A Brief History of Penn's Common (City Park)

2012-11-22
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The site of Penn's Common (City Park) wasn't much to be envied in the early to mid-1800's. The first reservoir had been placed up on the slope of Mt. Penn across from Court Street. There was but one basin and it was covered by a frame building. Enlargements were made in 1841 and 1848. Two larger reservoirs were installed in 1872. The county prison was established in 1848 and a picket fence around all the grounds was built in 1850.

A strange deal back in 1800 had turned the 80-acre Penn's Common land into county ownership. Originally the area had been set aside by Thomas and Richard Penn "for the people in Common." But that year an attorney for a later generation of Penns promoted a deal with the county commissioners whereby the land came under county ownership for the price of $450.

Also there was a questionable deal whereby the county in 1839 sold to private owners 35 acres east of 10th street and north of Washington extending 1280 feet.

Protests by citizens caused the state legislature to pass an act in 1852 directing the county to sell the balance of the land to the city. But nothing was done. Meanwhile homes began to expand in the area and much of Penn's Common was called "a disgraceful sight."

It was in 1878, that activity increased for return of the Penn's Common acres to city control. To show what could be done, property owners in the area raised $6,000 for what was called "ornamentation" of the land. This was a considerable sum for those days and most of it was expended in clearing the woods, planting trees and flowers and constructing walks and roads.

In 1884, a group of citizens engaged two Reading attorneys to try to regain ownership for the city. They were just about the leading lawyers of their time in this area - George F. Baer, later president of the P. & R. railroad; and Richmond L. Jones. The panel of supporting taxpayers included Hiester Clymer, Henry S. Eckert, Charles Breneiser, Abner K. Stauffer, Joseph P. Kremp and Mr. Crouse, a sizable group of influential citizens.

The lawyers brought mandamus proceedings against the county in the Berks courts in 1884 but lost. Not satisfied with the verdict, they appealed to the State Supreme Court which in 1886, overturned the earlier verdict and put the land in the hands of the city.

The city, once control was settled, named a Park Commission with Mr. Baer as chairman. Mr. Baer added a bit to the acres. A 15-ton roller named "Jumbo" was imported from England to help lay out roads.

The Fairground Company, Reading's first fairground, decided to vacate without a legal fight and moved to a site on N. 11th street.

Site of New Fairgrounds
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In 1888, C. H. Miller, landscape gardener of Philadelphia, developed plans for beautifying Penn's Commons. The plan called for various trees such as an oriental plane, caroling poplar, sugar maple, white maple, American linden, white birch, yellow birch, European and American larch, red cedar, white pine, Nordman's silver fir, Norway fir, purple beech, dog wood, magnolias, groups of maples, beeches, oaks, willows, red maple, hemlocks, and dwarf pines.

Among the buildings were two shelters, one at the prison reservoir, and one near the Birch street entrance.

The plan also called for a lily pond and drives from Penn, Washington, 12th and Clymer streets and walks in all directions.

In 1891 two large fountains were placed at Hill road and Perkiomen Avenue and 11th and Walnut Streets.

In 1894, the first greenhouse was installed on the site of a former fairgrounds hotel. It was designed by Architect A. F. Smith and was 20 by 100 feet with a 35-foot front show window.

A bandstand was built in 1897, also designed by Mr. Smith, copied from a sketch drawn by Philip Bissinger, an influential citizen and business owner, on the basis of bandstands he had seen in Europe that year. The bandstand was 25-feet in diameter and 23-feet high. Many religious services as well as a memorial service for President McKinley were held there.

11th and Walnut Streets Fountain
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Hill road and Perkiomen Avenue Fountain
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