La Bella Fontana

Report from Bellefonte PA, by Helen Fontana Bechdel

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.