Berkley Historic District

Ontelaunee Twp, Berks County, PA

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The Berkley Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1]

Abstract: Located in Ontelaunee Township in central Berks County, north of the City of Reading, the Berkley Historic District sits on a knoll above the Maiden Creek. The district is comprised of four historic residential properties that demonstrate the vernacular adaptation of colonial and early Republic architecture in a landscape of expansive lawns lined by mature trees. Each of the four colonial-style homes with Georgian and Federal features has a core built in the eighteenth century that was expanded and enlarged in the nineteenth century. Three of the homes have contributing outbuildings. The district contains two previously listed contributing resources located on the property of the Davies House; three non-contributing twentieth century garages; a non-contributing commercial building and 14 contributing buildings. Despite a fire in April 2000 that destroyed the Berkley Inn and the addition of a modern building on its site, the district's resources exhibit integrity of design, layout, scale and setting.

Physical Description: The Berkley Historic District is located at the junction of the Willow Creek and the Berkley Road. The Francis Parvin homestead encompasses the entire portion of the district north of the creek. The remainder of the district consists of one noncontributing commercial building and three homes facing the road south of the Willow Creek. Tall evergreen trees line the road providing a buffer for the lawns that surround each home. Two of the three homes have contributing outbuildings. Grassy slopes and a stone-reinforced streambed define the western boundary of the district. Beyond this, out of sight from the district, are water filtration beds. Outside the district but prominently visible on Berkley Road is a two-story, limestone, Colonial Revival building built in the 1920's with design elements similar to the neighboring houses. This building houses administration offices for the water filtration plant that surrounds the Davies House. The district is isolated from the surrounding countryside to the east by SR 61, which is mostly obscured from view by vegetation.

The most impressive collection of historic resources exists on the Parvin homestead. This limestone, 2 1/2-story, side-gabled house was built in 1758 (date stone) on the highest point in the surrounding landscape. The original section was five bays wide, one room deep, with a center hall design. In 1856, the home was expanded to nine rooms, the basement was extended and a second fireplace was added to each floor (Homan). Following construction of the new addition, the facade of the house was plastered for the first time. A front porch was added circa 1880 that spans the center four bays, has turned posts, fairly plain brackets, and a low-pitched hipped roof. Auxiliary buildings to the rear of the house include a stone summer kitchen over an underground meat cellar, an icehouse and an outhouse. The house sits 50' from the township road known as West Snyder Road and appears on the 1876 Historic Atlas of Berks County.

During the 1856 construction period a second semi-subterranean cold cellar was built in the front lawn. In the year 2000, a previously hidden tunnel entrance in the main house basement was found that appeared to lead forward to the 'cellar' by the side of the road. No excavation of the tunnel from the house was pursued, but the area around the cold cellar and the barn was investigated. A Franklin & Marshall College anthropology project produced evidence to support the theory that the abolitionist Quakers that lived here used this cellar to hide fugitive slaves seeking passage northward through the Underground Railroad (Shellenhamer, 2001). An excavation of what was believed to be the opening to a system of tunnels between the cold cellar, the house and the barn led to the discovery of a previously hidden alcove within the cold cellar.

The 'alcove' is 120cm high, 90cm wide and 150cm deep, stone-lined and built into the foundation of the cold cellar. The alcove floor was close to 15cm higher than the cold cellar floor, a design that would keep the cellar water out and the contents of the alcove dry. Artifacts found at this excavation include pieces of undecorated redware that were used as utilitarian food storage containers. Four other redware containers were determined to be chamber pots, whose presence in the cold cellar suggests people spent time in the structure. Many fragments of medicine bottles, cups, plates and bowls were also found as well as animal bones that were butchered and intended for human consumption. A single blue glass fragment was recovered from this excavation. Examination under a microscope showed the fragment was from a faceted bead of the type specifically associated with Africans. These discoveries combined with the abolitionist history of the Parvin family (Homan) led Jason Shellenhammer, a student at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster under the supervision of James Delle PhD., to conclude that this alcove was not created for storing additional food but may have been used to hide escaped slaves.

