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Notes on the Geography of The Eastern United States: Harrisburg, Bellefonte, and Boalsburg

Come back to a place after 30 years or more, and it will look different, even if it's the same. That's the lesson of these photos, taken very quickly late in 2013. A very similar set of pictures could have been taken, but wasn't, in 1974. Eyes half-open now were mostly shut then.

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The Eastern United States: Harrisburg, Bellefonte, and Boalsburg picture 1

Looking like a million other 19th century truss bridges, Harrisburg's Walnut Street or People's Bridge was built in 1890 and converted to a pedestrian and bike path in 1972, after Hurricane Agnes topped the roadbed and destroyed part of the structure.

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The bridge was built by the People's Bridge Company as a low-cost alternative to the Camelback Bridge, which no longer exists but which was built in 1816 and for almost a century enjoyed a monopoly on traffic across the Susquehanna. The river here heads to the left, downstream to Chesapeake Bay, which is the name given to the river's flooded lower reach. Although the river looks like a pool ponded by a dam, it's flowing, and is mightier even than it looks, because that land on the far side is City Island. Agnes took out part of the bridge crossing the channel on the other side.

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Pennsylvania's state capitol is set back about 1,000 meters from the river and about the same distance upstream on the river from the People's Bridge. The green dome on the left (the gold one, too) belongs to the Catholic cathedral; the spire just beyond is on Grace Methodist Church. The crenelated turrets on the near left belong to St. Michael's Lutheran.

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None of them compete with the capitol itself, dedicated by TR in 1906 and often ranked as the finest in the country. Building it didn't do much for the architect, the young Joseph Miller Huston, who won the competition to design the building but in 1911 was convicted of graft in connection with construction contracts. He spent six months in jail, which perhaps was less painful than surviving until 1940 without any comparable commissions. Notice the oddly bright pair of sculptures? We'll take a look.

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This is the one on the right. It's called "The Burden of Life: The Broken Law." Its more cheerful companion is "Love and Labor: The Unbroken Law." Both were by George Barnard, a Pennsylvania-born sculptor who spent much of his life in Paris. This one seems awfully gloomy for a nation that demands perpetual boosterism, but Barnard wrote that "the subjects seemed to me peculiarly appropriate for the headquarters of a Legislature." It's almost as if he anticipated Huston's corruption and its aftermath. Barnard planned four other sculptures, but the budget was cut and these two were the only ones made.

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If the building is modeled on St. Peters, its main doors echo the Ghiberti ones in Florence. The panels on the Baptistery there mostly illustrate scenes from the life of Christ; the panels here are secular. This one shows miners, presumably digging coal. The sculptor was Otto Jahnsen, who also contributed to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

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The pendentives of the immense rotunda carry figures representing religion on the left and science on the right. (They're fourteen feet in diameter!) The lunette mural between them is "The Spirit of the Vulcan," an appropriate image for the heavy industry on which the state's fortunes were based. All are by Edward Austin Abbey, a Pennsylvanian expatriated to England. The two other rondels, not shown here, are Art and Justice; the three other lunette murals, also not shown here, allude to coal, oil, and--almost an afterthought--religious liberty.

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Plenty of columns.

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A breath of plebeian air. We're just a couple of blocks away on Grand Street, which of course isn't. The houses were built about 1900--about the same time as the capitol. They may look plain, but that's part of the Federal style: closely spaced, close to the street, highly symmetrical, and with dormers on a pitched roof with a ridge parallel to the street.

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In 2013 houses here were offered at about $100,000.

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Also about 1900, Harrisburg began building apartment houses. This was the grandest of them all, the five-story, 400-room Donaldson Flats, built by William Donaldson, an investor interested as well in paper, electricity, and banking. He lived here himself for decades, but after his death in 1929 the building was sold. It stayed in the new ownership for 40 years and was then bequeathed to Family and Childrens' Services, which gave it hard use. A few years later, in the late 1970s, the building was demolished, leaving only this portico, which leads to a tiny pretzel shop.

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A few other modest apartment blocks of the same vintage survive.

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Some have been converted to offices. Either way, maintenance of curved, copper-framed bay windows is expensive.

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The copper trim of the Potts Apartment House, which was built at the same time as the Donaldson Flats, has had its patina scrubbed off.

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The riverfront has far grander homes, like this one, which belonged to J. Donald Cameron, a banker who became President Grant's secretary of war and later served as a U.S. senator for almost 20 years.

