Reading in the ’50s

(Not much about language here.)

From Eleanor Houck on the 13th, a Mother’s Day posting from Reading Historic Neighborhoods on four places to take your Mother in downtown Reading PA in (roughly) the middle of the last century. Including a place I remember with particular affection, the Crystal Restaurant — which was more or less around the corner from my parents’ store: the Memo Shop, a little costume jewelry store a few doors north of Penn Ave. on 5th St.(while the Crystal was a half block east on Penn Ave. from 5th). Penn Square — 5th and Penn — being the very center of the city. The relevant map:


One of the named features turns out to be key: the Wines & Spririts Stores are right where the Crystal used to be (from 1911 to 1981).

Publicity for the Crystal:


From the Reading Eagle of 5/18/2013, “Life was a ball at the Crystal”, about Emelea “Sis” Mantis Edwards, then 87:

Part of the Greek immigrant Mantis family that owned and operated the landmark Crystal Restaurant in the 500 block of Penn Street for some 70 years, Edwards can talk about the heyday of a 24-hour restaurant when people went out to dine, not just to eat fast food, but to socialize and see people they knew.

“It was an evening out, and customers wanted an experience,” Edwards said.

As in the classic movie “Casablanca,” where everyone came to Rick’s, everyone came to Reading’s Crystal.

… Founded in 1911 by her father, Constantine Mantis, the Crystal was the Reading jewel that shined as brightly as the Pagoda [the eccentric structure atop Mount Penn, overlooking the city] throughout the heart of the 20th century.

In the early morning hours of Feb. 26, 1981, it was destroyed in a fire that probably started near some coffee urns and perhaps involved smoldering electrical wiring.

And now, in its place:


The (for me) crucial corner in about 1960:


Looking up N. 5th St. from Penn Square. The Memo Shop is a few doors up on the right side; the Crystal is half a block east on Penn St. from here.

Across the street from the Memo Shop is the Reading Trust Co., where my parents had their business accounts (I sometimes took deposits to the bank for them). The bank was sold to others in 1972.

The next landmark visible on the left (west) side of the street is the spire of Christ Episcopal Church (my church in my last few years in Reading). From Wikipedia:

Christ Episcopal Church, founded in 1762, is the oldest English-speaking congregation in Reading, Pennsylvania. [There were earlier German-speaking congregations.]

Christ Church was organized under the ministry of the Rev. Robert Davis, who commenced missionary services in Reading in the spring of 1823. The present building was built between 1825–26. Its neo-gothic form took shape during a major renovation in 1847. The spire was constructed in the early 1860s by Edward Tuckerman Potter, an architect with expertise in Episcopal church design.

(One week when I was working on the Sunday Society desk at the Reading Eagle, I wrote up a big society wedding, and my editor, without my knowledge, elaborated the first sentence of my copy to have Christ Episcopal characterized as a “fashionable downtown edifice”. Before the day was out, the paper’s editors were getting angry, anguished calls from the rector at home (the rector was unsuccessful in getting his hands on me; my name was on the story, after all). The church was, in fact, the society church downtown, but it also earnestly pursued a big program of community outreach of all kinds, and the rector feared, quite reasonably, that the story would undermine these good works.

When I came in to work Monday morning — at 6; the Eagle was an afternoon paper then — I faced a shitstorm from the editors, which I deftly deflected onto its proper target, the society page editor, who was then obliged to print a series of stories about Christ Episcopal’s community programs.)

The church is at 455 Court St. (at N. 5th), so basically just a bit up the street from the Reading Eagle’s building — at 345 Penn St., but with its editorial entrance in the back, on Court St. (across Court from the basement Press Club, where I learned to drink with the grown-ups).

The next landmark up N. 5th from Christ Church, also on the west side of the street,  at 100 N. 5th, is the Abraham Lincoln Hotel (always called the Abe Lincoln), still in service as a hotel, though I understand it’s to be converted to other purposes this year. Downtown’s other hotel at the time, the Daniel Boone, is a bit further up N. 5th, on the east side at Washington St. (you can see a bit of its sign in #3). The hotel and the adjoining Park Theater burned down in 1978.

(The names Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Boone are not just picked out of a historic hat. A Lincoln family homestead, built by Lincoln’s great-great-grandfather Mordecai, is in Berks County, as is the Daniel Boone homestead, where Boone was born.)

Panorama photos of Reading, then and now, prominently feature the Berks County Courthouse, at 633 Court St., east of 6th St. (see the map in #1). As a boy, I went on Thursday nights with my buddy Albert to take Morse code classes at an amateur radio society club’s headquarters on the 16th floor of the courthouse. Later, of course, I went to the courthouse and to Reading’s city hall (815 Washington St., originally built as Boys’ High School) on business for the Eagle.

Finally, the movie theaters. There were then a bunch of them, in a row going east on Penn St. downtown. But now… From a Cinema Treasures site:

At the turn of the 21st Century, the Rajah Theater [136 N. 6th] was the only downtown movie palace to survive. Its sister palaces, the Astor Theater, Embassy Theater and Loew’s Colonial Theater had all been demolished.

Built in the 1870’s as a market with a Masonic Temple on its upper floors, it became the Academy of Music in 1886. Purchased by the Rajah Shriners in 1917, it was home first to vaudeville, motion pictures and live appearances, then to quality symphonic, opera, ballet, popular music and theatrical performances. Seating was provided for 2,000.

In 2000, the Berks County Convention Center Authority purchased and renovated the aging movie palace. The $7 million facelift established a permanent home for the performing arts in Reading and Berks County. At that time, the Sovereign Bank [now the Santander Bank] purchased “naming rights” and the Rajah’s name was changed to the Sovereign Performing Arts Center. It is now the home of the Reading Symphony Orchestra and the Reading Civic Opera Society and a wide variety of other events such as Sesame Street, Peter Pan, The Nutcracker, and many “smooth” jazz concerts.

From the early vaudeville days:


When I was a kid, my Pa. Dutch grandmother took me regularly to the Rajah on Saturdays — for vaudeville and for Disney kids’ movies (I recall Dumbo 1941, Bambi 1942, and Song of the South 1946) and movies with Busby Berkeley choreography (none of the movies on first run, of course).

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