The building located at 503 Penn Street in its footprint dates back to the 1800s and has hosted numerous businesses over the proceeding centuries. In 2016 this building was purchased by Weidenhammer Systems Corp and redeveloped by Muhlenberg Greene Architects.
In 1872 there was a fire which wiped out the entire north side 500 block of Penn Street. The fire originated in the Stichter’s Hardware Store building next door.
Around the turn of the twentieth century it was purchased by William K. Eckert, owner of Deppen Brewing Company. During this 1901 purchase the deed described it as a two story brick dwelling. Beginning in 1902 a very popular establishment called the Colonial Cafe was on the main floor. The Colonial Cafe was a seemingly hopping spot, known for a Germania Band which played there frequently.
Eckert changed the deed over to Deppen Brewing in 1906 – and it is after this purchase that the deed described the structure as a three-story brick hotel.
At some point in the 1910s the facade of the building radically changed. There was another fire that started in the Stichter hardware building in June 1908 which again damaged the second and third stories of the 503 Penn building. This made the most sense as to when the facade was rebuilt, however, the below October 1909 Thomas Warren Sears photo proves that as untrue. The Stichter facade is updated from its fire but the Colonial Cafe building remains the same three story structure.
The above image from the 1920s shows the new (and current) facade and window structure. The property was purchased in 1913 by John J. Witman who made it residence for his company Reading Chandelier. It is safe to assume Witman updated the facade and added an entire fourth floor. The interesting part is that even a story was added, the height of the building doesn’t appear to change. The main bay window on the third floor was used as a display room for the chandeliers, which were easily viewable from Penn Street below.
Reading Chandelier remained in the building for 4 decades until the owner, J.J. Witman accidentally fell down an elevator shaft in the building. He succumbed to his injuries five hours after the fall at Community General hospital on December 17th 1951.
The building was then sold to Marion Mumma, wife of John C. Mumma Senior, the original owner of Mumma Jewler’s which occupied a building on the other side of Penn Street near Whitner’s. The building was passed down two generations to his son, John C. Junior in 1980 and then his son, Michael B. Mumma in 1982 who owned it until Weidenhammer purchased it for redevelopment in 2016.
Some alive today may remember a barber shop in the basement owned and operated by Dick Zell.
With Reading Distilling Guild as the newest tenant, we came full circle back to a drinking establishment in 503 Penn Street. Granted, there aren’t any Germania bands playing these days, but they do have live music, and it seems like a really fun atmosphere to enjoy a drink or two, so if you haven’t yet, come down and check the place out.
The 2016 renovations were done by local firm, Muhlenberg Green Architects. The Egyptian mural on the third floor was uncovered by MGA in the renovation process, and remains a bit of a mystery. When and why it was painted here, in what was the chandelier showroom is unknown. If you have absolutely any idea why or when this is from feel free to drop it in the comments, because we would all love to know.
Originally, the building had a light well that stemmed from a skylight in the roof. The well was in the very center of the building through all stories as a way to get natural light in the building.
MGA did a fantastic job at opening up the space, exposing the original brick walls and brought it well into the 21st century . They actually received the Restaurant/Bar category award at the 2021 Building Berks Awards.
The third and fourth floor space is used for private community meetings at this point, but it seems like it would also make really trendy office space. This type of work could and should be done up and down Penn Street. It’s what these beautiful old buildings deserve and revitalization efforts like this one are the future of improving the downtown experience.
Call me an optimist, but I am hopeful that in my lifetime Penn Square will once again turn into the busy, bustling shopping and entertainment district it once was. As long as projects like this keep happening I will remain optimistic.
Huge thanks to Muhlenberg Green Architects who in conjunction with their client Weidenhammer Corp and Reading Distilling Guild for allowing us access to film this building and providing helpful information.
Other Informational contributions to this project were also made by Brian Engelhardt, George M. Meiser, Michelle Lynch and Rick Polytika.
I am certain that there was a barber who had a business for quite a few years located in the basement if I am thinking of the right location. My step-father and I used to patronize him in the 1990s. I believe that there were a series of barbers there over the years. In the 1960s, you could get a haircut there for 65 cents.
Dick Zell, my childhood barber.
I remember getting my haircut back in the day. What was it called? Claferty?Cafferty? If I remember correctly the woman’s name may have been Marie. She left there and opened the first dog grooming business at 5th and Franklin sts.
Great read. Thanks for bringing to life the history of these old buildings. I definitely will be stopping by this establishment in the near future.
Not only do I remember the Barber Shop, but I got more than one haircut there. My father and I would walk there from South 16th street in the early 60’s.
503 Penn Sr–Wasn’t Baernkopf and Embree, haberdashers, located in a portion if the ground floor in the 30’s and 40’s
This is a very well made informative piece on a prime Penn Street property. I agree completely that the other standing buildings could be restored in a similar fashion and downtown could be revitalized. I loved and miss the bustling downtown energy of the 50s and 60s. We had clothing shops, department stores, bars, restaurants, theaters, record shops, news stands, farmers markets. It was great.
Sitting here thinking about about a typical Saturday: taking in a move, grabbing a burger at Crystal Palace, buying some records or clothes, running into friends.
I bet there is a great story behind each building.
This looks like a great reuse of the building that keeps the vintage charm. The next time I’m in Reading I will be paying a visit!
What a change to this building! I worked here in the 90’s when it was MB MUMMA Jewelry Repair and Mfg. I’d love to see it is person!
I remember that building well! There was a salon called ” Claffey’s Beauty Salon”, owned by George Claffey. It is where the Distillery is now. I worked there in 1982 for 6 years after high school, until I started my own business. I met a lot of nice people and have many good memories!!!