When we first moved into our new home, we were excited to research its history, and possibly find some old photos to guide us in the restoration. After a few electrical issues, a broken heating system, hot water heater, dishwasher, washer and dryer, a flooded basement, disconnected kitchen plumbing, several roof leaks, and multiple animal and insect infestations, we realized the term “restoration” was being used loosely in this case, and “salvation” may be more appropriate.
The initial flurry of activity and work that the foreclosed house needed distracted us from uncovering the story of the house. Eventually, research became more of a necessary distraction from all of the work. We knew our house had been built around 1825, and after attending a few Historical Commission meetings, we were given an Elverson history book, a few photos, and we were told the house had been the home of Dr. Matthias S. Mengel, a prominent Elverson resident during the 19th and 20th century. The name Mengel surfaced again as we were inventorying all of the broken windowpanes in the house. My husband noticed scratches on one of the windows, which we later deciphered as scrawled handwriting. Mengel seemed to be written on one pane, Madeleine, Jack, and a large initial R on the others. The Elverson book didn’t mention a Madeleine, but a search in the Reading Eagle newspaper archives proved that Dr. Mengel had six children, including Madeleine, Jack and Robert.
Ancestral research can be complicated. Certain surnames will surface again and again. Like Muhlenberg, Mengel was a popular name in Berks County. Dr. Mengel was the only doctor in Elverson, and everyone at that time knew him and his family. In fact, everyone living in Elverson today still seems to recall the name. Dr. Mengel’s brother, Levi, was the curator of the Reading Museum, and today, an animatronic likeness of Levi will narrate your tour of the museum’s second floor. His father, also Matthias Mengel, was a prominent Reading lawyer, and in the early 1800s, the “Mengel Farm” comprised over 140 acres between Elverson and Morgantown.
Within a family, in addition to common last names, there were often popular first names. Every Muhlenberg in Reading’s history seems to have been some form of Frederick, Charles, or Henry the II, IV, VII, Jr., Sr… The middle name and suffix are often left out of news articles and personal correspondence, and first names are frequently abbreviated, making ancestral research a tangled web of interconnected relatives.
Architectural preservation and restoration always begins with research, and typically that research starts with a search of the property owners, but it is rarely as simple as that. We are working on untangling the history of our own firm, founded by Frederick A. Muhlenberg, and we have discovered that at one point there were at least three Muhlenberg partners of the firm; two Fredericks and one Charles. It is now clear why Muhlenberg Greene Architects is often confused with Muhlenberg Brothers, an architecture firm operating contemporaneously in Reading, also founded by a Frederick and a Charles. Obviously, our full history will take a little more sleuthing. Check back with us as we uncover more of Reading’s history in our blog series!What have you discovered during renovations? Any architectural treasures? Any family secrets? Where do you start your research: property deeds, tax records, newspaper archives? The Historical Society of Berks County is a great source of archived photographs, blueprints, and documents, and the Reading Eagle has a vast collection of newspaper archives digitized on Google News. Tell us your stories!