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The McCormick Mansion, built by 1868 by another banker, stayed in the family until 1945, when it was willed to the Harrisburg Public Library. It now houses the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania.

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The Maclay Mansion, now the home of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, was built by William Maclay, son-in-law of the founder of Harrisburg, John Harris. The two together surveyed the original townsite in 1785, and Maclay built this house in 1792. He became literally the first U.S. senator, and the house stayed in the family until 1908, when a new owner began its expansion, adding dormers among other things. The house now looks half-buried, but it was not so at first, when a flight of stairs led up to the entrance. Either the house was lowered or the street was raised.

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We've left Harrisburg and come up the river 50 miles to the split, near Sunbury, of the West and North branches. We've continued up the West Branch 70 miles to Lock Haven, then come up Bald Eagle Creek 25 miles to Milesburg. From there it's another two miles on Spring Creek to the confluence, shown here, of Spring Creek and Logan Branch. This is the site of Bellefonte, a town taking its name from a large pool of potable water, now sadly roofed over to comply with drinking-water sanitation rules. The spring feeding the pool still yields 11 million gallons daily.

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Close by is the Match Factory Complex, one of the country's biggest wooden-match producers until closing in 1947. At its founding in 1899, it joined a community that had grown rich on the production of iron and coal. The first furnace had opened in 1795, and half a dozen were operating by 1826. To make shipments easier, a canal had opened to Lock Haven on the Susquehanna in 1848; a railroad followed in 1857. (The building now houses the American Philatelic Center.)

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Bellefonte had become the seat of Centre County in 1806, when the state legislature was somehow persuaded that Bellefonte was the head of navigation on Bald Eagle Creek. Milesburg was then doomed, despite the fact that no boat ever came up Spring Creek other than the one dragged past Milesburg to support Bellefonte's claim. A courthouse was built, and this grand porch added in 1835; the cupola came in about 1850. Most of the rest of the building was later replaced, but the porch stands as built, a monument to the town's ambition.

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The courthouse faces Brockerhoff House, built by a German immigrant who had served in Napoleon's army but emigrated and ultimately made good in Bellefonte. The site had been a tavern as early as 1804, and Brockerhoff bought that tavern in 1840. After a fire in 1864, he rebuilt the place in stone and brick: he could afford it because the Civil War had been very good to Pennsylvanians connected to the iron industry. Brockerhoff died in 1878, and about 20 years later, the fourth floor and slate Mansard roof were added by new owners. The hotel remained in business until 1960. It now provides federally subsidized or Section 8 accommodation for low-income residents.

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A block to the north, the Crider Exchange was built in 1889 with an iron frame, lots of windows, and fish-scale, pressed-metal sheets between them. The architect was the locally prominent J. Robert Cole, and the building was conceived from the start as a combination of shops and offices. Its future, like that of the rest of the town, was not to be a happy one. Within a decade the iron-and-steel business of the United States would be revolutionized, leaving behind the small furnaces on which Bellefonte's fortune had grown. The last furnace closed in 1915, and the town entered a protracted decline.

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This is the Bush Arcade, from the late 1880s. It now offers studio apartments for under $600 a month and advertises its proximity to the Pennsylvania State University in State College, about a 20-minute drive to the south. The builder, Daniel Bush, built nearly 30 buildings in Bellefonte after the Civil War, and was described at the time as "without a rival in adding to the natural interests of Bellefonte and Centre County."

See J B. Linn, History of Centre and Clinton Counties, 1883.

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Another block by Cole, this one from 1901 and in a heavier, Richardsonian style perhaps well-suited to its primary tenant, which is identified by the initials up top as the Women's Christian Temperance Union. The building contained an auditorium to seat 600 to 800 people, along with upstairs apartments. It still serves that purpose, now with 18 apartments. (The name Petrikin presumably has some connection to David Petrikin, a Bellefonte native who became a doctor and eventually a congressman. He died in 1847, however, long before this building was erected, and most of his life was spent farther east, in Danville.)

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The earliest generation of Bellefonte's prosperous residents chose to build in the Federal style, as in Harrisburg's Grand Street, with a symmetrical facade and dormers on a pitched roof with its ridge parallel to the street. This is the Linn House, built in 1810 by the county's first ironmaster.

