Founded in 1869, the Historical Society of Berks County is a museum and library located at 940 Centre Ave, Reading, PA. The Society's mission, as described on its website, is "to focus attention on the unique local history, the vast material culture, and the diverse cultural heritage of Berks County by preserving, archiving, and promoting this material to instill in our citizens of all ages and ethnic groups an awareness of this growing treasure trove of information. This allows the Historical Society of Berks to be a major cultural magnet, drawing people to our community."
The Historical Society houses materials relating to the early history of Berks County in its Museum, in the Henry Janssen Library, and at the historic Hendel House. Over 10,000 members and patrons visit during the year. The Society educates students from public and private schools in the area and is visited by researchers from all over the country.
The museum has an historical object collection exceeding 20,000 items. Included are works of art by Ben Austrian, Jack Coggins, Ralph D. Dunkelberger, G.B. Kostenbader, Earle Poole, E.S. Reeser, Christopher Shearer, Victor Shearer, and Frederick Spang. The Society has a large transportation collection, including bicycles, a very rare horse drawn streetcar, a Conestoga Wagon, a Duryea automobile, and other wagons, some of which are on display at the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles located in Boyertown, PA.
In July 1869, a call was made for interested citizens to gather "for the purpose of collecting and perpetuating the historical reminisces of Berks County." Following the first meeting in August, the Historical Society of Berks County was incorporated on December 13, 1869. The first president was the Honorable William M. Hiester. After a period of stagnation, President Albert G. Green revived the Society in 1898. Meetings were held in the Exchange Building located on North 6th Street in Reading, PA. The first female member was Kate E. Hawley, wife of Reading Eagle founder Jesse G. Hawley, a charter member.
The Historical Society first started collecting objects in June, 1898. Its first building, purchased in June 1904 from the Reading Gas Company, was located at 519 Court Street. At that time, membership was 150. Less than ten years later, the burgeoning Historical Society needed a larger building, and J. Bennett Nolan led the search for a new structure. In the summer of 1928 the cornerstone was laid for the present building located at 940 Centre Avenue in Reading, PA and construction was completed the following year. Made of concrete and brick, it was designed to be a fireproof structure to house the collection and archives. The present facility was dedicated on October 1, 1929.
Needing more office, display, and storage space, the Historical Society embarked on a fund raising campaign in the 1980s. The new building addition was opened in 1988, providing the library with its own dedicated storage and research space.
Again faced with storage concerns, the Historical Society took possession of its first off-site property in 2000. Known as the Hendel House, it is located directly across from Centre Park at 746 Centre Avenue, the ornate Victorian structure is used for meetings, programs, and object storage. The Historical Society of Berks County's Hendel House, donated by Marjorie Hendel-Perfect, is at 746 Centre Ave. The northern end of the structure dates from 1877. Mrs. Perfect "gave" the mansion to preserve it for posterity in honor of her father who erected the 1897 addition and transformed the structure into an elegant residence. Adelaide K. Hendel was the last of the Hendels to live here. From 1949 to 1999 it was used as a Lutheran church. Following restoration, this adjunct facility will be used for Society-related functions, meetings of various kinds, some office space, and storage.
The Hendel House is also available for weddings, private parties, holiday affairs, business meetings, luncheons, family reunions and other special events.
It can accommodate up to 100 people. There is an in-house sound system and heating and air conditioning depending on the season.
For more information and/or to reserve the Hendel House, contact the Historical Society of Berks County at 610-375-4375.
In 2005, the Historical Society purchased the former M&T Bank building at 160 Spring Street, directly behind the main building located at 940 Centre Avenue. Formally named The Henry Janssen Library, this premier research facility opened to the public on November 11, 2008 after extensive renovations. The Henry Janssen Library is the center for genealogical and historical research at the Historical Society of Berks County. The Henry Janssen Library is acknowledged to be one of the best and most thoroughly indexed collections of county data in Pennsylvania. The Henry Janssen Library contains a wealth of information dating back to the early 1700s. HSBC's archival holdings have grown extensively since the founding of the Society in 1869 and include both personal and family papers as well as the records of churches, cemeteries and local businesses.