Circa 1800, a 35' x 61' barn was constructed on the south side of West Snyder Road. The barn has three hewn interior bents, masonry gable walls with vertical slits for ventilation in the mow area, a stone stable wall and the Leigender stuhle roof support system consisting of a truncated principal rafter with double courser tie and braces at either end that characterize the Classic Switzer construction methods prevalent in this area from 1750-1850. A new evolution of barn construction method identified as the Standard Pennsylvania Barn emerged in this area while the classic Switzer was still being built (Ensminger, 67). Symmetrical gable walls, symmetrical interior bents and an enclosed forebay are identifying features of the Standard Pennsylvania Barn and are all present in the Parvin barn making this a rare hybrid of the two construction methods. Circa 1850 an 8' deep extended forebay was added to the south face of the barn that accounts for the current asymmetrical silhouette of the roofline. Crossbeams supported by posts were added to support the extended forebay.

Adjacent to the barn is a nineteenth century drive-in wagon shed roughly 30' x 40' with an internal corncrib. To the west are the remains of a wooden 'bark house,' used in the tannery operated at this location between 1735 and 1916. Behind the barn at the edge of the Willow Creek is a large sycamore tree that is at least one hundred years old. The remaining resources in the district lie to the south of the Parvin homestead along Berkley Road.

On the west side of Berkley Road, a decorative wrought iron fence lines the eastern and northern property line of the Davies House. The Davies House, listed in the National Register in 1982, is a 2 1/2-story, Georgian-style, stone house that sits back 50' from the road. The original core, built circa 1770, was rectangular, 2 1/2 stories tall and three bays wide and faced north toward the Willow Creek. This portion was built before the death of William Parvin in 1772 as it was described in his estate. The Davies family acquired the property in 1806. Circa 1830, an addition on the south side of the original building created the existing five bay facade facing Berkley Road. A front porch supported by four hexagon columns spanning the three middle bays was also added to the east face. The addition date is based on a newspaper from 1831 found under the floorboards of the attic addition and a pencil drawing from 1835 showing the house virtually as it stands today. A change in the roofline and subtle differences in the stonework indicate the line between the original and the later sections. Dentil cornice moldings adorn the entire roofline. All windows have their original six-over-six configurations with unadorned lentils and no shutters. The front door is a pair of paneled doors beneath a simple four-pane rectangular fan light.

To the rear of the Davies property, an outhouse and a stone smokehouse over a subterranean cold cellar are the two contributing resources remaining from the period of significance. The only non-contributing resource on this property is a wood frame horse barn built circa 1900 that was converted to a garage in the mid-twentieth century.

On the other side of Berkley Road, two stone residences with original door and window configurations contribute to a district interpretation of vernacular architectural adaptations. Designed in the fashionable style of the time, the classical features and Georgian detailing mirror the tastes and income of prosperous merchants that operated businesses here. The rear wing of the Robert Schmehl house, was the original two-bay residence with plain six-over-six windows that was built circa 1790. Approximately 1830, a three bay, 2 1/2-story, stone, side gable extension was erected on the west side of the original. This became the formal facade of the home and the new front door with its simple Adam-style low pitch pediment opened to Berkley Road. Windows on the addition have keystone lentils with six-over-nine panes. Shutters on the lower windows are paneled and the second story windows have louvered shutters. The intricately carved cornice has curved modillions and sculpted dentils. A detached, stone summer kitchen from the early 1800s was incorporated in the early twentieth century into the rear portion of the house by building a brick breezeway. From the street, the home looks much as it did at the end of the period of significance.

The Dunkel House, is a contributing 2 1/2-story stone dwelling built circa 1830 with unadorned six-over-six paned windows and painted wooden shutters. Three of the seven bays on the first floor are doors. Each paneled door has a modest door surround. The windows have been replaced with single paned double hung windows, but the paneled shutters on the first floor and louvered shutters on the second match those of the Schmehl house. A one-story porch roof spans the center five bays supported by square posts and simple cornice brackets. The original T-shaped layout of the house has been augmented with a one-story, enclosed, frame addition on the north side that has seven double hung windows and one door. This twentieth century addition is not visible from the street and does not distract from the historic interpretation of the building. This property also has a non-contributing, three bay, wood frame garage built in the 1970's. This property was an adjunct to the Berkley Inn that was situated a few feet to the north.

