Centre County was, for the first half century or so of its history, cut off from more populated areas of Pennsylvania by the “Endless Mountains,” the long folded Appalachians that can be seen from nearly every point in the County.
Because this isolation limited exposure to new architectural ideas, early local building styles – folk housing – repeated styles that were similar to what had been built by the County’s first British and German settlers. As these styles changed over the years to meet an owner or builder’s own needs and ideas, they took on a vernacular style, meaning common or local.
While vernacular houses, plus conservative versions of earlier British styles continued to be built throughout the 1800s, new Victorian styles began to be introduced mid-century. Victorian fashion came to Centre County in architectural pattern books and popular journals, and through the arrival of railroads bringing news of other places and other ideas. By the 1860s, the county was being swept into the nation’s cultural mainstream. Architectural examples of a full range of Victorian styles – from Gothic Revival to Queen Anne – can be found throughout the County.
After the turn of the century, county residents had the opportunity to choose what best fitted their needs from a new set of increasingly available national styles. Craftsman Bungalows, Prairie-style Foursquares, Dutch and English Colonial Revivals, highly detailed English Tudor Revival homes, and even buildings in the International and Moderne styles were available through architect-designed plans, pattern books, and mail-order catalogs.
These first dwellings, constructed by early settlers to provide ready shelter until more substantial homes could replace them, were built with logs cut and shaped by hand. The gaps between the logs were filled or “chinked” with a mortar of lime, sand, clay, and horsehair, held in place by chunks of wood and crushed limestone. Most often the corners were notched and fitted together with a diamond or V-notch for structural security; window openings were usually small. Sometimes, as the family grew larger and became more prosperous, the log building was incorporated into a larger dwelling.
Vertical plank construction also was used for early houses. The planks were mortise and tenoned into heavy timbers used to form the outside frame, or in some cases, two overlapping layers of vertical planks were fitted into horizontal sills. Horizontal siding – clapboard or weatherboard – usually covered the planks, although occasionally vertical battens were used where the planks were joined.
Heavy Timber Braced Frame Construction
Large heavy hewn timber joined with a series of mortise and tenon joints was another method of construction. For additional strength, each major portion of the structure was supported by a diagonal brace, also joined with a mortise and tenon cut.
Two Common Styles
The English I-house, was a simple and symmetrical rectangular two-story house, one-room deep, with internal chimneys in either gable end. The entrance was usually located in the center of the front facade.
The German central chimney plan had a deep fireplace dominating the kitchen, and a front door that was off center. Sometimes one story and sometimes two, these German-style houses ranged from two to four rooms in size.
Pennsylvania Bank Barns
First built by German settlers, these barns have become an important symbol of Pennsylvania architecture. They were usually built into the side of a hill to give an entrance on two levels. The upper floor would allow vehicle access to be used for storing grain and hay, while the lower floor was used for housing animals. A cantilevered overhang or forebay, often facing south or east and supported by the extension of end walls, provided additional shelter from the weather to animals kept on the lower floor.
Patterned after houses built in England during the reign of the three King Georges, formal versions of the Georgian style became popular for large homes in eastern American cities in the eighteenth century, with smaller and simpler versions built in rural towns, villages, and country settings. In Centre County, Georgian houses and vernacular versions were built throughout much of the nineteenth century, making Georgian one of the county’s most prevalent early styles. Pattern books provided local carpenters with examples and with details. At least a few early area houses appear to have been designed with Asher Benjamin’s popular American Builder’s Companion (1806) in use.
Georgian houses are symmetrical, well proportioned, rectangular in shape, and in some cases fairly formal in design. They are usually two stories; the ridge pole of their gabled roofs run parallel to the road. In Pennsylvania villages and towns these houses were commonly built close together and close to the street or sidewalk, with room for only a small front stoop or porch. Small barns or outbuildings are often found at the back of long, narrow village lots.
The standard room placement in these Georgian houses is four rooms to a floor, “four over four”, opening off a central hall, with interior chimneys at each of the outer or gabled ends of the house. Two story wings were commonly added to the rear, creating an L or T in the floor plan.
The entrance doorway is the chief feature of the front facade; windows are evenly
spaced and directly in line with each other and the doorway, adding to the symmetry of these houses. Most often there are five windows or bays at the second level; two windows, a door, and another two windows at the first floor. The windows usually are double hung and often have six panes per sash.
