James Betelle, Where Are You?

The Search for a Lost Architect

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Who dares to teach must never cease to learn. — John Cotton Dana, Inscription over entrance of the Newark Normal School

A Newark State of Mind

August 6th, 2006 · No Comments · Diary

Driving to Newark isn’t for the faint of heart. Exiting Route 280 into the bowels of the city is like being swallowed by a mobius strip; once you’re inside, there’s no escape. And yet there I was, this past Saturday morning, navigating the one-way (No left turn! No right turn!) streets in a vain attempt to find the parking lot for the Newark Public Library (NPL). I could swear that street I was just on was one-way in the other direction…

I ventured down into Newark with the promise of riches; a librarian at the NPL had found in the clippings archive (“the morgue”, in library parlance) of The Newark Evening News 87 articles on James Betelle. 87! And further, they had folders of architectural information for his buildings in Newark.

I eventually found the lot, parked, and heaved my backback full of gear (two cameras, a computer, a scanner) up to the NJ History Room in the Library. The Newark Library is a jewel of a building; a central hall reaches to a stained-glass vault ceiling with each of three floors comprising galleries all around. The librarian pulled the Betelle microfilm reel and set me up at a reader. Unlike larger libraries which use debit cards to make printouts, the NPL has a coin box on the side of the reader that requires exact change of $.15 per copy; so he took my $5 bill and give me a paper cup filled with nickels. I lined them up on the reader in stacks of three like a little old lady at Caesar’s slots.

james-betelle-newarker2.jpgI began scooting through the microfilm and was hit with an overwhelming number of JOB articles. Many were dry accounts of Chamber of Commerce affairs (JOB was president of the CoC for a number of years), some were accounts of schools being planned/budgeted/approved. A few articles were fluff-pieces celebrating 20 years of Guilbert & Betelle. One or two snippets of JOB’s travels to-and-from Europe. There was his obituary (two of them, to be precise). They will be recounted in a separate post, but they do confirm his death (and burial) in Florence, Italy. All-in-all, this material has given me a much more rounded picture of Betelle, his life and work. It will take me some time to disseminate it all.

And then there’s Marie. A few articles on Marie Betelle were so astoundingly bizarre and hysterical, they bear special treatment. I won’t spoil what they contain here, but suffice to say the woman was…unique.

james-betelle-newarker-portrait.jpgAfter I finished with the microfilm ($10 worth of nickels later), the librarian gave me two folders of photographs from Maplewood and South Orange. The SO folder had lots of neat old photos, but nothing of specific interest here. The Maplewood one was a different story; in it I found some period photos of Jefferson School, The Maplewood Municipal Building, and about ten photos of Columbia High Schoolunder construction. These are wonderful, evocative images, which I hope to post soon (I am holding off as a courtesy to the NPL until I get proper clearance).

I then found three issues of The Newarker, a Chamber of Commerce publication, which had a number of articles concerning JOB. The articles themselves aren’t particularly interesting (boring CoC business, but I haven’t studied them closely enough yet), but they did give me some nice new clear photos of Betelle, which can be seen here. The magazine had lots of nifty ads for local services, but none from Guilbert & Betelle. Betelle being the upstanding-sort, I imagine he would have seen advertising his business in conflict with his CoC position.

The Essex ClubAt this point I was so tired from all the microfilm reading and photo scanning and picture taking, that didn’t have the energy to look at the Newark building photographs. Another time. I left the library and quickly walked over to see the Essex Club (now the New Jersey Historical Society) of which JOB designed and was a member. It’s a lovely traditional Colonial structure, and abuts the original Robert Treat hotel, also a G&B design.

I went back to the car satisfied with the day’s catch, and plowed into the streets again, hoping the ramp to Route 280 would present itself with ease and clarity. And it did–three wrong turns and one mistaken highway entry later.

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