Bellefonte Historic District
The Bellefonte Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The Borough of Bellefonte Historic District is a designated area of irregular configuration encompassing the greatest part of land and historic buildings associated with the early history of Bellefonte and rise to industrial, economic, political, social, and architectural distinction during the nineteenth century. The boundaries of the district are limited, and were drawn with ample consideration of historical consistency and visual continuity.
The district contains 338 principle buildings of which 224, or 74%, possess historical character. Of these, we judge 47 to be of major architectural significance. There are 41 intrusions counted amongst the principle buildings of the district. In other words, approximately one intrusion for every five historic buildings. It is important to point out, however, that these intrusions tend to be lesser structures in terms of size and prominence and thus do not seriously weaken the historic integrity of the district. As has been pointed out elsewhere while the Victorian era witnessed the replacement of older buildings with more grandiose structures, the economic realities of the twentieth century have not supported extensive building activity.
The district begins in the vicinity of the Big Spring, Bellefonte's namesake and one of the ten largest springs in the Commonwealth. On a bluff, above the spring, the Bellefonte Academy, facing northeasterly, commands a view of the townscape and appears especially imposing. Its white walls and bold Classical contours emphasize the dignity of the institution it once housed. The lawn of the Academy slopes away gently in the direction of the intersection of Spring and Bishop Streets. Until 1961, the Brockerhoff Mansion stood at the NE corner of this intersection but was then razed to make way for an automobile service station. Ten years later the Brockerhoff Business Block was removed from the same side of West Bishop Street, surrendering its space to a particularly undistinguished fast-food restaurant. The southern side of this block, however, survives as witness to the architecture and settlement pattern of early Bellefonte. In this block, between Spring and Allegheny Streets, the houses are found close to the street and close to one another. There are four examples of native limestone houses, all pre-1840, (and early wooden buildings interposed) including the prominent James McClure Stone House. The towers of St. John's Roman Catholic Church punctuate the vista afforded along East Bishop Street and provide a visual emphasis which terminates our district in that direction.
Allegheny Street is one of the principle streets of our historic district. From the point where it intersects High Street, at the "Diamond," it declines gently in a northerly and southerly direction toward its Howard Street and Bishop Street intersections. High Street on the other hand, an equally important historic street, divides on either side of public ground fronting on the Diamond and rises steeply to Ridge Street. West of Allegheny Street, it falls away steadily until it crosses Spring Creek and begins the approach of Halfmoon Hill.
The Diamond is a vicinity particularly rich in historic architecture. The Centre County Courthouse is the dominant element when viewed from the lower end of West High. Its Grecian portico (dating to 1835), copper-roofed cupola and fish vane are memorable features of several various townscapes. Understandably, the immediate neighborhood of the Courthouse has always been valued commercial property and adjacent the Diamond one finds the immense Brockerhoff Hotel, the Crider Exchange, the First National Bank Building, and the W. F. Reynolds and Co. Bank Building. These buildings with their vigorous towers and roof lines command the town center and act as a foil to some of the distinguished, but less ostentatious, buildings of this sector (the Sarah Miles Building, the Garman Opera House, the Hamilton Humes Stone House and Brick Store Building). Extending from the Diamond in all directions are streetscapes of considerable architectural interest. In these view, the striking juxtaposition of buildings of various styles and materials is accented by the inclines of the streets which stress profile. The Centre County Courthouse and the Pennsylvania Railroad Station are axially related along High Street, and a view in either direction offers a glimpse of practically every architectural type (function, style, and material) present in the town.
West High Street began as a select residential quarter with fewer commercial elements, but by late nineteenth century had begun to lose its ascendancy as a choice neighborhood. By this time the areas north of Howard Street began to be developed by persons moderately well-to-do, or more prosperous, with new styles of living expressed in the choice of house types and in the situation of houses set back from the street. The Miles-Potter-Hues House presents a graphic situation of a building caught in a crunch between the older tradition and the sweeping popularity of Victorian culture.
