in 1739, we had a splendid view of snow-covered Penn’s Common.
Down the mountain, at Mineral Spring Park, we eyed the 200-year-old whitewashed East Ends Athletic Club, which was a resort until 1856. Its springhouse still looks the way it does on old postcards, minus the long-skirted ladies. Near a green-and-white pavilion, the former gravity train track is now a hiking trail. Feeling like trespassers in someone’s back yard, we admired an open-air train car, last used in 1924.
Back at Penn’s Common, I found the Queen Anne mansion of local dry goods merchant Jonathan Mould, who gave Reading the Pagoda. Now George and Cindy Heminitz’s Bed and Breakfast on the Park, it retains the original chandeliers, converted from gas to electricity, and floor-to-ceiling pocket doors.
After 12 years, the Heminitzes are still uncovering the mansion’s secrets. “An old man stopped by one day, said he had been here as a boy,” Cindy said. He remembered cherubs and flowers on the ceiling. Sure enough, when George removed the kitchen’s drop ceiling, it revealed molding carved with angels. In a wall, he found a glass-sided cabinet.
Cindy gave me a Penn’s Common Historic District brochure, and I began a self-guided tour. Starting at City Park’s marble turtle fountain, I passed statues of President William McKinley, represented moments before he was shot by an assassin at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901; a Civil War soldier; Christopher Columbus; and Reading native Frederick Lauer, the first president of the U.S. Brewers’ Association. I searched for “gallows hill,” where public hangings took place, but it had been leveled in 1878. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, past the 1939 band shell, stood a lone bronze soldier. At dusk, the Pagoda’s five vermilion tiers invaded the night, spreading cheer.
On three sides of the park, which backs up to Mount Penn, are mansions and rowhouses — Federal, Victorian, Romanesque revival. Doctor’s Row on 11th Street leads to what has long been an African American neighborhood and Old Bethel A.M.E. Church, where I met Mildred Gilyard, whose late husband, Frank, devoted 30 years to building the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum. It opened in 1997 to highlight contributions by African Americans.
Reading was built by blacks, both enslaved and freed, Gilyard told me. Many worked at iron forges. Joseph Hiester, a local congressman who became governor, kept 18 slaves, as did many prominent families. Between 1780 and 1825, 138 slaves were registered to 46 county slave owners. The most chilling fact the museum revealed to me was that Reading was dubbed “Kidnap City” because of the slave hunters who abounded in the area, through which the Underground Railroad ran.
Sunday morning, in the Callowhill district, I attended Spanish Mass at Saint Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church, grand as any European cathedral. Across the street, I admired tiles depicting fairy tales on the green facade of Tyson-Schoener Elementary School.
At GoggleWorks, near the Schuylkill River, artists blow glass where Willson Safety Products once made goggles. An exhibit on Willson contains a fleshcolored hard plastic protective bra fashioned for factory-working World War II women. Ouch. Rosie the Riveter probably wore one.
In Prince District, where real Rosies lived, time seems suspended at Reading Hard and Soft Pretzel Bakery . A year ago, Reading rallied behind the 68-year-old operation, where Shelly Coulter bakes 40 dozen hand-twisted soft pretzels daily except Sunday in a coal-fired brick wall oven in a low-ceilinged room after mixing dough in a makeshift machine assembled 45 years ago. “Come at 10 a.m.,” Coulter said, and “you can see me shape them.”
On Willow Street, in the old Reading Hardware building, I wandered into T.E.A. Factory, which co-founder Cindi Abribat described as “a creative community and co-working space.” Hip-hop artist Walter Pruitt of StreetLawz was in the recording studio. The weekly schedule included a WordPress software workshop, yoga and a local-produce market. (Another popular market opened in 2010, on Penn Street, where market stalls existed in the 1700s.)
“We deliberately came into the city,” Abribat said. “We’re trying to get people to come back” as well. The co-founder, Peter Mitchell, said that when he moved to Reading 18 years ago, “on any night you’d see four or five hookers and drug dealers.” Now, “the police are doing a full-court press” on safety.
Reading’s resorts may be long gone, but the city I’d returned to after 39 years is recovering its pride.