Penn Square History – Downtown Reading

If you hear someone refer to Penn Square, they are speaking of the 400 and 500 blocks of Penn Street with the center being 5th Street. It marks the center of downtown Reading, which used to be adorned with shops on both sides of the street. Below it’s pictured in the 1930s, when trollies ruled and the entire street was just open macadam. The center of Penn Square was a traffic circle, and traffic gave way to the trollies that ran North/South on 5th Street and East/West on Penn Street.

By the 50s-early 70s, 5th and Penn continued with the circle but made the area a little more pedestrian friendly. Traffic was directed by lights and police officers.

The Penn Square Project

By the early 70s, big plans were in the works for the Penn Square area. The city demolished almost the entire 600 and 700 blocks of Penn Street to build a massive indoor shopping mall that never came to fruition. They did however go through with the part of the plan that involved turning the entire 500 block of Penn Street into an outdoor pedestrian area. It was completed in May of 1975 at a cost of $1.6 million.

Source

Automotive traffic was cut off completely from this block and had to be re-routed around, which caused the inevitable traffic problems. This was a last-ditch effort to help businesses along Penn Street garner more foot traffic and increase profits as a result. The effort was too little too late, however, as established malls like the Berkshire had already started hammering nails into the coffin of downtown being a popular shopping destination. Perhaps it was inevitable.

Dec 31st, 1978 Reading Eagle

Downtown – The downtown continued to provide the top business stories of the year as businessmen within the city as well as surrounding communities made strides to restore the center city as a commercial and financial area. Two such projects are the Penn Square Center shown at right, and the remodeling of the northwest corner of Sixth and Penn streets by the Thomas Brothers – Eagle Photo Daniel J. Devine.

In the 80s, many buildings were developed in the 600 and 700 blocks of Penn Street to fill up the empty space left by the failed mall plans and also to attempt to bring businesses downtown. Penn Square Center was one of those buildings.

By 1990 the city decided that the square needed to be opened back up to traffic and again redeveloped the area, ripping out the pedestrian area. This was completed in 1993 and has remained this way since.

Embassy Theatre – 700 block Penn Street

Historical Society of Berks County

Built on the site of the Empire Theatre. The Embassy Theatre in Reading, PA opened April 4, 1931, with the movie “Stolen Heaven” starring Nancy Carroll. It was owned by Wilmer and Vincent Corp. The Embassy Theatre was designed by Philadelphia architect William H. Lee with his associates Armand de Cortieux Carroll and Charles E. Horn. Dazzling, semi-Atmospheric Art Deco style movie palaces designed by Lee’s firm had opened in late-1930 in Norristown, PA (the Norris Theatre) and in Philadelphia (the Erlen Theatre).

image from the Passing Scene

Like the Norris Theatre and the Erlen Theatre, the Embassy Theatre was a movie palace that combined an Atmospheric style with the new decor of Art Moderne and the more lavish materials of Art Deco. Yet this theatre was even more fanciful, and could have been named ‘The Embassy of the Future’. The futuristic design of the theatre appears inspired by Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927) and the German Expressionist architecture underlying that movie.

The facade was glazed and polychrome Terra Cotta from Conkling-Armstrong of Philadelphia. The oval shaped aluminum ticket booth had carved glass and a marble base. The copper marquee had a glass ceiling. As if it were a rocket, an illuminated lantern topped the 80 feet tall, copper vertical tower! More than 2,000 feet of glass tubing was used for the neon, red neon for letters, and blue and green for the rest.

The lobby’s movie poster frames were set in a wall of black marble. The foyer had copper walls with aluminum horizontal molding and a ceiling of geometric design. Stairs from the foyer led up to the auditorium’s rear loges. A main lounge was on the lower level. Every last detail was Art Deco, including furniture, oval mirrors, drinking fountains, telephone booths, chandeliers and carpet.

