The parish hall of this Reading, Pennsylvania landmark underwent a historic transformation.

With a congregation that began in 1763 and an original building completed in 1826, to say Christ Episcopal Church has been a cornerstone in the city of Reading, PA would be an understatement.

But to truly be part of a community, you need to serve the community, and the church’s parish hall (built in 1952) does much of that heavy lifting.

Cliff Buckwalter, longtime-but-now-retired property chairperson of the church explained: “The parish hall is where our administrative offices, our Sunday school classrooms, and multipurpose rooms are. It’s also where our fellowship hall is. Both for the parish and for the community, it’s where a lot of things happen. Needless to say, it’s kind of the community room of Christ Church.”

To be truly welcoming to the community, this neighborhood hub needed to put its best foot forward by creating an inviting outside appearance and a welcoming interior. And the worry was the parish hall—its original ‘50s windows weren’t exactly doing that.

While the single pane, metal-framed windows were unique, mostly due to their Mondrian-esque multi-color glass design, from a performance standpoint, they were heavily used, drafty, and energy inefficient 70-year-old windows. The frames would transmit the cold in during the winter months, while window air conditioning units dotted the side of the building in summer. The church also had to account for security needs, as well as safety, with Sunday school and childcare rooms to consider.

So, with the church already embarking on an HVAC upgrade, it only made sense to update the parish hall’s windows as well.

Right from the beginning, the window goals were multifaceted. The new windows needed to provide safety, security, energy efficiency, sound reduction (the church being in the heart of downtown Reading, and its traffic noise, after all), plus invite in sunlight and fresh air. On top of that, there was another hurdle to consider: the Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB).

Christ Church is located in the Callowhill Historic District of Reading, and any major historic renovation of a protected building must undergo an application and review process meant to maintain the historic look and character of the district’s buildings. The committee turned to a firm that would surely understand the historic needs of the project: Reading’s oldest architectural firm, Muhlenberg Greene. Since 1920, the firm has undertaken countless historical projects, and knew the ins-and-outs of navigating the HARB process.

The Muhlenberg Greene team, led by Bob Conklin, vice principal and architect, and Suzanne Cody, firm associate and director of business development, enlisted Dave Aquadro, an architectural project manager from Marvin, to help them select windows that not only met all of the practical goals, but also satisfied the HARB requirements.

After being briefed on the project, and hearing about the church’s specific needs, Aquadro considered a few solutions. But one specific window design seemed perfect for the parish hall: Marvin Ultimate Venting Picture windows. The design provides the look and security of a stationary picture window with an added benefit: air flow through a patented, hidden screen system.

“There was security in that if someone inadvertently left the window open, it was almost undetectable from the exterior that it was open,” Aquadro said. “Everyone also loved the fact that there’s no visible screen, so no need to take screens up and down.”

The committee was quickly on board. “Everyone was very impressed with the design of these windows and how we could have ventilation and fresh air,” Buckwalter said. These weren’t your typical crank-out casement windows, or clearly-wide-open-when-they’re-open double hungs.

Coupled with the HVAC improvements, these venting casement windows made for an ideal solution. For added security, the windows on the backside of the parish hall, where some break-ins or attempted break-ins had occurred, include lamination for impact protection.

“We didn’t want to be putting in bars. that just tells people to stay away,” Conklin said. “It’s a church and we want people to come in.”

With the window style selected, and the design landed upon (mullions that create a “cross” pattern on each window, mimicking the look from an adjacent area of the church), it was off to the review board. And the church committee and the Muhlenberg Greene team had a proverbial ace up their sleeves, or in this case, a precedent to fall back on when it came to the board.

The board had previously approved a window replacement project from the other section of the church, so the team used that to their advantage when matching the style and mimicking its design details.

“A lot of historical commissions want you to restore the existing window,” Conklin said. “But here we’re providing a more efficient, maintenance-free, custom window that is made to look historically correct.”

“It all went through on the first meeting,” Conklin said with a shrug. “Usually those things take two or three meetings.”

Conklin saw this full approval as a real victory for the church and for the community. “A lot of historical commissions want you to restore the existing window,” Conklin said. “But here we’re providing a more efficient, maintenance-free, custom window that is made to look historically correct.”

Protecting and maintaining the architectural legacy of Reading was high on the priority list for the Muhlenberg Greene team on this project, and across their portfolio of work.

“Reading is highly historic. It was built back in the times of the railroad boom,” Cody said. “If you look at your Monopoly board and you see the Reading Railroad, that’s us.”

“There’s a lot in preserving the architectural legacy, fighting the homogenization,” Cody continued. “People want to live in spaces that are interesting and unique. These places have a sense of history and a shared history in the community.”

And while churches aren’t alone in their vulnerability to being razed and lost to history, Buckwalter pointed out the need to try to save them and their storied craftsmanship. When they’re gone, they’re not coming back.

“You can’t recapture that,” Buckwalter said. “We don’t have those tradespeople around anymore and we don’t have the people to teach those skills. So, I hope what we have done provides an example for other churches.”

And in closing he couldn’t help but share an example of what the church means to him and to the architectural beauty and history of Reading.

“Often people pass by the building and remark, ‘This is really incredible,’” Buckwalter said with a glint in his eye. “Because, especially the front of the church, the brownstone, it is really magnificent. It’s Neo-Gothic, one of the best Neo-Gothic examples, and we’re one of the few places, in my experience, that has a stone steeple.”

“And I’ll say, ‘You know, the most incredible things are way up there,’” Buckwalter gestured. “And they’ll say, ‘Yeah? Why is that?’” “Well, again, my faith tells me: ‘Because you’re meant to look up.’”

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