The Berkley Inn was destroyed by fire in April 2000. The site of the inn is now occupied by a one-story concrete block building used as a tavern. The original Inn building represented the last commercial enterprise from the period of significance. The construction and design elements matched the neighboring properties but its loss does not reduce the district's ability to demonstrate residential styles from the period. The setback and low visibility of the new building creates only a minimal disruption of the historic streetscape.

The buildings in the Berkley Historic District that were built between 1758 and 1856 represent an unusual collection of domestic and farm buildings that have not been substantially altered since 1880. One enclosed frame porch and a brick breezeway from the twentieth century are not prominently visible from the street. Two late twentieth century garages and the non-contributing horse barn that was converted to a garage are visible but do not distract from the interrelationship of the other outbuildings. The village focus has changed from commerce and industry to residential. The landscape outside the district has changed from agriculture to industry and commerce, but the resources in the district still reflect the characteristics of a mid-nineteenth century rural village.

The Berkley Historic District is locally significant — the buildings illustrate the materials, design, and workmanship typical of central Berks County villages during the colonial and early Republic eras. The period of significance begins in 1758 when the Francis Parvin House was built. The auxiliary buildings that remain on the Parvin homestead convey not only typical layout and local materials, but also a rare combination of Pennsylvania barn construction methods that evolved in this area. In the early 1800s, the small colonial cores of other village homes were enlarged. These additions have a variety of Federal and Georgian design elements. After 1856, when the last major additions were made to the Parvin house, there were few significant alterations made to the exterior of the other buildings. The resources in the Berkley Historic District are examples of the Anglo-German Renaissance that dominated architecture across Berks County in the early 1800s (Foley).

The Berkley Historic District is locally significant as the home of Francis Parvin, who served as local justice and provincial assemblyman. The Parvin homestead remained in the family from 1732 until 1998. Most of the descendants were members in good standing of the Exeter Meeting Society of Friends and worshiped at the local Maiden Creek Meeting. Records of the Exeter Meeting corroborate oral family history about the Quakers' abhorrence of slavery. Findings from an archaeological investigation completed in 2001 support the theory that the Parvins aided escaped slaves on their journey to freedom and that this property may have been a station on the Underground Railroad.


Francis Parvin, an English Quaker, arrived in Pennsylvania in 1729. He acquired a five hundred acre land grant in central Berks County where the Willow and Maiden Creeks enter the Schuylkill River. Trained as a tanner in England, Parvin promptly established a tannery along the Willow Creek and built a log cabin for his young family. Francis Parvin was a well-respected, influential man, who was one of several petitioners who succeeded in establishing the County of Berks in 1752. He also served as Berks County Representative to the provincial Assembly in 1755 (Montgomery 1886, p 491). Thomas and Richard Penn appointed Parvin, Conrad Weiser and William Harley commissioners for the purpose of selling lots in their newly proposed town where the Tulpehocken Creek joined the Schuylkill River. The first surveyed road in the county was from Parvin's home in Berkley to this new village of Reading.

Francis Parvin, Jr. built a stone house of locally quarried limestone in 1758. The original center-hall core is easily recognized as a distinguishable component of the present home. Original window and door configurations remain. Interior features include original floor planks and staircase plus fireplace surrounds from the early nineteenth century. In 1856, a two-story addition was completed on the east side of the building (Montgomery, 1030). These rooms also exhibit many original features including an enclosed stairway and fireplaces. At the rear of the home an icehouse and a summer kitchen with an underground meat cellar tell the story of 19th-century domestic food preparation and storage.

The barn, originally constructed circa 1800, exhibits elements of eighteenth and nineteenth century building traditions in Berks County. The existence of 200-year-old Liegender Stuhle trusses makes this an exceptional example of colonial joinery techniques. The Liegender Stuhle, or lying chair in German, is a rare roof support whose form came from Germanic Europe. By 1825, this distinctive roof framing was no longer used (Ensminger). The Parvin barn also has symmetrical interior bent supports, symmetrical gable walls and the enclosed forebay that are identifying features of the Standard Pennsylvania Barn that evolved in this region. Although there is no direct evidence that the English Parvins hired German craftsmen to build their barn, settlers from Germanic nations far outnumbered the English in this region after 1780 and were renowned for their skilled craftsmanship.

