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Bellefonte's Painted Ladies
by Bob Brooke


A lot of places boast splendid Victorian architecture. Cape May, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Brooklyn Heights, and Baltimore all come to mind. But no place has as many examples of every style of Victorian architecture as does Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, a small town in the Susquehanna Valley, a short drive north of Penn State University.

With only about 7,000 residents, it’s the quintessential small American town of the 1880s, preserved as in aspic for future generations to enjoy. Visiting it is like taking a trip back to a more gentile time in American history.

Brief History of Bellefonte
By 1811 Bellefonte had become a dream town in manufacture of iron. James Dunlop, his son, James, and his son-in-law James Harris had become successful ironmakers. In 1812, they laid out the town block by block. As the years went by, Bellefonte boomed and soon became the most influential town in Pennsylvania between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. It also became a frequent stop in the transcontinental airmail route which ran from New York to San Francisco.

In 1977, the Bellefonte Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Other buildings eventually took their place on the list, including the Bellefonte Armory, Brockerhoff Hotel, Centre County Courthouse, Gamble Mill, McAllister-Beaver House, Miles-Humes House, Pennsylvania Match Company, South Ward School, and the William Thomas House.

While many private homes have been magnificently restored, the town has had its share of tragic fires which have decimated several grand public buildings in recent years, including the Bush House Hotel which burned in 2006, the Cadillac Building which burned in 2009, and the Garman Opera House and the adjacent Garman House Hotel which burned in 2012.

Financed by Daniel G. Bush and built in 1868. It was one of the first hotels in the country to have electric lights. A man would stand at the train station and call out to the passengers, "Walk ya' to the Bush House." The Bush House, the Brockerhoff House, the Haag House, and some other hotels were competitors. Thomas Edison stayed at the Bush House.

Though heavily damaged by fire, the Cadillac Building, originally the home of a Cadillac dealership in 1916, has been rebuilt as a mixed use building.

The Garman Opera House, originally built in 1890, wasn’t so lucky. Severely damaged by a fire which also destroyed the Garman House Hotel, it finally had to be razed after preservation groups lost the battle to save it. The opera house hosted many famous stars of the day, including George Burns and Gracie Allen, Western performer Tom Mix, and illusionist/escape artist Harry Houdini. The popular song "After the Ball" was said to have been first sung in public here. It was eventually also used as a movie theater, first showing silent films and then "talkies." It has been replaced by a building housing 21 condominiums.

A Walk Back in Time
The best way to enjoy the beauty of Bellefonte’s Victorian architecture is to walk its quiet streets. The Chamber of Commerce provides a free map of the Historic District to help first-time visitors see its beautiful Victorian buildings. Here are some highlights.

Beginning at the old railroad station, the tour takes you up High Street to the Diamond, the town’s center square and the location of the Court House. On the way, you’ll pass by the Bush Arcade, a row of storefronts in the simplified Queen Anne style. One block further stands The Manse, formerly the First National Bank, combines Gothic, Romanesque, Greek, and Egyptian motifs. Diagonally across from it stands the Reynold’s House, built by Thomas r. Reynolds in 1880. Adjacent to it is Petrikin Memorial Hall, designed by Robert Cole and built between 1901 and 1902 for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

As you near the Diamond, you’ll be standing beside the Brockerhoff Hotel, once the site of a log cabin tavern owned by James Benner. Henry Brockheroff built the Hotel in 1864 and 1865. Robert Cole redesigned it in the 1890s by adding a fourth floor and modified mansard roof. It’s a perfect example of Gothic Revival architecture with Romanesque windows on the front. It has been converted into apartments.

Along the eastern side of the Diamond stands the Court House, a classic example of the Greek Revival style built in 1805 and 1806. Several wings have been added since. On a side street to the north of the Court House stands a row of two-story Victorian homes known as Attorney’s Row, with examples of Italianate, Georgian, and Pennsylvania farmhouse styles.

The Reynold’s Bank stands on the diagonally opposite corner to the First National Bank. This bank, along with the Crider Exchange Building next door burned in 1888 and were rebuilt the following year. These two buildings are great examples of an eclectic "anything goes" style.

Along Allegheny Street
Continuing north on Allegheny Street, you’ll come to the John Blair Linn House, originally built in the Georgian style for Judge Jonathan Walker in 1810, now housing the Bellefonte Art Museum. A little further along is the Potter House, also built in Georgian style in 1815 and now the public library, Both are on the same side of the street as the Crider Exchange.