Not only was this building given a Victorian renewal in the replacement of detail, but in 1895 the entire stone house (1814-16) was actually lifted from its foundation and moved back twelve feet, allowing it something of a front yard.
The neighborhood of North Allegheny Street, Linn Street and Curtin Street is rich in examples of Victorian residential architecture. The houses on these principle streets are particularly grandiose whereas the houses on side and back streets survive to bear witness to more modest building activity. The intersection of Allegheny Street and Linn Street provides a focal point in this distinguished neighborhood. The F. Potts Green residence stood in an open field when it was completed in 1858. Now it shares the immediate vicinity with the imposing Major W. F. Reynolds residence and the large brick and sandstone villas built by Charles McCafferty where Allegheny crests at Curtin. This residential area is affected only by the presence of the Borough Elementary School (1941) along Linn between Spring and Allegheny and scattered small bungaloid dwellings. These, however, are not glaring intrusions amongst the large Victorian homes and tree-lined streets.
The low land west of High Street presents a predominantly industrial character. Immediately along Spring Creek are some warehouse buildings which although expressive only of early twentieth century industrial architecture occupy traditional industrial sites. These buildings in their location seem appropriate and in obtrusive. The Gamble Mill represents industrial architecture of earlier vintage and stands out as a key architectural landmark of Bellefonte. The millrace, although presently covered with a concrete slab in Tallyrand Park, runs nearly the full length of this section of the district and is an important element in the historical fabric. The Bush House Hotel and the Pennsylvania Railroad Station, recently restored under the direction of Bellefonte architect Joseph Teplica to house offices of the Bellefonte Area Chamber of Commerce, continue to welcome and accommodate visitors to the town. Finally, Tallyrand Park offers the community and visitors an ideal location, in view of the physical and architectural features making up the town's heritage.
Bellefonte has long been recognized as possessing a picturesque quality. This derives largely from the application of the Penn Grid Street scheme to a particularly irregular terrain; from the survival of a broad spectrum of architectural types (variously juxtaposed); and from the undeniable beauty of the mountain ridges and fields nearby.
The historic district contains a full range of industrial, commercial, public, religious, and residential architecture. High Street and the 100 Block of North and South Allegheny Streets tend to be mostly commercial in character. Further north on Allegheny Street and upon Linn and Curtin Streets which intersect with Allegheny, one finds a predominantly residential neighborhood. The area west of Spring Creek is industrial in character, but contains significant commercial, residential, and public elements. The historic buildings reflect eras of particular prosperity in 19th century Bellefonte with the second decade (the Benner-Walker-Linn House, the Miles-Potter-Hues House), the seventh decade (the Brockerhoff Hotel, the Bush House Hotel, the Ex-Governor Curtin House), and the ninth decade (the Maj. W. F. Reynolds & Co. Banking Building, the Crider &change) standing out as periods of particular architectural significance. The most conspicuous styles influencing Bellefonte's architecture are as follows:
In addition, and especially characteristic, are the hybrid buildings created when older buildings were expanded in subsequent eras. Buildings such as the Rankin-McAllister-Eagles' building and the James Sommerville residence are graphic records of cultural expansion.
Bellefonte was laid out in 1795 by Col. James Dunlop and son-in-law James Harris on a hilly site along Spring Creek opposite William Lamb's mill (1786). Col. Dunlop and his family were attracted to the region by the opportunities of iron industry. The site for the new town, near a gap in Bald Eagle Ridge (principle entrance to the fertile, Nittany Valley) and adjacent to a wonderful supply of fresh water, the Big Spring, was both propitious and picturesque. Despite the irregularity of the terrain, the town had been laid out according to the Perm grid scheme. Provisions were made for a public ground with a "diamond," or public square, and plots for an academy and for a Presbyterian church.