Doors are almost always topped with a rectangular transom light or a more elaborate decorative fanlight arch. Shutters at the lower floor are most often paneled; the upper shutters are usually louvered.
Centre County Georgian houses were built of hand cut field stone, wood, or brick. Sometimes the stone was roughly coursed, fitted in uneven shapes and sizes, sometimes laid in regular courses, and sometimes carefully square cut in an ashlar finish. Common, Flemish, and English bond brick patterns were used in double or triple widths throughout the county. Often English or Flemish bond were used for the front elevation of a house; common bond was used on the sides and back elevations.
Half Georgian – Row House
A common house-type variation is a half Georgian, a hall with two rooms arranged along one of its sides, as if one side of the house has been lopped off. The style is similar to a basic Philadelphia or Baltimore eighteenth century row house.
The Federal style, an American innovation incorporating classical details, is similar to the Georgian style in balance and symmetry and in proportion and decoration. It, too, first appeared in coastal cities, but eventually was adapted elsewhere in simpler or vernacular forms. Brick construction was common with flat arches or lintels used above the windows, and dentil molding added along the roofline. Low pitched gable roofs with stepped gable chimneys are common locally. A rectangular transom light made up of small panes or often an elliptical fanlight was added above the main entry door, and narrow windows or sidelights were placed at either side of a paneled door. The floor plan is very similar to the Georgian four over four. While city examples might have classical porticos, a simple porch is common for local examples.
As Americans gained pride and confidence in their new Democratic government, they begin to link their ideals more closely with the democratic accomplishments of the ancient Greeks. The Greek Revival style, incorporating permanence, classical proportions and ornamentation, spread rapidly along the coast and into the frontier. Simple, orderly, and symmetrical in design and often painted white, buildings were turned so that their gable entrance faced the road. They were built to resemble Greek temples with columns, triangular pediments, and porticos or porches, triangular-shaped porch roofs supported by the columns. The style became especially popular for public buildings.
The Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte is a good example. Originally a small limestone and brick building, it received its present front facade in 1835. Greek Revival also was used in a simplified form for smaller buildings. While the courthouse columns are large (each twenty-six feet), classical in style, and support the pediment, the simulated columns or pilasters on the former Methodist Church in Pine Grove Mills are flat against the surface of the building. The gable or pointed end of the building, rather than a porch roof, acts as the pediment. While the Greek Revival style was not common in Centre County for residential use, touches such as Greek porch columns, were occasionally added to Georgian houses.
The Victorian Age
The Victorian Age was an age of romanticism — a time of fascination with the whimsical, with the long ago and far away, and it soon caught the fancy of an increasingly confident society of Americans. Freedom of expression combined with imagination and nostalgia to create a lively, unconventional, complex series of architectural designs. Texture, color and asymmetry replaced the simplicity and the balanced symmetry of earlier architectural styles. The term "Victorian" refers to several styles rather than just one and reflects an entire period, roughly from the 1850s to the early 1900s in Centre County.
Because of an increased interest in architecture, house building became a subject of fashion. Prospective home owners could choose from a growing number of design options in illustrated pattern books and journals that sold like magazines. Centre County residents were no longer isolated by the mountains from the newest fashions; instead, aware of the latest in architectural styles they could use them for their own homes.
Architect Alexander Jackson Davis with his book, Rural Residences, and influential landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing with his enormously popular books, The Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening and Rural Architecture, and The Architecture of Country Houses, set the stage for an increasingly picturesque selection of housing types, villas and cottages specifically designed for the middle class.
A new method of construction — balloon framing — provided a strong skeleton on which walls could be hung. Lightweight wooden studs, joists, and rafters, supported by a foundation and sill, and fastened together with nails, were tightly woven together with each component strengthening the other. Siding was applied directly to the frame. Freed from the strict rectangular Georgian form used in the heavy framing technique, it was possible to construct complex, rambling houses using the balloon framing method, and by the end of the nineteenth century a balloon frame house was judged to be virtually the only kind of structure for a proper home.
Downing's writings promoted national pride in America's progress, and increased an American awareness of luxuries and refinements, domesticity and stability, architectural beauty and the beauty of the landscape. He specifically favored an architectural landscape that followed or promoted the modern or natural style of design over the formal and geometric arrangements of earlier styles, because he felt that turrets, towers, peaks, and the irregular form of the building and roofline blended better with the natural style — a landscape "where nature assisted in the creation of beautiful homes and gardens."