Over the years, the elements and normal wear and tear, twin terrors to an aging building, have sought to claim the local landmark. It has endured thanks to the city, which owns it, and the caretakers and scores of volunteers who tend to the Pagoda and the 10 acres of land which surrounds it.
On a recent Saturday morning, a group of Penske associates, family and friends collected about 1,600 pounds of trash and debris strewn across the Pagoda's vast footprint.
SAARA – Social Activities for the Associates of the Reading Area – co-sponsored the cleanup event with Penske's Environmental Services Department to offer an opportunity for associates to give back to the community.
The city of Reading provided trash bags, gloves and pickers for the group of 31 volunteers, made up of associates, family and friends.
The iconic 7-story, Japanese-style building, located on top of Mt. Penn, has served as a touchstone for residents and transplants returning to the city for a visit. For many, the Pagoda is home.
“The Pagoda is a landmark that provides context to the history of the city," said Christopher Hawk, senior environmental compliance engineer with Penske's Environmental Services department. “Preserving the Pagoda preserves the fabric of the city."
Witness to History
When the Pagoda was completed in 1908, Theodore Roosevelt was president, Henry Ford produced the first Model T and the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series.
Initially, the building was intended to be a hotel, but without a liquor license, it remained a topic of conversation until 1911 when it was sold to the city for $1. Today, the Foundation for the Reading Pagoda manages the building.
“It has been around for so long and for so many generations that people don't remember the mountain without having the Pagoda on it," said Cindy L. Kauffman, who along with her husband Scott, are caretakers for the Pagoda. “It's that beacon that draws people to the area and lets them know they are home."
Some of the interesting facts about the Pagoda include:
- In addition to its seven stories, the Pagoda is 28 feet wide, 50 feet long and stands some 620 feet above the city and 886 feet above sea level. The building is connected to the mountainside with 16 tons of bolts.
- The bell on the top floor was cast in Japan in 1739. It arrived in Reading in 1907, traveling via the Suez Canal to New York Harbor and finally by rail.
- It is the only Pagoda in the world with a fireplace and chimney.
- In the days before radio broadcasting, Morse Code flashed from the Pagoda's lights to direct firemen, promote fundraising campaigns and provide the public with results of sporting events.
- Every year at 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve, the Pagoda's lights flash to let children know that Santa is on his way.
Like many historic places, the Pagoda came close to disappearing.
“There were numerous times in the history of the Pagoda that it was in bad shape, and there was talk about tearing it down," Mrs. Kauffman said. “It has a lot of history and has always been a landmark."
Today, the Pagoda is also a family center, playing host to birthday parties, weddings as well as events for children. Keeping the grounds in the best shape possible is important for the Pagoda's viability.
“The outside is very important to us because it is the first thing that people see when they come up and park. Unfortunately, we have some people who don't understand that trash belongs in trash cans. We have animals on the mountain and they help to spread that stuff around," Mrs. Kauffman said.
The conditions on the mountain also play a role.
“It is very windy up there. We get trash that is blown from other areas up in the mountain and it ends up at the Pagoda. It is not a pleasant sight to see a lot of trash at the landmark, so we work very hard," she said. “It is a constant battle to try to keep it trash-free."
Volunteers like the Penske group are so important to the fight.
This was the second beautification project for SAARA and the Environmental Services Department. Last year, a similar group worked to clean Riverfront Park, located across from Penske Truck Rental in Reading and a nearby playground.
Ironically, it was a chance visit by Hawk to the Pagoda, which gave birth to the cleanup initiative.
“There is no question how much Penske values and promotes giving back and contributing to charitable endeavors," Hawk said. “Charitable efforts like a park cleanup has an immediate sense of individual contribution and 100 percent of the effort goes to that cause."
Melissa Rodriguez, a security operations specialist, battled against flying bugs and litter as she and her family filled several bright orange bags in short order.
“Having grown up in Reading, I feel an obligation to give back to the city," said Rodriguez, who works in Penske's security department. “I want to instill that in my children."
Her children, Emma and Chase, love to come to the Pagoda, and Rodriguez said she wanted to give them an opportunity to help preserve it.
Shane Cloyd, a senior engineer, has hiked in the area near the Pagoda. The cleanup fell on the weekend of his first wedding anniversary, but Cloyd was more than happy to set aside some time to give back.
The first time he saw the Pagoda up close, it left him with a sense of awe for a building that seemed a little out of place yet perfect at the same time.
“I think it is important. We are losing so much growing space," Cloyd said. “If everyone spent three hours a year volunteering like this, we could keep parks like this and green space in better shape."
It is that feeling Mrs. Kauffman hopes will keep the Pagoda thriving for years to come.
“The more people we get to love this place, the more secure I feel about its future," Kauffman said. “It takes everybody."
By Bernie Mixon