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Reading frets about stability of pagoda atop hill

| Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 4:30 p.m.

READING — Mayor Vaughn D. Spencer said he doesn't want to be remembered as the man who was mayor when the Pagoda tumbled down Mount Penn into City Park.

But among the myriad financial problems the city faces is the fact that a section of the retaining wall supporting the foundation of the city landmark has collapsed, and more of the wall is in danger of crumbling.

If the wall goes, the Pagoda could be next.

“It's a serious problem because that is the foundation wall and a large piece of it is gone,” Spencer said. “Once you get that kind of erosion going, it's hard to stop.”

Public Works Director Charles M. Jones said he doesn't think a wall collapse would necessarily endanger the foundation of the Pagoda.

“I don't believe it has any direct effect on the Pagoda,” Jones added. “The (Pagoda) building is set back from the wall.

“I don't know what the foundation of the Pagoda looks like underground, but to have a building of that size standing for 100 years, I would think it is substantial.”

Spencer said city crews have cordoned off the area to prevent tourists from stumbling into a hole where ground has sunk at the top of the wall. The problem now is to find out exactly how much work is needed to repair the wall and halt its incessant erosion.

“The retaining walls were just stacked stones; they didn't have any cement in them,” said Cindy L. Kauffman, who manages the Pagoda for the nonprofit Reading Pagoda Foundation.

“These retaining walls are over 100 years old, and this one has been showing its age,” Kauffman said. “The hard rain we've had over the past year has made it a lot weaker.”

Excluded from restoration

Kauffman said that when restoration work was done at the Pagoda in 2008-09, the retaining walls were not included in the project. Kauffman also stressed that the retaining wall supports the Pagoda foundation but is not part of the foundation.

“It's not the actual foundation of the Pagoda; it's the retaining wall in front of it,” she said. “If it's let go for a long time, it could affect the foundation of the Pagoda.

“In the restoration of 2008-09, engineers told the city the wall was in serious condition and something needed to be done, and nothing has been done,” Kauffman said. “It's not something that has to be done tomorrow, but there has to be some plan put in place so it is addressed in the near future.”

Jones said the retaining wall was included in the original list of repairs for the 2008-09 renovation project, but that list was pared down as costs steadily rose. Despite the efforts at cost controls, the final project eventually went from $1.1 million at the start to $1.39 million at the end of 2008 to the final price of $1.5 million.

Nailing down cost

Jones said city staff did an initial assessment of the collapse of a corner section of the retaining wall, estimated as a 12-by-20-foot hole, and came up with a $250,000 initial estimate. The city has since asked a local engineering firm to do a study of the retaining wall and provide options for repairs and a more exact price estimate.

“At this point it could be lower, or it could be higher,” Jones said. “We expect to hear from them in about two weeks.”

City staff are exploring ways to raise the funds for the repairs. In the meantime, Jones said he's confident the rest of the retaining wall will remain intact for the time being.

“I don't believe it's in imminent danger of collapsing,” Jones said. “It's been in that condition for a few years. We may lose a few more rocks that will fall down.”

The bottom line is that the wall has to be fixed, he said.

“If we lost the whole wall, if nothing's done to stabilize what's left, it could erode back to the Pagoda,” he said.

Dan Kelly is a staff writer for the Reading Eagle

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