James Betelle, Where Are You?

The Search for a Lost Architect

James Betelle, Where Are You? header image 1

Mr. Betelle was a kindly man who appreciated good work from his employees and had a personal interest in their welfare. The epitaph he chose for Mr. Guilbert’s grave might well be repeated for Mr. Betelle — TO LIVE IN HEARTS WE LEAVE BEHIND IS NOT TO DIE. — Terese A. Coburn, Secretary to Betelle

New Jersey CHS Archives Visit

June 29th, 2006 · No Comments · Diary

Today I drove into New Jersey. It was grey and rainy, as usual.

Montrose SchoolMy first stop was Montrose School, where I took a few pictures. The place is a shambles, it’s criminal. The grass is grown over, the front facade is in disrepair. One of the lanterns is hanging by a single bolt. There are no original leaded windows left. It looks like a haunted house. Apparently it’s now a school for “special needs” students. They don’t deserve a pretty school?

My next stop was the South Orange Library, where they were holding the book “The Evolution of Public Education in a New Jersey School District”, by Henry W. Foster. The inside title is a bit different, “The Evolution of the School District of South Orange and Maplewood new Jersey 1814-1927”. They had two copies. Foster was head of the BOE back in the 20s-30s (I dont recall the exact years, but a plaque honoring him is in Columbia’s front hall).

The Reference librarian was very helpful, and dug out a stack of old folders with News-Record clippings, BOE minutes, photos, etc. One thing interesting was a School Building Survey conducted in 1970, from which I copied some South Mountain info.

I then went right to Fielding. I’ve never really explored the building, and certainly never been inside it. The outside seems in relatively good shape; it looks like it was re-pointed at some point. The interior is a different story. It was chopped up for offices, and is utterly utilitarian. Only the auditorium had a bit of dignity remaining (it’s a cute, smaller, open-roofed interior, like a church rather than the gothic style of the other schools). I peeked into the gym which is now IT. Its funny, the original gym floor is intact, complete with paint lines, right under the metal shelves.

I met with a school board official, who showed me a few old records, but nothing really new or interesting. The main person I was to see wasn’t in, so I headed over to Columbia High School.

CHSColumbia.
I hadn’t been back to CHS in basically 20 years. You know how your old schools tend to look smaller when your older? Not Columbia. This place is HUGE. I forgot how frikkin big it is. The back hallways of A-wing are just endless.

Anyway, I made it up to the Library and met with the librarian. Really nice guy, he’s really into the archival stuff. The archives are in a small back room, and were basically 3-4 filing cabinets and stacks of material on shelves. He let me alone to dig through whatever I wanted.

First off, humorously, I came across, but the end of the visit, 3-4 copies of that eBay book. I thought that was ironic. It’s tiny, but a nice find. The filing cabinets are a treasure trove of CHS history.

-There are tons of photos of class plays, just stacked like cordwood.

-There are Class portraits going back to the Columbia School days (1914ish). Musty old binders of these things. Vintage stuff. I came across first generation copies of many of the published photos of buildings we’ve seen a million times.

– At the back of a bottom drawer I found TWO copies of the Jan 1928 ASBJ. I thought that was funny. It was great to finally see the thing in person (and I got nice clean copies)

– The other filing cabinets weren’t quite as intersting (to me, today). Lots of old record books, more pictures, various annuals, brochures, school play programs, etc. One cabinet was nothing but ooold glass plate photographs. Very fragile, cool stuff, but I didnt have time to really look at them.

– In a bag, hiding in plain site, where two rolls of blueprints. One was a complete set of Betelle’s drawings of First Street School (copies, not original), the other was engineer drawings for Columbia additions.

– In a stack of old clippings books, I found a folder blueprint; Betelle’s drawing for CHS’s stage. It’s pretty neat. I tried to make copies, but it didn’t come out too well (and its big).

That’s basically it. When I was done, the floor was covered with bits of old paper. Stuff is really fragile. The librarian tells me he’s trying to get a state grant to have the archives properly and professionally sorted. I hope he can, it really needs it. There’s a goldmine of stuff in there, but it’s horrible preserved and organized.

After I left there, I walked around the school, checked out my old haunts, and took a bunch of pictures. There was no security to speak of, no one bothered. There were young kids around, doing summer program stuff, but the halls were mostly empty. I wandered into the Pool (I had NEVER seen it before, believe it or not). Stupidly I didn’t take a picture, but it looks pretty much the same as the old photos, minus the chandeliers of course. The ceiling seemed in decent shape.

Being a stage crew guy, I was disgusted by the state of the crew office. It’s just piled with theater crap. No more couch and chairs, nothing.

The front hall was completely redone, it looks great. They restored the plaster reliefs, fixed up the lights and beams, and added a new set of very nice doors. There’s still 4 as opposed to the original 5, but the style matches the originals pretty well. They redid the seal in the floor, but the idiots misspelled “Excelsior” It’s being fixed.

After Columbia I went back to Fielding, and met up with the other person who was going to help me. We looked through some old school board minutes. Pretty dry stuff, but I did read the passage where “The Wyoming Street School” was officially named “South Mountain”. And then I hit gold. She came out with a reprint from the May ’32 Architecture, which had a whole article by and of Betelle’s buildings. One page has a period photo and floor plans of South Mountain. Finally! I told her that alone was worth my trip in. I made copies of just that portion, knowing now I can get the copy again at the NYPL at my leisure (I’d actually love to own this, I wonder how that might be possible?) I’ve attached a scan of the SM plans. I like that in the front hall there’s a dedicated “ticket office”, and that the lovely bay window over the entrance is a toilet.

All that done, I quickly hit Maplewood Library. They had some files of the school, but nothing new. The librarian went back into the mythical Durand Room and pulled out a box of photographs. It had a lot of photos in and around Tuscan school, and some other stuff, but nothing really special. Then I went and took a few quick pix of Jefferson, and then the BOE Maintenance building. I went around back to turn around, and in a pile of junk I found an original inkwell desk, lying on its side. I was tempted to take it, it was in good condition, except the bottom was missing and the lid was screwed down, so didn’t seem worth the bother.

Tags:

0 responses so far ↓

  • There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply