La Bella Fontana

Report from Bellefonte PA, by Helen Fontana Bechdel

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Tiny things hit home in big ways

A Saturday in town could be just an ordinary day or, if you add it all up, an extraordinary one filled with pleasures that defy the putdown implied in the word "feel-good."

May 7, was that kind of Saturday for me.

First thing in the morning, a boy in a baseball uniform came to the door collecting for Little League. His father smiled from the sidewalk as I asked, "Are there girls on the team? Do they get to play?"

When he answered "yes" to both questions, I stuffed a dollar in his canister, thinking of the old days when the game was strictly for boys.

At the market, the bakery lady ran after a customer who had asked for sticky rolls. She had found one last package in her van and was happy to sell it to him. The egg lady eyed my torn jeans, which she could use for a rug she is weaving out of old ones -- as soon as I find time to get a new pair.

Cutting through the cemetery, I wondered why the caretaker stopped his mower. He wanted to make sure that nothing got thrown out at me from the blade.

On Howard Street, I looked over items at a yard sale and found out from the homeowner how to identify good cast iron. I may make a fortune yet.

Back on my street, two little boys took turns with a bike. One was barefoot -- a sure sign of warmer weather after a bone-chilling spring.

At evening services, Deacon Tom read a letter to mothers everywhere, thanking them for all the little things they do. And little things are what this day was all about, at least until I got home at 6 p.m. to watch the Kentucky Derby.

Jeremy Rose, riding Afleet Alex, the sentimental favorite to win, fought his way to what looked like the lead. As everyone now knows, he came in third in a breathtaking finish.

When I had Jeremy in senior homeroom, I missed him one morning when I took attendance. He came up to me later and said, "Mrs. Bechdel, you marked me absent this morning. I was there."

It's true. I didn't see him in the back of the room that day, but I couldn't miss him in his green-and-gold jockey silks riding a gorgeous horse in the country's biggest race.

For one Saturday in May, it was great to look past the irony and suspicion of our times and enjoy life's simple pleasures without apology.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Museum artifact on display in Pittsburgh

The cover of the Sunday Magazine section in the April 24 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette carries an image of a powder horn with an incised design of Fort Pitt.

If the artifact looks familiar to local residents, the caption underneath explains why:

"The horn, to be on display in the 'Clash of Empires' exhibition at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, is owned by the Centre County Library and Historical Museum in Bellefonte."

The powder horn is the museum's oldest item, dating from the French and Indian War, which is the focus of the exhibit at the Heinz Center. From Pittsburgh, the exhibit will travel to Canada and then to the Smithsonian before it makes its way back to the Centre County Historical Museum.

On any given day, Joyce Adgate, who manages the collection at the museum, may be fielding questions from families looking for their ancestors, cataloguing acquisitions, researching queries, filing and clipping andputting up or taking down exhibits. So I felt lucky the other day when she left her desk in the Pennsylvania Room to take me on a private tour of the museum.

One case in the main room holds American Indian artifacts such as arrowheads, drills, pottery and beaded leggings. In the military case is a Civil War cavalry saber and items from the War of 1812 and the French and Indian War. A wedding bouquet from 1838 sits under a glass bell.

The presence of women is a strong influence, from an inlaid sewing chest made in Ireland in 1888 to embroidered samplers and a book, "The Alphabet of Thought," by Anne Harris, daughter of the founder of Bellefonte, printed at a time when women were not supposed to know how to write.

The Linn Room is furnished with pieces from the estate of Mary Hunter Linn, including the gown worn by Mary Wilson to Abraham Lincoln's inaugural ball, which might fit today's fifth-grader. A cupboard spills over with gloves, jewelry and hats, including one very jaunty one from 1880 trimmed with a cascade of iridescent rooster feathers.

The Sieg Room depicts the history of Titan, now Cerro Metal Products, and other Bellefonte industries, such as glass and silk, matches and nails. A piano -- one of the first in town -- an ornately carved table and a magnificent Duncan Phyfe settee lend an air of quiet refinement to the setting.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Side streets hide town's true beauty

Originally uploaded by Alison Bechdel.
By Helen Bechdel

For the Center Daily Times

Tours of Bellefonte typically direct the visitor to look at the town from the perspective of its main streets, where historic buildings and residences predominate. But a walk along the lanes behind these streets presents a different picture entirely.

Carriage houses, stables and other outbuildings line the lanes, or alleys as they were formerly named, recalling a more muscular era before the appearance of the first automobile. Even though they have been converted to other uses, these structures retain many of their original architectural features.

On East Cherry Lane, behind the Undine Fire Company, a row of stables still looks as it must have in an earlier age. Built of stone, stucco and block, each a bit different from its neighbor, they resemble a mews in an old English village.

