James Betelle, Where Are You?

The Search for a Lost Architect

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An architect should be a man with broad cultural training, and conversant and familiar with all topics and things. — James O. Betelle

Time Magazine – “School Builder”

July 19th, 2006 · No Comments · Articles, Biographical

This short piece appeared in the Arts section of the August 24th, 1931 issue of Time Magazine. While it doesn’t offer much new factual information about JOB, it does paint a more rounded picture of his life than what we know so far. Hey, he was bald! Note: Updated to include the accompanying photograph and cover.

SCHOOL BUILDER

Time MagazineProud were the friends and admirers of Architect James O. Betelle of Newark, N. J., last week and proud was Architect Betelle. He had just sent out the plans for Newark’s new Weequahic High School. With that building up, Architect Betelle could say that his firm had designed and supervised the erection of $100,000,000 worth of U. S. educational structures, an all-time world record.

The story behind his success is one which bald, smiling School Builder Betelle, eschewing the characteristic reticence of most successful architects, takes pleasure in reciting. Born to a disadvantaged family in Wilmington, Del. 52 years ago, he got his early training in a Philadelphia drafting room. In 1900 he went to Manhattan to work for famed Cass Gilbert. He saved his money, worked hard, went abroad in 1905. Five years later he formed a partnership with Ernest F. Guilbert, moved to a small office in Newark. They plugged along until 1916, when Mr. Guilbert died. Builder Betelle went to War as a captain in the sanitary corps. Demobilized, he set out to make a fresh start.

James O. BetelleIf businessmen prosper by making contacts, boosting, frankly publicizing themselves, why should not architects? Reasoning thus, Builder Betelle associated himself with civic movements, built the Newark Chamber of Commerce Building, was twice elected the Chamber’s president. In 1919, Pierre S. du Pont of Wilmington retired from the gunpowder business, prepared to give Delaware a peerless school system. For him Builder Betelle put up 125 schools. He also planned the normal school at New Britain, Conn., the new State Teachers’ College at Trenton, N. J., nine others elsewhere. Among his 56 high schools are those of Greenwich (Conn.). Newark, Great Neck (L. I.), New Rochelle (N. Y.), the George Fisher Baker Memorial High School at Tuxedo Park, N. Y. He has also built eleven junior high schools, six vocational schools, one reformatory. Builder Betelle does not claim to have made striking innovations in educational plant design, but if a town wants a school built his firm has plenty of experience with which to recommend itself.

From a man who has earned commissions (usually 6%) on $100,000,000 worth of school buildings in 20 years, James O. Betelle’s advice to young architects may carry some weight. “I only know,” says he, “when I was a lad about 17, getting $2 a week, I worked day and night. Many a time I longed to eat ice cream and bought milk instead, be cause I was saving my nickels and dimes. “If these youths . . . adapted themselves to their work, honestly did their part and a little bit more, paying less attention to the office clock, I am certain their employers would take notice of them. . . . One cannot play hard a greater part of the night, and then go to business next morning and work efficiently.”

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