The most amazing feature of the Embassy Theatre was in its 2,246 seat Atmospheric style auditorium, which used rolling metal gates instead of a stage curtain! Instead of the curtain, a metal grille with rolling gates was provided from two tons of carved wood, steel track, and steel draperies. Six grille gates with Art Deco style carvings slowly opened in series. The setting represented an aluminum gateway and arch on a terraced lawn. Silhouettes of tall tree tops faintly illuminated in the shadows of the night appeared in the distance.

image from the Passing Scene

In place of the usual stage, a green terrace rose from the auditorium floor with stone steps, such as might be used in ascending from a sunken garden to the heights of an upper lawn. On the stage level, shrubbery and ornamental garden benches furnished a screen at the sides.

image from the Passing Scene

The auditorium’s side walls near the stage had large columns to accentuate the screen as the focal point. The balcony, side walls and projection booth simulated an outside garden pavilion connected with arcades. Ornamental sea horses were at the balcony pavilions and front. The domed ceiling had a deep blue sky effect curving down behind the garden gates, and with the tall pillars and lights gave the impression of a still greater vista beyond. On the ceiling, stars twinkled, and there were moving clouds.

image from the Passing Scene

There was a section for the hard of hearing, with ear phones.

Source – CinemaTreasures.org

Click to Enlarge

The Embassy Theatre was damaged by fire on March 16th, 1970. It was was demolished on Nov. 10th, 1972 for the Penn Mall, which was never built.

Currently, the DoubleTree Hilton Hotel sits on the site of the former Embassy Theatre.

Woolworth’s – Penn Street / Berkshire Mall

Image & caption from “Berks Countians; The Wonderful Way We Live”
When this photo of the interior of Woolworth’s 5¢ and 10¢ store – 530-534 Penn, around 1911 – this was a “5-and-dime” emporium in the true sense. Everything in the place was priced at a nickel or dime. A sign visible near the rear of the aisle clearly states that “Nothing in this store over 10 cts.” Photo by John. B. Woods.

Woolworth’s 6th and Penn Reading store was opened on September 20th, 1884, under the name, “Woolworth & Knox”. It was just three doors across 6th street from the successful Pomeroy’s department store.

Woolworth’s moved to the Berkshire Mall when it opened in 1970, as did many of the successful Penn Street department stores. Woolworth’s was again next to Pomeroy’s (first Lit Brothers, but only 1970-1975) near the center of the mall. It could be accessed from the outside of the mall, and was also a restaurant called “Harvest House”.

Woolworth’s occupied store space #27, outlined in yellow.

Woolworths chain started declining in the 80s due to over-expansion, and it is believed the Mall location closed for good in the mid-late 90s. The inner-mall part was subdivided into a few more store spaces. The back half that was accessible from the outside was divided off.

Above is the outside entrance to what was the Woolworth’s at the Berkshire Mall as it is today, next to the defunct BonTon. As long as I can remember this space has been unoccupied. If you remember it being anything since Woolworth’s closing, please post in the comments.

Earl Building – 523/525 Penn St

Earl Building in Reading, Pa., 1890, 2002251_2_076, Box 1, Folder 2, Warren-Ehret Company photograph albums (Accession 2002.251), Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initiatives Department, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE 19807

The M. J. Earl Building pictured around the turn of the 20th century at 523/525 Penn Street in Reading. It appears there were a few offices inside. One was home to an office of Prudential Insurance, ran by J.S. DeHart. It appears there was also a Cigar manufacturer and a Fur Hat store. The rest was a part of the M.J. Earl company. According to their website, the M.J. Earl INC,

“Founded in 1842, MJ Earl Inc. was in the paper business when toilets were outhouses and printers were presses.
First situated in downtown Reading, Pennsylvania, MJ Earl has since relocated to the Greater Reading region, and serves a multitude of businesses from Harrisburg to the Delaware Valley.” –
http://www.mjearl.com/

Apparently they are still a local company, now residing on Pottsville Pike.

The words on the facia of the building boasted;

RETAIL, MANUFACTURER, JOBBER
BAGS, ENVELOPES, ROPE
PAPER, WALL PAPER, PAPER

The Earl building in 2019

Is it me or can you still see the faint outline of the word “EARL” on the facia?

Classical Record Shop of Reading – 1960

Image & caption below from “Berks Countians; The Wonderful Way We Live”

The Classical Record Shop of Reading has in addition to its large and diversified stock of high fidelity and stereophonic records, the outstanding Pilot stereophonic consoles and components. Mr. William Breitegam, manager, is seen showing a groupo of new recordings to Mrs. Carl L. N. Erdman. These fine selections may be obtained by calling Franklin 6-0785 or stopping in at the Classical Record Shop, 538 Court Street.

538 Court Street, today