Reading Furnace Historic District
The Reading Furnace Historic District (also known as Reading Furnace Farm) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
Reading Furnace Historic District straddles both the south branch of French Creek and the boundary of East Nantmeal and Warwick Townships which runs along the creek. All resources in the district are clustered near the bottom of a narrow valley carved by the creek. Meadows rise gently from the tree lined creek up the south side of the valley. A wooded hill ascends steeply from the creek up the north side of the valley. Reading Furnace Road descends the steep hill from the northwest and intersects with James Mill Road which comes in along the creek bed from the east. Mansion Road descends the south slope of the valley from the southwest, crosses the creek, and meets James Mill Road and Reading Furnace Road at their intersection.
The Reading Furnace Historic District contains seven contributing buildings, two non-contributing buildings, two contributing sites and one contributing structure. The contributing buildings include a mansion house, tenant house, barn, large shed and three other outbuildings located along Mansion Road and the intersection of James Mill Road and Reading Furnace Road. Except for the stone mansion, these buildings are plain, vernacular or utilitarian edifices constructed in stone between 1744 and 1820. The mansion stands out as an ornate building erected in three sections between 1744 and 1936. The contributing sites are the remains of an eighteenth century dam, and the foundation of the 1736 Reading Furnace, both situated west of the intersection of James Mill Road and Reading Furnace Road. A 1904 stone arch bridge that carries Mansion Road across French Creek constitutes the contributing structure. The district possess good integrity. Most contributing resources have not experienced major alterations. The two non-contributing buildings — a 1985 reconstruction of an eighteenth century building and a 1986 outbuilding — do not detract greatly from the district's integrity.
The mansion is the most complex and architecturally sophisticated building in the Reading Furnace Historic District. Stretching east and west, it was constructed in three sections between 1744 and 1936, and incorporates a 1744 wash house. Near the center of the house stands a 1744 two story square section. Attached to the west end of this portion, an 1812, 2 1/2 story rectangular section features exterior woodwork finely executed by Gottlieb Drexel. An earlier 25' by 55' stone house was torn down and the 1744 portion was extended west ten feet when the 1812 addition was erected. A 1936 addition composed of three rectangular blocks extends east from the 1744 section. This most recent portion, designed by Richardson Brognard Okie, attaches to 1744 rectangular wash house at the eastern end of the mansion.
The oldest section of the house is a plain, unornamented building. It has a gable roof framed with a plain boxed cornice, and a massive internal chimney with bake oven on the east end. The gable roof replaced a mansard roof constructed c.1890 and removed in 1936. The top of the chimney was enlarged to its present size in 1936. The north facade contains four bays of 6/6 windows on the second floor and three bays of 6/9 windows surrounding a paneled door with four light transom on the first floor. The easternmost first floor window was changed to its present appearance in 1936 in order to match the other original 6/9 windows. On the south elevation, two 6/6 windows pierce the second story, and two 6/9 windows and two paneled doors with four light transoms punctuate the first floor. The north facade once had a first story porch that was removed before 1936. The south elevation had a first floor porch demolished in 1936.
The interior of the c.1744 section originally featured a large kitchen with flanking pantry, mud and service rooms on the first floor. In 1936 this floor was re-worked to become the hearth room, much as it originally appeared, with a powder room and pass-through on the west end. A stone sink remains in the northeast corner. The ceiling is plastered and the walls feature horizontal, plain pine board wainscoting installed in 1936. Radiators under the windows are covered by removable wainscoting. Windows are framed in dark pine plain boards with plaster between the frame and the window sash. Floors are random width oak which replaced dangerously deteriorated floors. Doors are vertically battened on the inside. The back of the bake oven, which was originally outside, is incorporated within a butler's pantry that is part of the 1936 addition.
The 1812 section features a Georgian side hall plan and Federal detailing executed by Gottlieb Drexel. Three bays wide and three bays square, it measures 32' by 33'. The gable roof is pierced by two interior chimneys flanking the ridge on the west end. The exposed tops of the chimneys were enlarged to their present size in 1936. The cornice that frames the roof was executed by Drexel. It is finely detailed with a lateral line of fluted dentils, each nailed individually into place, capped by individually set coved brackets supporting a boxed and molded supra-cornice. This cornice is carried along the western gable as a pent eave with a centered lunette window set in a gouged and keystoned arch above. The west end is punctuated by two 12/12 windows on the second floor, and two similar windows and a paneled door with eight light transom on the first floor. The door was added in 1936. The north elevation shows three 12/12 windows on the second story, and two similar windows and a paneled door on the first floor. The south facade duplicates the north elevation except for the entrance. This doorway, also designed by Drexel, features a pediment with a line of fluted dentils like those on the cornice, a keystoned arch above a half-circle transom with tracery, flanking fluted pilasters, and a six panel door. All the windows on the north, south and west facades were converted in 1936 from 6/6 windows to 12/12 windows. When he made these changes, Okie concluded from tax records that 12/12 sash were original to this section. He also added a 9/9 window on each floor of the east elevation. A porch on the first floor of the north facade was removed before 1936. A south porch was demolished in 1936.