On West Cherry Lane, the outline of the original arch is still visible in a converted brick carriage house. Step-sided end walls and a gable surround a pitched roof. Another house at the end of the lane has undergone more of a transformation with its wrought-iron trim and picture window.

Decatur Lane, from Howard Street to Lamb Street, claims three carriage houses on the properties of large homes facing Allegheny Street. One is a private residence, one has been converted to apartments, and the third has recently been painted and restored to blend with the historic nature of its location.

Church Lane almost could have a walking tour of its own, starting from its intersection with Armor Street and heading west. The carriage house located at the rear of the Bellefonte Victorian Manor still contains two horse stalls with space for carriages and feed. Farther along is a brick stable with a hay door, and toward Allegheny street, a restored board-and-batten carriage house rises to an impressive height.

Most of the buildings encountered along the lanes of Bellefonte could be described as functional and relatively free of ornament. That description does not apply, however, to the ornate shingle-and-stone carriage house at the corner of Locust Lane and West Church, behind the Reynolds Mansion.

With its finial-topped ventilators, "flying" roof line and rounded windows, it is an architectural gem in its own right. You almost expect to hear the clatter of an elegant carriage turning down the drive.

To really do justice to an inside view of Bellefonte would require research on a large order. My examples are just a start.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Park is a treasure

Talleyrand Park, with its traditional design and established landscaping, may look to the first-time visitor as if it has always been there.

But in fact, leveling of the derelict buildings that stood on the site took place only 34 years ago, the first step in a project that overcame countless obstacles to become the place of beauty it is today.

The park design was approved by the borough in 1975. The gazebo was completed in 1976, the sculpture garden in 1983 and the playground in 1993. An expansion of the park onto property owned by the American Philatelic Society is under way.

Entering the park by the train station, visitors see a brick promenade leading to a pergola over which wistaria vines are starting to climb. Shrubbery and trees are set in formal designs based on gardening booklets and women's journals from the late 18th century.

To the left is the gazebo, functioning as a bandstand, wedding chapel and speaker's platform.

Beyond that, Spring Creek offers ducks and trout equal opportunity to compete for food as the water gushes toward Milesburg. On High Street Bridge in the late afternoon, I watch trout gather as a little boy throws food to them.

David Morrell, author of "First Blood," spoke at Penn State several years ago and explained that the setting of the novel -- Madison, Ky., -- is actually Bellefonte. I am standing where Rambo (named after the apple, by the way) notices the glass fish-food dispenser welded to the railing and wonders what the big gold fish is below.

Many individuals and organizations contributed to the park project, but the Talleyrand Park Citizens' Committee probably was the most persistent in its determination to bring its vision to reality. Among their 25 or so members, Mary Miai was a passionate and persuasive supporter. A weeping cherry tree has been planted in the park in her memory.

Artifacts and relics play an important part in the historically named Talleyrand Park. The fountain on the brick walkway was once in front of the courthouse. The wrought-iron fence that surrounds George Gray Barnard's head of Lincoln came from the Brockerhoff Mansion. And at the far end of the sculpture garden, a granite watering trough reads, "Presented to James A. Beaver 1910."

But the park is really about people. Three artists were at work when I visited recently, and children were whooping it up on the playground. The only way I could leave was by promising myself I would be back soon.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Gardens are ripening all around town

I started thinking about gardens last Sunday while visiting the James and Barbara Palmer exhibition at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State.

There, among all the outstanding works by artists such as George Luks, born in Williamsport, and John Sloan, born in Lock Haven, a watercolor by Charles Demuth, of Lancaster, seemed to leave its frame and imprint itself on my brain.

Simply titled "Eggplants and Tomatoes," the painting was so realistic I could feel the weight of the vegetables in my hand. Their plumpness and rich colors triggered a longing for local produce after a long winter of supermarket imports.

The next day, I saw Major Keller working in his garden, which faces Simpson Street. He had just planted two rows each of onions, radishes and lettuce. He talked to me about the days when he and his wife would can 75 quarts of tomatoes and how 30 minutes after picking them, the vegetables would be in the freezer.

Downtown, Jim's backyard plot is as orderly as a monastery garden, with neat squares marked off and walkways in between. Collards, kale and mustard greens are already in the ground. Last year's parsley, which I picked until snow covered it over, has seeded itself and is cropping up along the wall.

Out in Zion, Sharon's peas, which she planted two and a half weeks ago, are up about an inch. Lettuce in cold frames is up also. The onion sets have just arrived, and soon the sweet potatoes will be in.

Not having a garden myself, I walk through town enjoying the sights of other people's gardens, picking lettuce and other greens when invited -- but sometimes a tomato just seems to fall into my hand.