Earlier, in the 1780's surveyors working in what is now Centre County discovered the presence of iron ore which proved to be exceptionally rich in iron content and by the early 1790's the first furnaces and forges were in operation. With the advantage of a seemingly endless supply of iron ore, good limestone, charcoal (and later, coal), and water power, this industry would place Bellefonte in the main-stream of the National economy for nearly a century. Bellefonte rose to a stature in commercial, financial, political, and judicial circles rivaling places several times its size and, beyond this, was universally acclaimed for the beauty of its setting and its healthful atmosphere. Along with these developments came some of the finest public, commercial, and residential architecture built in central Pennsylvania. The general prosperity of the town faded with the decline of local iron industry and in light of 20th century economics, but the distinguished buildings remained. A blanket of economic stagnation served to protect Bellefonte's historic character and by doing so, ironically, made an inestimable contribution toward the economic and spiritual well-being of the town.
The Col. James Dunlop House (1795) was the first house in the town and still stands on High Street. It was originally a three-bay Georgian stone house with side hall plan. Centre County's first court session was held here in the Fall of 1800. After being sold in 1827, the house was enlarged, making it the standard five-bay dwelling. The key landmark of this early period is the Benner-Walker-Linn House. This house, on Allegheny Street, is a two-story, three-bay limestone house with partially exposed basement, gable roof with gables dormers, and pedimented doorway with fanlight, flanked by pilasters. Philip Benner had this house built for Judge Jonathan Walker in 1810.
The Greek Revival had only moderate influence on the architecture of Bellefonte but in 1835 the old Georgian courthouse received a monumental porch with raised platform, Ionic columns, and pediment. When the Courthouse was rebuilt in 1855, this porch was left intact and stands today as a fitting symbol of this County's early eminence in legal and political affairs. In 1909-11, the Courthouse was enlarged with a transept and the interiors were elaborately redecorated.
Centre County's iron industry was given a boost just before the Civil War when coal was found to replace the diminishing supply of charcoal. Railroads were built joining Bellefonte to the major lines and extending into the coal fields. The demand for iron created by the War was a boon for local industry and the resultant prosperity included a near doubling of population from 1860 to 1870 and a substantial building boom. It was estimated that within only three years, from 1865 to 1868, $620,000 was spent on building in Bellefonte.
This building boom outstripped anything that had happened before in Bellefonte, both in terms of the number of buildings going up and in terms of their ambitious size. Of special interest is the fact that variant building styles crept into the Georgian stronghold. In 1858, F. Potts Green had a house built of brick in the Swiss-chalet style. This house is at the corner of Line and Allegheny Streets and was the vanguard of a new residential movement which preferred segregation from the hustle-and-bustle of the commercial quarter. It is also significant that Bellefonte's architecture was ceasing to be retardative in terms of the National picture. No less an architect than Isaac Hobbs of Philadelphia became involved with Bellefonte, designing the handsome Italianate residence for Ex-Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin in 1868 which stands on High Street, as well as several other residences. Hobbs is the most likely architect for the John P. Harris residence (1868) and the Evan Blanchard residence (1868), both along stylish Linn Street. It is of special importance to note that two of Hobbs' Bellefonte designs appear as models in his popular pattern book Hobbs' Architecture with one of these designs known to have been published in Godey's Lady's Book.
The predominant building style for commercial and well-to-do residential architecture of this post-Civil War era was the Italianate. In 1866, Henry Brockerhoff rebuilt the old Pennsylvania Hotel in this style. Today this building is dominated by its eclectic-style roof and attic story but betrayal of the original Italianate building is seen in the steady articulation of brick wall arches below. Another huge hotel arose in 1868 through the enterprise of self-made businessman Daniel G. Bush. Still functioning as hotel and restaurant, the Bush House Hotel is a four-story building with a frontal length of 148 feet and two four-story wings extending behind, 120 feet each. With low roof, horizontal proportion, round-headed windows, and corner quoining, the building expresses the Italian palazzo aesthetic. Bush was responsible for the erection of some 27 buildings in Bellefonte, including the first Bush Arcade business block.