The interior of the 1812 section is divided into two rooms per floor with a hallway running the full depth along the east wall. A staircase with thin turned balusters and thin hand rail designed in the Federal style ascends to the third floor. Denticulated cornices and paneled wainscoting were added to the first, second and third floor hallways in 1936. Ceilings are high and plastered. Floors are oak throughout. Original chair rail runs around all walls. Original fireplaces and mantles with fluted pilasters and dentils designed by Drexel in the Federal style are centered in the west wall of each room. Paneling around the fireplaces and crown molding in most of the rooms were added in 1936.
The 1936 addition filled the space between the 1744 section and the 1744 wash house. This addition is composed of a two story gable roofed entry attached to the southeast corner of the 1744 section; a large two story, rectangular, gable roofed dining room section attached to the east end of the entry; and a rectangular, gable roofed servants' section located on the southeast corner of the dining room portion. The entry section is pierced by four light sash on both floors of the north facade. On the south elevation the entry is punctuated by a second floor dormer with 6/6 sash, and two 6/9 windows flanking a nine light door on the first floor. The dining room section features three 8/12 windows on the first floor and two 6/6 windows on the second story of the east facade. This section has one 6/6 window and one 6/9 window on the south elevation, and two 6/6 second story windows plus an 8/12 window and nine light door on the first floor of the north facade. The west facade features two 6/6 windows placed above another 8/12 window and nine light door. On the south side of the servants' section there is horizontal board siding and five bays of 6/6 windows on the second story, and 6/6 windows on the first floor. This pattern is repeated without the board siding on the north facade. Two 6/6 and 6/9 windows pierce the west end of the servants' section. Throughout the 1936 addition, all 6/6 windows located on sides other than gable walls are half flush with the walls and half under a gabled dormer.
The first floor interior of the 1936 addition is divided into a entry, a dining room, and a pantry, kitchen and servant's quarters. On the second floor, there is a maid's storage room above the entry, two bedrooms and a bath above the dining room, and bedrooms and baths in the servants' section.
The 1744 wash house at the eastern end of the house is a 1 1/2 story gable roofed edifice with a large chimney on the southeast corner. A four light door and sixteen light sash beneath a shed roof are located on the first floor of the north side. A second story four light sash also pierces the north side. The south side of the building is embedded in a bank so that only the gable and a second floor plank door is above ground. Single small windows pierce the east and west elevations. A nine light gabled dormer was added to the west elevation in 1936.
A third contributing building, a c.1800 stone bank barn, is located to the west of the mansion. This barn was originally twice as long as appears today. On half was demolished in 1936 and the stone was used for the addition to the house. The present day barn has a gable roofed, 30' by 70' section with a small gable roofed shed on the east end. The south facade of the main section features two pairs of large barn doors on strap hinges with a plank door entry in between and small paned transoms above all doors. Three 6/6 windows located just above ground level on this elevation shed light on the stable level of the barn. On the north elevation, a short overhang is sheathed in vertical board and batten. The overhang has four 6/6 sash flanking two central throw-down doors. Beneath the overhang five dutch or split doors between six light sash open to stables on the first level. The west gable wall has a dutch door with four light sash in the upper half with paired six light sash flanking either side of the door. The east wall has one pair of six pane sash next to the attached shed.
An 85' by 25' shed was built during the nineteenth century into the sloping hill just north of the barn. The south facade of this shed is open for most of its length. The west end of the south elevation is enclosed by vertical board and batten siding and nine light sash and doors. The north elevation features fourteen six light sash above a stone retaining wall. The north facade and gable ends are stone. The sash are replacements installed in 1936.
Two more outbuildings are also located in the historic district. A 1744 gable roofed smokehouse is located just north of the wash house. This square, stone building has a plank door on the west, a four light window on the north and a similar window on the east. A 1744 whitewashed stone and frame spring house stands just east of the shed. It is stone on the first or spring floor with a second floor of board and batten. It has a gabled roof with a shed roof covering a plank door and four light window on the east facade. A four light window and 6/6 window pierce the north gable end. Two barn doors open the south wall. Built into the hillside, the second floor is at ground level on the south side.
The final contributing building is a small c.1820 stone tenant house built into the hillside immediately southwest of the intersection of Reading Furnace Road and James Mill Road. The three bay by one bay building has two stories above a basement level that is exposed on the south, downhill side. The edifice has a standing seam tin gable roof and an interior chimney that rises on the west gable end. A concrete block furnace flue has been added on the east wall. There is a shed roof porch on the north facade and a pent roof on the south side above the basement level. The east bay of the first story has been widened to include two 8/8 sash. All other windows are 6/6 sash. The house has one room per floor.
The remains of an eighteenth century dam breast and the 1736 Reading Furnace comprise the two contributing sites. The remains of the dam stretch 200 feet south in two sections from Reading Furnace Road. The sections are earth and rock mounds 18 to 20 feet high separated by a breach at French Creek. The base of the dam is about 30 feet wide. The dam once had a wood upstream face and crib. It is now covered by grass, brush and a light stand of mature trees. Machinery for the dam has been silted over. The foundation pad of the furnace is situated between the north end of the dam remains and the tenant house. The pad measures 24' by 24' and is 8' to 10' high on its downhill side. No other furnace building sites are known at this time.
The single contributing structure is a 1904 stone arch bridge that replaced a wooden bridge. Known as Brewer's Bridge, it is a one lane bridge with a 30 foot arch and long curving approaches. The arch is trimmed with four rows of brick; the rest of the bridge is pointed rough stone topped with heavy granite slabs.
The two non-contributing buildings are built mostly in stone. The 1985 company store is a reconstruction that utilized the remaining four walls of the original eighteenth century building. It was restored as nearly as possible to its original appearance. A stone, two story section features a gable roof, interior end chimney, two bay east facade with one window on the second floor, and one bay on each floor on the north and west sides. Windows are 6/9 on the first floor and 6/6 above. A shed roof was installed over the door on the east facade. A 14 story, gable roofed, log and stone section was erected on the south side of this stone portion. The east and west walls are log and the south wall is stone.
A one room, stone utility shed was constructed in 1986 east of the bridge on the foundations of a tenant house. It is a gable roofed, one bay by two bay building.
The historic district possesses good integrity. The majority of resources have experienced few major alterations that detract from their historic appearance. The mansion has experienced many changes during its history, especially the construction of the large addition in 1936 and the changes made to the sash, chimneys, porches, and interior woodwork of earlier sections in 1936. However, these 1936 alterations are part of the mansion's architectural significance as an eighteenth and nineteenth century farm house that was converted to a gentleman's estate by a noted architect. The mansion has seen very few changes since 1936. The tenant house, springhouse, smokehouse, wash house and shed survive largely intact from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Several resources have suffered major changes. One half of the barn was demolished in 1936 to provide stone for the mansion addition. The dam, which once provided water for the furnace, and the furnace itself have been greatly damaged or destroyed. The two non-contributing buildings do not detract greatly from the integrity of the district since they are fairly small in size, and they are constructed in materials sympathetic to the contributing resources.
The Reading Furnace Historic District is locally important in the area of architecture. Begun as an iron furnace in 1736, this property was developed as a farm in the early nineteenth century and then remodeled as the country estate of Arthur Pew in 1936. The centerpiece of the property, the mansion, stands out for its exceptionally detailed woodwork executed in 1812 by a locally notable craftsman, Gottlieb Drexel. The remodeling is also important as a fine example of the work of Richardson Brognard Okie, a regionally important architect who specialized in renovating Colonial buildings. Okie helped Pew change the Reading Furnace property from a nineteenth century farm into one of the most grandiose gentleman farmer's estates in Warwick and East Nantmeal Townships.
The historic district contained an iron furnace until the early nineteenth century. Under the ownership of William Branson, an iron furnace was constructed on the extant furnace foundation pad in 1736. Branson had a stone house, a separate kitchen (the oldest section of the present-day mansion), as well as the springhouse, smokehouse and wash house constructed in 1744. A dam, which is now in ruins, was also erected to provide water from French Creek for the iron furnace. Eventually Branson expanded his property at Reading Furnace to 6000 acres, including a farm which raised food for iron furnace workers. Branson ran the furnace from his residence in Philadelphia until he died in 1760. Several owners then operated Reading Furnace until 1778, producing over 800 tons of pig and bar iron per year. In 1786 the furnace was taken down and a forge was built on the foundations of the old furnace. The forge was run by Samuel Vanleer, a grandson of Branson, until 1811 when the forge and related iron making facilities were abandoned.
Beginning in 1812, the Reading Furnace property was run solely as a farm. John Jones acquired the property in 1812 and used the barn, built c.1800, as the main building in his farming operation. Jones also demolished the 1744 stone house and replaced it with the 1812 section of the mansion. He employed Drexel to craft the cornice and south entrance. Jones owned Reading Furnace until 1816 when he died. The farm was then acquired by a series of people, all but one of whom ran the property as a grain or dairy farm. These various owners added the 1820 tenant house and the shed to the property. About 1890 one of these owners also added a mansard roof to the 1744 section of the main house.
The property's role changed greatly in 1935 when Arthur Pew bought 310 acres, including the Reading Furnace property. Pew, of the Sun Oil family, acquired the Reading Furnace property as a country estate to which he could retreat from his Philadelphia home. He hired Okie to design additions and changes to the buildings on his new estate. Okie directed the construction of the 1936 addition to the main house as well as replacement of sash, enlargement of chimney tops, removal of the mansard roof, demolition of porches, and addition of interior woodwork on the existing sections of the house. Okie also changed other buildings in 1936, including demolition of half of the barn, replacement of sash on the shed, and the addition of a dormer to the wash house. Subsequent owners have maintained the estate as remodeled by Okie with few alterations. In 1985 a reconstruction of the original furnace company store was erected, and in 1986 a small outbuilding was added.
The property's architectural significance stems in part from the woodwork that Drexel executed on the mansion. Drexel was a highly skilled carpenter who worked primarily in Berks County. He lived in Oley Valley just east of Reading, Pennsylvania from 1801 to 1821. During these years he built a dozen or more homes in the Oley Valley. All his homes are discernible by double cornices with finely fluted dentils, and doorways with similar dentils. At a time when a boxed cornice with perhaps a piece of crown molding was considered a perfectly adequate finish, Drexel's woodwork stands out as exceptionally ornate and sophisticated. His work on the Reading Furnace mansion is unusual in northern Chester County. No other fully articulated example of Drexel's cornice and entranceway is known to exist in northern Chester County.
The property is also architecturally important as a fine example of Okie's work. During his career, Okie (1875-1945) obtained a wide variety of commissions in southeastern Pennsylvania. He focused particularly on remodeling Colonial buildings. He blended elements of the Arts and Crafts movement, which he came to favor early in his career, with the vernacular architecture of early southeastern Pennsylvania. His architecture was not restoration work, a term he used rarely in his commission contracts. It was instead a new type of architecture that overlaid the tastes of a contemporary movement on the architecture of the past. Okie's distinctive architecture is readily apparent in the buildings that he remodeled at Reading Furnace. He kept the overall floor plan, Federal detailing, and Drexel's exceptional woodwork on the original portions of the main house. However, he added finely crafted wainscoting in the original sections, and similar wainscoting, built-in cupboards, closet work, and wooden ceiling beams in the 1936 addition that are all indicative of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Okie's remodeling of Reading Furnace turned the property into one of the most grandiose country estates established in Warwick and East Nantmeal Townships in the first decades of the twentieth century. During the 1920s and 1930s Philadelphia area businessmen purchased a number of farms in Warwick and East Nantmeal Townships as country retreats from their urban residences and offices. For instance, Edward Woolman, president of Supplee, Wills, Jones Milk Company in Philadelphia, and Francis Boyer, an official of Smith, Kline and French pharmaceuticals, bought farms complete with eighteenth and nineteenth century farmhouses and outbuildings. In c.1935 Joseph Pew, the uncle of Arthur Pew, acquired approximately four hundred acres which were the site of another furnace in Warwick and East Nantmeal Townships, the Warwick Furnace.
Like Arthur Pew, these estate owners had their newly acquired farmhouses and outbuildings remodeled to give themselves the comforts of urban living in the midst of bucolic surrounding. However, none of these owners had additions and changes made on a scale as extensive or ostentatious as those done at Reading Furnace. Woolman and Boyer modified the interiors of their fairly small eighteenth and nineteenth century farmhouses, yet they did not build major additions onto these structures. Their country retreats were smaller scale and considerably less pretentious than Reading Furnace was. Joseph Pew acquired a main house, tenant houses, barns, smaller outbuildings, and the site of a furnace, much as his nephew did. However, he too made less extensive additions to his newly purchased property. For example, Joseph Pew added only one bay to the eight bay maid house rather than a large, three part addition as constructed at Reading Furnace. Okie's additions to Reading Furnace gave Arthur Pew's country estate a scale and ostentatiousness unequalled by other local gentleman's farms.
Thus the Reading Furnace Historic District is important as a fine example of the work of a locally outstanding craftsman and a regionally important architect. It is also significant as one of the grandest early twentieth century country estates that was converted from a nineteenth century farm.
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