Research completed by descendents of the Parvin family confirms that most of their ancestors continued to be active members of the Exeter Meeting of the Society of Friends and worshiped at the Maiden Creek Meeting House (an indulged meeting of Exeter Meeting). Local histories, census records and minutes of the Exeter Meeting all substantiate that the Quakers in Berks County did not own slaves and were ardent abolitionists. Jacob Parvin (1815-1895) was noted in Montgomery's History of Berks County for his 'interest in the welfare of the colored people'. Participants in the 'Underground Railroad' -- a series of safe places for escaped slaves traveling north to freedom -- may not have kept written records of their illegal activities, but oral history does support this type of involvement by the Parvin family at Berkley. An archaeological dig in the summer of 2000 unearthed evidence that a cold cellar on the property was used to shelter human occupants (Shellenhamer). The Central Pennsylvania African American Museum at the Old Bethel A.M.E. Church in Reading recognizes the Parvin property as important to the local history of African Americans, both as an Underground Railroad station and as the home of Joe, Bill and Frisbie Loyd -- 19th century leaders of the African community in the City of Reading (Homan). In Vigilance in Pennsylvania: Underground Railroad Activities in the Keystone State, 1837-1861, Matthew Pinsker suggests that most fugitives relied on the kindness of free blacks to achieve their freedom. Fugitives may have traveled openly with the free blacks to Berkley where they could hide if necessary in the annex of the cold cellar. Berkley was close to major century transportation routes including the Schuylkill River, the Centre Turnpike and the King's Highway and 8 to 12 miles from other confirmed Underground Railroad stations in Berks County. All these factors contribute to the case that the Parvin's property in Berkley was part of the Underground Railroad in Berks County.

Other members of the Parvin family began operating a mill downstream from the tannery circa 1760. The miller's house in Berkley (Davies House) was originally built for a Parvin circa 1770. In his description of Ontelaunee Township industries, Morton Montgomery explains that

"below the tannery, on the same stream, the Parvins built a mill which in the early part of this century [nineteenth] became the property of Mark Davies, who afterward rebuilt the mill. It has been further improved by the present owner, Reese Davies, and is now one of the best mills in that part of the county." (Montgomery 1886, p. 1032)

After Davies acquired the property in 1810, he expanded the original stone home to the stately five bay Georgian residence we see today. A pencil drawing dated 1835 shows the ironwork fence, window alignment, double hung door, and cornice treatment. The change in stonework and a break in the roof alignment indicate the point of expansion and how building methods had improved over time. The Davies House displays Georgian details throughout and remarkable integrity in its wealth of original detail. Of special interest is a bulls-eye window and ornate cornice molding with modillions on the north gable face.

The Berkley Road, first surveyed from Parvin's property to the ford in the Schuylkill River (now Reading) in 1745, was incorporated into the Centre Turnpike in the first decade of the 1800s. This major road connecting Reading with Pottsville in Schuylkill County was completed in 1812. The tannery and mill business flourished and several shops and a hotel were established at this important junction. Two contributing resources in the district underwent significant changes in the decades following the opening of the turnpike.

The Robert Schmehl house illustrates the evolution of a colonial residence expanded to incorporate Federal scale and decoration. Before 1800, a small, two-story, stone home was built facing the creek. The original wood-shingled roof still exists under a tin roof and asphalt shingles. A summer kitchen and cold cellar provide additional insight into early construction methods. After 1812, a large two story, three-bay addition was made to the original core. This portion was oriented to the road and had far more decorative details. The keystone lintels, pedimented doorway, and carved cornice brackets gave this facade a statelier, Federal appearance. These buildings retain integrity of materials and design from their respective construction periods allowing us to see the progression of craftsmanship and fashion from 1780-1830.