Paramount amongst homes in the Italian manner is that built by local contractor Charles McCafferty in 1879 for George Valentine, Jr., son and successor of one of the Quaker ironmasters who bought up and expanded the John Dunlop iron works following the latter's death in 1814. This large residence, one of several built in Bellefonte by this generation of the Valentine family, stands on North Allegheny Street. It is a 23 room mansion of brown sandstone with its original veranda and with a square tower rising from its southern side.
In 1884-85 wealthy banker William F. Reynolds commissioned the building of a large stone home at the corner of Line and Allegheny Streets. This house (whose architect remains a mystery) is eclectic in inspiration and is equally impressive for its bold exterior character as for its sumptuous woodwork inside. Reynolds founded W. F. Reynolds & Co. Banking firm in 1859 and this became one of the very largest private banking companies in the central part of the state. At his death in 1893 Reynolds left an estate of over $801,000.
The Reynolds residence might be seen as one of the first of several increasingly varied and picturesque homes to be built by monied classes in the Linn-Curtin-Allegheny Street neighborhood in the 1800's and 1890's. The Queen Anne style became especially favored from the latter 1880's.
The Bush Arcade (first) was destroyed by fire in January of 1887 but was rebuilt almost immediately according to the design and under the supervision of P. A. Walsh, a Philadelphia architect. Still in use as a commercial arcade, the building is a fine example of the Queen Anne-eclectic mode.
The enthusiastic adoption of the Queen Anne style resulted in some very peculiar hybrid creations downtown. This occurred when older, conservative buildings took to sporting the irregular, picturesque massing of a Queen Anne attic story.
Meanwhile, throughout the 1870's and 1880's, local contractor Charles McCafferty took the lead amongst builders marketing a stock-type frame cottage. This house type had a steep gable with ridge parallel the street with a second gable facing the street at one end (an L-plan) with projected two-story bay. A one-story porch commonly nestles into the void of the L-plan so created. Such houses would be almost indistinguishable from each other were it not for differences in porch trim and the cosmetic efforts of subsequent owners.
The last great era of Bellefonte's architecture is bound up with the work of local builder John Robert Cole. Cole was born in Houserville, Centre County, in 1850. Although having no more than a carpenter's training, Cole would dominate local building from the early 1890's until his death in 1916. The truly amazing point is his stylistic versatility. Amongst Cole buildings still standing in the Historic District are the Crider Exchange (1889) the Temple Court Building (1894), the Logan Fire Hall (1897), the Hastings Mansion (1897), Petrikin Hall (1901), the remodeled Bellefonte Academy (1904), and the stunning attic of the Brockerhoff Hotel (attic: 1890). Here was a man who could build anything.
The Bellefonte Historic District, in summation, preserves a remarkably complete package of the architectural history of a special small town. As such, it is a continual stimulus for historical appreciation. Damage to the historical character of the town is, by and large, superficial and the beauty of the setting would seem to be eternal. Aspects of 19th century commercial, industrial, political, and residential life are memorialized in these buildings. The 18th century is expressed in the plan of the town, in certain names, and by virtue of the survival of the first house. And the Big Spring recalls Indian lore, before any of this came to be.
Bellefonte Bicentennial Committee; Fountain of Governors, Bellefonte, 1976.
Kapp, Ruth Inez; Bellefonte, It's Founding and Development from 1795 to 1835. State College, Pa., Penn State College, 1962.
Lewis, Peirce F.; "Small Town in Pennsylvania," Annals of the Association of American Geographers, June, 1972, V. 62, No. 2, p. 323.
† Ramsey, Gregory, Centre County Historical Registration Project, Borough of Bellefonte Historic District, nomination document, 1976, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.