And yet further along, you’ll come to the Dr. Dartt House, built in 1879, a mixture of styles, like many in town. The eave brackets along the front and the tall windows suggest Italianate style, the tall roof and other features are Gothic Revival, the tall tower Second Empire, and the wrap-around porch and overall appearance Queen Anne style.

Across from it stands the Hastings Mansion, once owned by Mrs. John Lane, then bought and remodeled by Pennsylvania Governor Daniel H. Hastings. The house is a polyglot of architectural ideas. It could be called mostly classical with dentiles under eaves, bracketing, pilasters and pediments on dormers, pillars, leaded windows, large pane windows, and a mansard style roof. It is said to be haunted.

American Carpenter Gothic style is characterized by steeply-pitched roofs, steep gables, and pointed-arch windows. Often the construction was vertical "board and batton" which was considered particularly fitting for a Gothic cottage because of its upward tendency. When Gothic came to America and was translated to Carpenter Gothic, the stone tracery was replaced by wooden gingerbread. Nevertheless, houses were relatively simple in style.

Two blocks further reveals the Reynolds Mansion on the west and the Barnard Residence on the east corner of the street. The Reynold’s Mansion has some Italianate styling, inspired by the country villas of northern Italy. The body of the house is rectangular. Exterior wood was scored and painted to resemble stone, which was costly. Houses were designed with sliding doors that opened into verandas, where families would gather during the warmth of the summer. An Italianate house has two or three stories, giving it a “tall” appearance, flat roof lines, angled bay windows, tall narrow windows that are L- or U-shaped, and it may have a Corinthian-columned porch and a cupola.

Four properties to the east is The Queen, the town’s finest example of the Queen Anne style.

On the next block, also on the east corner, stands the Ironmaster’s Mansion, a Second Empire marvel. Paris architecture during the reign of Napoleon III inspired the Second Empire style, also called Renaissance Revival. The mansard roof, heavily decorated with dormer windows, colored tile patterns, and iron cresting, is its primary feature. Fire extensively damaged the Mansion in 2008 but it has since been restored.

Another Second Empire example is the Ardell House. John R. Ardell, Jr. Was an industrialist but is most remembered as the principal lumber baron of the area. Built in 1883 in Second Empire style, with mansard roof, eave brackets under all rooflines, and a square tower in front, it boasts a lavish wooden interior filled with local hardwoods, including chestnut clapboards, black walnut front door and banister-railing, poplar pocket doors with hand-stippling, and red and white oak floors.

Architectural historians consider the Stick style to be transitional between Gothic Revival and Queen Anne. The most distinguishing characteristic of this style is small vertical, horizontal, or diagonal planks placed on top of exterior walls, meant to suggest medieval buildings. The Stick Style also had enormous, overhanging second story porches, and bayside windows perpendicular to the front window. Houses built in this style include square bays, flat roof lines, and free-style decorations. Once Queen Anne houses began to be built, the Stick style disappeared.

The most prominent architectural style of the late 19th century was Queen Anne. Architects designed many Queen Anne houses asymmetrically. They had varied roof lines, large second story bay windows, elaborate chimneys, turrets, balconies, dormers, towers, stained glass decoration, and wrap around porches; elaborate trim was applied to nearly every surface. This type of ornamental excess was made possible by power tools and mass-produced trim work. Houses were painted in a rainbow of dark colors. The Queen is Bellefonte's best example.

Because working-class people couldn’t afford fancy Victorian homes, they preferred what became known as Folk Victorians. After 1870, trains brought mass-produced architectural trim beyond the cities. A typical folk Victorian has a square shape, brackets under the eaves, and porches with spindlework or jig-sawed trim, borrowed from Gothic Revival style. Many had a low-pitched, pyramidal roof and a front gable and side wings. Unlike a Queen Anne, a folk Victorian is symmetrical and lacks towers, bays, and elaborate moldings. The Charles McCafferty House, the furthest from The Diamond, is an example of Folk Victorian. McCafferty was Bellefonte's premier builder during the last half of the 19th century and built many of the homes on Linn and Curtin streets which are part of Historic Bellefonte.

While there are many other fine Victorian buildings scattered throughout town, most of the prominent ones are along Allegheny Street, north of the Diamond.

Take a complete virtual walking tour of Bellefonte's Victorian buildings.

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