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Reading is seeking partners for Pagoda renovations work

Reading’s administrators are looking beyond city coffers to help fund rehabilitation of the 116-year-old Pagoda on Mount Penn.

The iconic building on Duryea Drive has been closed since the start of the pandemic and will remain so until planned upgrades to its structural and mechanical systems are finished.

Although cost projections will not be available until a complete assessment of the structure is performed, expenses are likely to be in the millions, officials said.

“The city is committed to using city public money for the Pagoda,” said Frank Denbowski, interim city managing director and Mayor Eddie Moran’s chief of staff. “But we recognize that it is regional asset. We are hoping that our regional partners will help share with us some financial assistance or some kind of shared responsibility to move forward.”

Denbowski updated council on the project Monday during a committee-of-the-whole meeting.

Before the city can begin looking for funding sources and partners, there needs to be a clearer understanding of what work is needed and how much it will cost, he said.

That will mean more studies.

A contract for $643,097 recently was awarded to engineering firm Johnson, Mirmiran and Thompson of Allentown.

The scope of work includes overseeing repairs to the retaining wall at the Pagoda’s foundation but does not include the actual construction work, which will be offered for bid as a separate contract.

Much of the cost for the firm’s services is related to the structural and geotechnical engineering needed to proceed, Denbowski said, explaining the work will involve studying and evaluating the motion and forces of the rocks and soil beneath and around the Pagoda.

Sections of the retaining walls on Duryea and Skyline drives are bowing and in danger of crumbling.

A 20-foot-by-20-foot section, which collapsed in 2006, was reinforced with concrete.

Funding for the contract with JMT comes from $1 million in capital improvement funds budgeted for the Pagoda, Denbowski said.

At the Pagoda on Mount Penn in Reading on Monday morning October 25, 2021 where infrastructure improvements have been completed to the parking lot and road, along with the installation of gates. (READING EAGLE)

The remaining $356,903 budgeted will underwrite a study that will assess the building’s electrical, plumbing and other mechanical and structural needs, he said.

“As soon as these studies are complete, we will have a better assessment and idea of how to move forward,” Denbowski said. “We plan to share this information with our regional partners and ask if we can get commitments from them.”

Kyle Zeiber, acting director of public works, said there is no timeline for completing the project and reopening the Pagoda, but he suspects it will take several months due to the Pagoda’s unusual construction and historical significance.

Working to reopen

Councilwoman Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz said she has taken a special interest in the Pagoda due to its significance and location within District 2, which she represents.

She and Councilwoman Donna Reed serve as council representatives to the Foundation for the Reading Pagoda, formed in 2013 to oversee management of the facility.

The foundation is working with the city to see that repairs are completed and the Pagoda is reopened, Goodman-Hinnershitz said, thanking the administration for doing what she called a deep dive into the project.

“The clear message to the public is we don’t want to deprive you of going into the building,” she said, “but we also have to make sure that everything is in line as far as all the work that is going to be done.”

Goodman-Hinnershitz said there could be concerns about the structural stability of the building.

“We won’t know that until we get more feedback from the contracted engineers,” she said.

The last major repairs were made in 2009 under Mayor Tom McMahon’s administration when a $1.5 million rehabilitation — including lighting upgrades and roofing work — was completed, she said.

Last year, the city spent more than $250,000 for improvements, including enhancing security and accessibility to meet standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, reconfiguring traffic patterns and widening the road for safety and increasing parking spaces.

Ongoing maintenance and rehabilitation are to be expected in a building over 110 years old, Goodman-Hinnershitz said.

‘A treasure’

The iconic building, commissioned by businessman and politician William A. Witman Sr., was completed in 1908.

When Witman failed to get a liquor license for the Pagoda, his hopes of making it a resort were dashed.

Farmers National Bank ultimately foreclosed on the property, and it was acquired in 1910 by city department store owner Jonathan Mould.

The following year, Mould, and his wife, Julia E. Bell, gave the Pagoda to the public, formally selling it to the city for $1.

An excavator spreads gravel. At the Pagoda in Reading, PA Monday morning September 27, 2021 where infrastructure work by Barwis Construction has begun. (READING EAGLE)

“Reading is recognized for the Pagoda; Berks County is recognized for the Pagoda,” Goodman-Hinnershitz said. “It is a regional asset and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”

The councilwoman said 30,000 or more people a year toured the landmark before the coronavirus pandemic.

“But I don’t like to minimize it to just a tourist attraction,” she said. “I think it is about the heart and the soul of the city.”

Goodman-Hinnershitz said council will keep the public informed of progress as the project moves forward.

“This is another project with the potential for a huge sticker shock,” Zeiber said. “But there are, at least, federal funding opportunities out there.”

Reed recommended meeting with preservation agencies at the state and federal levels to investigate possible funding opportunities.

Moran said officials intend to do that.

“We are going to turn over every rock possible to make sure we get the funding to preserve  — and I’m going to steal Marcia’s word — to preserve that treasure that we have,” Moran said. “And make sure we preserve it to the best of our ability and make sure we have it for generations to come.”

Source: Berkshire mont

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