The Dunkel house was a public house that fed and lodged those traveling the Berkley Road. The first floor facing the road has three paneled doors more suitable to a multi-use commercial dwelling than a private home. Immediately adjacent to this building was the Berkley Inn, a larger hotel that served as the main sleeping and eating quarters. Food was prepared in the Dunkel House and served in the Berkley Inn. Remains of a large bake oven are still evident in the rear of the building. "The Berkley Inn had a large patronage and a number of summer boarders before 1825", (Montgomery 1886, p 1031). William Dunkel operated the inn from 1812 and was succeeded by his son James, who conducted the hotel business until his death in 1860. James was also a prominent Democrat in Ontelaunee Township and filled a number of important township offices (Montgomery 1909, p770). His son, Allen H. Dunkel, born in Berkley in 1837, continued the operation of the inn after his father's death. He was recognized in Montgomery's History of Berks County as one of the best-known hoteliers and distillers in Berks County. He operated a distillery, recognized for its fine rye whiskey, on the property from 1880 until its destruction by fire in 1899. Allen retired from the hotel business in 1905.

The 1876 Ontelaunee Township map shows the Parvin, Davis, and Dunkel properties as well as a railroad line and railway station that was built in 1874 and a school that was built circa 1850. The railroad station and school were present at the close of the period of significance, but were destroyed in the 1960s. The rail line is still an active Norfolk/Southern freight line.

Berkley's commercial role was greatly diminished by the beginning of the twentieth century. After 1824, the Schuylkill Navigation System competed with the Centre Turnpike for the transport of goods. The nearby town of Leesport, founded in 1840 at Lock 37, grew over time to become the commercial and social center for the township. When the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad was built on the west bank of the Schuylkill River in 1842, Leesport grew and Berkley stagnated. The location of Pennsylvania Rail line east of the Berkley village core in 1874 shifted the focus of commerce away from this historic cluster of homes. Changes in industry made the tannery obsolete; it ceased operation in 1913 and fell into ruin. The gristmill was demolished when the City of Reading built a water filtration plant on the site. This water facility consumed much of the acreage on the west side of Berkley and destroyed the potential for further archaeological study along the creek. The construction of Lake Ontelaunee as the primary water supply for the City of Reading, the growing commercial and industrial development along the Route 61 corridor, and suburban housing developments have dramatically changed Ontelaunee Township's historic landscape.


The Berkley Historic District is a logical expansion of the Davies House, listed in the National Register in 1982, for significance in architecture. The evolution of vernacular architecture from the colonial period through 1856 is evident in the buildings within district. The two residences opposite the Davies House were originally built in the in the late 1700s. However, the completion of the Centre Turnpike, from Reading to Pottsville in 1812, prompted the prosperous owners of these homes to expand and reorient their homes toward the road. The homes still have the original Georgian and Federal decorative elements and were never Victorianized as were buildings from this period in other villages in the area. Many homes in the Oley Township Historic District are of similar design and construction. However, the village of Oley experienced considerable growth in the late century and has a distinctive Victorian appearance. The homes in the Berkley Historic District are similar in design and integrity to the National Register listed Henry Fisher House. The Fisher House was featured in The American House as an example of the Anglo-German Renaissance that occurred through this region of Pennsylvania in the early 1800s (Foley, 65). The Knabb-Beiber Mill in Oley Township and the Hunter's Mill Historic District in Hereford Township are other examples of Anglo-Germanic architecture listed in the National Register. The Berkley Historic District is unique, however, because nowhere else in Berks County is there a concentration of homes from this period in a village setting. Similar villages that existed in the immediate area have been destroyed by highway expansion projects.

The original land grant holder, Francis Parvin, was a prominent figure in the early history of Berks County. His son built the first stone home in 1758. The Parvin house exhibits exceptional integrity of design, layout, materials, and workmanship. The icehouse foundation, summer kitchen and cold cellar behind the house are excellent examples of early Republic stone construction. The 1856 edition to the main house also has original fireplaces, wood floors and enclosed stairway. A stone cold cellar built on the front lawn during the same period may have been used as a hiding place for fugitives on the Underground Railroad. The wood barn on the south side of Berkley Road is a rare hybrid of the classic Switzer barn and the standard Pennsylvania barn construction method that emerged in this region circa 1800. The presence of 200-year-old Liegender Stuhle roof supports provides an opportunity for future study. Expanded and adapted circa 1850, this barn is one of the few remaining barns in Berks County that exhibit both Switzer and Standard Pennsylvania Barn construction techniques.