I was too late in the fall for Melady's broccoli. When I cut into the emerald green stalks, they were frozen solid.

The farmers' market in front of the historical museum is officially open year-round, but during the winter, only a couple of hardy vendors show up. Polly Fleming, of Spring Mills, says she will have asparagus in a couple of weeks. Lois, from Howard, has a new greenhouse and has set some seeds. I will be waiting.

At Triangle Supplies, two wire racks hold all kinds of vegetable seeds, from arugula to zucchini. Woodring's Greenhouse on Ridge Street has started their tomato and pepper plants.

The ground has warmed up. The rest is up to the gardeners and the weather gods.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Children an integral part of any town

A story ran in The New York Times last month that described a shortage of children in some major cities. In Portland, Ore., the number of school-age children has gone up by only three in 10 years. Seattle has more dogs than children. Schools are closing.

It is hard to imagine a town without kids, because here they are such a vital part of the town, with more than 3,000 enrolled in the school system.

And now with warmer weather, indoor activities are switching to outdoors, and the kids are coming out to play. Hopscotch squares and chalk drawings are back on the sidewalks.

The toy store downtown is stocking up on kites, boomerangs and rocket cars that run on baking soda.

Sandboxes and swing sets are seeing some action. Down at the playground, boys are shooting baskets in a game that never seems to stop.

Everyone has wheels. Bicycles, pedal cars and sleek silver Razor scooters stream past my porch. A girl on in-line skates swings down the street. Kids drive by in their battery-operated cars like kings of the sidewalk.

Some games kids play are the same ones children have played for generations. Rhett Walsh, owner and manager of Pure Imagination on High Street, sells real metal jacks, but mostly to parents or grandparents who plan to teach the kids how to play the game. Paddle balls are sold out right now, but marbles and jump-ropes are in.

I'm not sure if kids know the old jump-rope rhymes -- "Cinderella," "Down in the Meadow," "Teddy Bear" and my favorite "A, my name is Alice," where you jumped in on a letter of the alphabet and finished the chant with examples such as "My husband's name is Adam, we live in Arkansas, and we sell apples."

The sidewalks of a town are part playing field, part parade ground and part art gallery.

Rhett says that his idea of opening a toy store in Bellefonte began when he attended a yard sale on Linn Street, noticed the chalk drawings on the sidewalk and thought how neat it would be to have a shop in a town where street games were still played.

When I was growing up, I knew every bump in the sidewalks because I traveled them on my skates, the old type that locked onto your shoes. My skates were second-hand, but I didn't care. When I whizzed through town, the wind was at my back and I felt as if I could conquer the world.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Architect was ahead of her time

Anna Keichline, born in Bellefonte in 1889, was the first female architect registered in the state. Locally, she is honored by a state historical marker in front of the Plaza Centre, a gallery on the second floor of the Brockerhoff and an array of distinctive homes and buildings in the borough.

The Cadillac Building at the corner of West Bishop and South Allegheny streets, where state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-College Township, has his office, is an Anna Keichline design.

Perhaps not as well- known are the contributions Keichline made to the field of kitchen design. The word "ergonomic" probably had not been coined in her time, but she understood early on the importance of cutting down on the backbreaking labor that most kitchens demanded.

Keichline's great-niece Nancy Perkins, also an industrial designer, quoted, in the Spring 1991 issue of Innovations, one of the objectives of a kitchen patent granted to Keichline in 1926: "To improve construction of the various objects in the kitchen for increasing the comfort of the housekeeper as well as reducing her work."

Keichline did not think that a woman should need a ladder to reach the top shelves of a cabinet or that she should have to stoop to reach items on the bottom shelves. And cupboards should have glass doors so you can see what's inside.

Having lived a long time now with Formica counters the color of a York Peppermint Patty, I keep a file of kitchen ideas with the hope of remodeling some day. Glass doors, I see, are now available as an alternative to closed boxes hung on the walls. Keichline would approve.

But I'm not so sure what she would have thought about the current trend of under-the-counter drawers. Ads for one upmarket appliance company show a model wearing skinny pants and high heels squatting in front of the drawer of a floor-level fridge. My autumn-gold number is about 30 years old, but it has the freezer on the bottom with food storage at eye level.

Keichline worked hard all her life on the projects she believed in, starting with an oak table that won a prize at the Centre County fair when she was 14. She was awarded seven patents in all, working from her office in the Temple Court Building on South Allegheny Street.

Anna Keichline was not just a woman ahead of her time, she was a woman ahead of our times. Until someone invents an eye-level dishwasher, mine -- which died last winter -- will not be replaced.