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A few years later, in 1814, another ironmaster, Joseph Miles, built this similar but bigger house, on the verge of mansiondom. The house today is much modified, however. The porch at the back, part of an L-wing, was added by a later owner, who also modified the facade, adding the fan and side lights around the front door. Another of the additions has been removed: it was a large front porch, added by architect Cole. The porch, which was square, roofed and supported by massive square piers, created a balcony accessed through the door above the front door. To create that porch, the entire house was moved back 12 feet, contrary to the prevailing front-of-the-lot custom. In 1935 the house was bequeathed to become the town's public library, part of which it remains. At that time the porch was removed.

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Eventually the Federalist style ran its course. Here's the stylistically eclectic Hastings Mansion, restyled in 1890 for Daniel Hastings, who became governor of Pennsylvania in 1895. Like the big office blocks, it was built at the town's economic and psychological apogee. True, the town's population was only 4,200 in 1900, compared to 6,300 in 2000, but the earlier town was the center of an industrial region, while the later town was an appendix to the much larger State College, ten miles to the south. Symptomatic of that decline, the Hastings Mansion was eventually subdivided into eight apartments.

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Across the street, this Victorian was built in 1879 for Robert L. Dartt, a physician who remained in practice until 1895.

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On the other side of Spring Creek, a large but simpler home stands in mighty good shape.

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Most of the old residents are up here at the Union Cemetery, begun in 1808.

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That includes Governor Hastings. The town produced two other Pennsylvania governors (Andrew Curtin and James Beaver), and among its other notables was George Barnard, the sculptor of the works at the entrance to the state capitol. The town's name, by the way, was supposedly suggested by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, who found it expedient to be outside France during the 1790s and who apparently traveled through this neighborhood and saw the large spring.

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The iron business has been dead for over a century now, but agriculture remains important. The potential was recognzied by Captain James Potter, an Irish-born British officer who discovered the local valleys in 1764 and is reported to have said to a companion, "By Heavens, Thompson, I have discovered an empire." He settled here, bought land, and died in 1789 as one of the state's biggest landowners.

Here, a Pennsylvania barn with the characteristic gabled roof and overshoot or forebay. Ideally, the other side of such barns was built into a slope for easier loading, but there was no handy hill in this case.

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And so it happens that Pennsylvania State University began nearby in 1855 as the Farmers' High School. Centrally located in the state, it grew rapidly after the creation of agricultural experiment stations in 1887. Here's the agriculture building, added in 1907. It remains one of the oldest buildings on campus and is named for the first director of the experiment station, Henry Armsby.

The Eastern United States: Harrisburg, Bellefonte, and Boalsburg picture 34

Nice, no?

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State College has grown a lot since then, and not always so handsomely.

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Ugh. The street is named after George Atherton, president of the university (then Pennsylvania State College) from 1882 to 1906.

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You can breathe again. We've come... let's see... yes, four miles from State College. Boalsburg was originally at the junction of roads to Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, and a tavern was established on the spot in 1804. Five years later, a speculator named Andrew Stroup laid out a townsite with fewer than a dozen blocks in a grid.

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Stroup called the place Springfield, but the name shifted to Boalsburg in honor of the tavern owner, who enjoyed a respectable military title.

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Boal's Tavern got company in 1819 with the opening of the Boalsburg Tavern, which is still in business.

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The same Georgian or Federalist rectitude prevails in the town's houses.

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The scales vary, but not the gabled roof with dormers, the orientation to the street, and the symmetrical facade.

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Wood gradually replaced stone, and in the mid-19th century porches began appearing. This one, unlike the one on the Bellefonte public library, survives.

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The town lost its role as a transportation node when it was bypassed by railways and highways. The economy shifted to agriculture and eventually to university jobs in State College. The town has done well since then, not only from its location but because, as an official survey declares, "the town projects an architectural cohesiveness, through the predominance of Georgian and Victorian forms, which few communities can boast today."

See Gregory Ramsey, et al., Historic Buildings of Centre County Pennsylvania, 1980, p. 70.

The Eastern United States: Harrisburg, Bellefonte, and Boalsburg picture 44

Tidy as can be.

The Eastern United States: Harrisburg, Bellefonte, and Boalsburg picture 45

The porth isn't quite right, but the house is fine. And look, ma, no fences!

The Eastern United States: Harrisburg, Bellefonte, and Boalsburg picture 46

Same form, but with additions. Where's the apple pie?


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