Bellefonte was laid out by Colonel James Dunlop and his son-in-law James Harris on hilly terrain adjacent to Spring Creek in 1795. Located near a major gap in Bald Eagle Ridge, it lay at the main entrance to the fertile Nittany Valley. Farms had been developing in the region for at least ten years, and a flour mill was built as early as 1785. The region's high quality iron ore encouraged the establishment of iron furnaces and forges in the early 1790s. The iron industry and, after 1857, the rail lines that carried its raw materials and finished products spurred Bellefonte's economic growth. However, the slowdown of industrial development meant that Bellefonte retained a large number of handsome nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century buildings. Houses built in the various revival styles popular at the turn of the twentieth century line the streets that are laid out in a grid over the hilly terrain. The Miles-Humes House (203 N. Allegheny Street) epitomizes the local evolution of architectural taste. Built by ironmaster Joseph Miles between 1814 and 1816, it was acquired by banker E. C. Humes in 1895, who added Colonial Revival trim and enlarged the dormer. At 120 W. Lamb Street, the stone Gothic Revival St. John's Episcopal Church (1871) emphasizes verticality with its elongated corner steeple and lancet windows. The former Gamble Mill at W. Lamb and Dunlop streets, now converted to a restaurant, points to Bellefonte's industrial origins. Bellefonte's commercial prosperity in the last decades of the nineteenth century is reflected in the highly textured Queen Anne–style Crider Exchange Building (c. 1889; 103–117 N. Allegheny Street) and the neighboring stone First National Bank (1889; W. High and N. Allegheny streets).
Several buildings designed by the commonwealth's first female registered architect, Anna Wagner Keichline, survive in Bellefonte ( CE3). To her credit are houses at 177 E. Curtin Street (1916) and 412 E. Linn Street (1930), a model house at 440 N. Spring Street (1936), and the B. O. Harvey houses of 1935 and 1939 at 121 E. Curtin and 518 N. Allegheny streets.
The town square, or diamond, at Allegheny and High streets is the town's centerpiece. However, the shores of Spring Creek have taken on a new life since the 1960s, when plans were drawn to create Talleyrand Park here. Bellefonte is said to have received its name from French diplomat Charles-Maurice Talleyrand-Perigord, who visited the area during his two-year banishment in the United States (1794–1796). As he traveled the forested regions in search of commodities and real estate, he was shown the local spring and is said to have declared, “La belle font!” After a period of industrialization, the banks of the creek were obscured by undistinguished buildings, but in the 1970s, local citizens and their representatives commissioned a gazebo and, later, footbridges and the George Gray Barnard Sculpture Garden. In 2006, they restored the stone pump house of 1926 to create a welcoming water feature at the base of the town. George Barnard, another Bellefonte native, is best known as the collector of medieval architectural artifacts that make up the core of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Cloisters collection.
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