"The stone gable barn is rare in that it is a transitional from the smaller Classic Sweitzer [Switzer] PA Barn prototype incorporating Germanic joinery to a very early standard PA Bank Barn. " John McFarland

The hamlet of Berkley was home to prominent Berks County citizens in both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The first Francis Parvin served as representative to the Provincial Assembly in 1755 and along with his better-known contemporary, Conrad Weiser, served as justice and commissioner for the sons of William Penn. Future generations of Parvins served humanity in a much less visible way. As members of the Society of Friends, the Parvins condemned the holding of slaves and promoted the welfare of free blacks in their employ. The Parvin homestead has been recognized by the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum in Reading as a station along the Underground Railroad. The museum is located in Reading at the Old Bethel A.M.E. Church, itself listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and another station on the Underground Railroad. Subsequent owners of the land once owned by the Parvins, including the Davies and Dunkel families, contributed to the economy and prosperity of central Berks County throughout the nineteenth century.


The Berkley Historic District exhibits original materials, layout, setting and scale that convey the residential design preferences and the quality craftsmanship prevalent in central Berks County from 1758 to 1856. This district nomination is a logical expansion of the Davies House, listed in 1982 for its significant architecture. One of the resources, the Parvin homestead, has important links to African American history in Berks County and may have been a station on the Underground Railroad. The Berkley Historic District is locally significant for its architecture and the role the residents and buildings played in the social history of Berks County.

Works Cited

__________."Historic Survey of the Maiden Creek Corridor" Berks County Conservancy, 1986.

Davies, A. M. Illustrated Historical Atlas of Berks County, Pennsylvania; Reading: Reading Publishing House; 1876. Reprinted by George M. Meiser, IX, 1978.

Ensminger, Robert F. The Pennsylvania Barn: Its Origin, Evolution, and Distribution in North America. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1992.

Ensminger, Robert F. Personal Interview, 9 July 2001

Foley, Mary Mix. The American House; New York: Harper & Row; 1980

Homan, Wayne E. A History of the Parvins of Berkley; Heritage of Berks Series; The Reading Eagle; Reading, Pennsylvania; August 4th, 1974.

Hopkins, Phoebe. PA Historic Resource Survey Form for Richard Schmehl Property, 1986, Repository- Berks County Conservancy, Reading, PA.

Hopkins, Phoebe. PA Historic Resource Survey Form for Dunkel House, 1986. Repository- Berks County Conservancy, Reading, PA.

Hopkins, Phoebe. PA Historic Resource Survey Form for Berkley Inn, 1986. Repository- Berks County Conservancy, Reading, PA.

Hopkins, Phoebe. PA Historic Resource Survey Form for Davies House, 1986. Repository- Berks County Conservancy, Reading, PA.

Huber, Greg - Architectural Historian. Macungie, PA 18062. Personal Interview. June 2000.

McFarland, John. Tohicken Timber Frames. Revere, PA. Letter to the preparer, November 2000.

Montgomery, Morton L.; History of Berks County in Pennsylvania; Philadelphia: Everts, Peck & Richards, 1886.

Montgomery, Morton L.; Historical and Biographical Annals of Berks County Pennsylvania Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co. 1909.

Parvin, Robert G., The Parvin Family of Berkley A Personal Family History compiled March, 2000.

Pinsker, Matthew. Vigilance in Pennsylvania: Underground Railroad Activities in the Keystone State, 1837-1861 Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2000.

Shellenhammer, Jason. "Trails to Freedom: A Case Study of the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania" Lancaster: Anthropology Independent Study, Franklin & Marshall College, April 2001.

  1. Fuhrer, Cyndie, Berks County Conservancy, Berkley Historic District, 2002, nomination document, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
Berkley Road • Snyder Road

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