James Betelle, Where Are You?

The Search for a Lost Architect

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The public schools are in the place to us of arms and troops and fleets. They are the nurseries of men. — Rev G. Doane, Inscription on the Cleveland School, Newark

The Marshall School, South Orange, New Jersey

August 15th, 2006 · 1 Comment · Architecture

The Marshall School, 1930

One of the most important contracts for Guilbert & Betelle were the schools of the South Orange and Maplewood School District in New Jersey, where they would eventually design all of the new school buildings up through 1930. The creation of the first school they built, The Marshall School, (named for retiring Board president James Marshall), was significant for both Betelle and the District.

In 1920 the District, under the direction of George E. Low, Chairman of the Building Committee, began an aggressive building program to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding student population. The existing buildings were cramped, hazardous (there were numerous fires over the years) and ill-equipped.

This was not a new realization, and indeed a number of strategically located parcels of land had already been tentatively selected for schools a number of years before. One of these, on Grove Road in South Orange, was determined to be the best location for the first school.


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Henry W. Foster, Superintendent of the District, wrote in 1929 it “had to be erected in a well-to-do neighborhood, where the inhabitants dreaded the coming of a public school. Many of them were better satisfied to send their children to private schools, and felt that they could well afford to pay the extra cost for conveyance and tuition. That very fact made it advisable to make the school harmonize with the neighborhood, and to erect a beautiful building in attractive grounds.”

In 1920 Betelle was still piecing together his firm, having weathered the death of his partner Ernest F. Guilbert and his own absence overseas during during World War I. As such, he sought out architectural contracts wherever possible (a situation that would reverse itself in a few short years). When Betelle became aware of the District’s school-building program, he contacted the Board about submitting a proposal. Foster explained how Betelle’s design won:

marshall-floorplan.jpg“The superintendent advised Mr. Betelle to go into the neighborhood of the proposed school, make a study for a building which would be as homelike and attractive as any residence there, simple in line and under no circumstances to rise high in the air, with a flat roof, standing out ‘like a sore toe.’ In two or three weeks Mr. Betelle submitted a plan carrying out the interior arrangement desired by the Superintendent with an exterior design which proved entirely satisfactory. While construction was delayed by what seemed too high bids, another plan for a one story building covering a much larger part of the plot was prepared. In order to be entirely sure of the satisfactory appearance of the school the Board had models made of both buildings and set them up in the Board room for comparison. They received bids upon both plans; but the difference in cost was slight, and there was no question of the superiority for its location of the Guilbert & Betelle design, which was adopted.

The Marshall School was soon erected, opening its doors to students in the autumn of 1922. The citizen’s were unanimously pleased with the design, and any obstacles to further school construction in the District were permanently quelled. Three more grade schools soon followed, opening in 1924; Jefferson, Tuscan and Montrose.

Foster nostalgically reflected that he “never passes the Marshall school without a warm feeling of satisfaction because of its beauty, its environment, and the fine school work going on within. In [my] judgement it has not been surpassed in perfect adaptation to its purpose by any building since erected by the district.”

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marshall-entrance.jpgMarshall is a grand-feeling structure, situated on a roughly triangular intersection in a dense but leafy residential area. The overall plan (modern additions aside) is a very simple “H” configuration of a central hall flanked by perpendicular wings. The exterior elements would generally be considered of Betelle’s signature Collegiate Gothic, but with a few curious details that set it apart from other structures of his.

The window clusters on the front of each wing have generally Gothic proportions, but their tops aren’t pointed in the usual manner. The entrance, often the most strikingly clear expression of a building’s intent, is Jacobean in style, featuring a decorative keystone flanked by wreaths and balustrade. The school’s name is set in a Roman typeface, not the more common blackletter font associated with the style.

These nitpicks aside, Marshall does feature many Collegiate Gothic elements: closely spaced rows of windows with decorative limestone surrounds, inlayed medallions and grouped chimney stacks. The gable ends of the wings also feature a unique half-timbered “Tudorbethean” element sometimes employed in the style (used to much improved effect at the Tuscan School two years hence).

marshall-auditorium.jpgA unique interior detail is the school’s gymnasium, which is actually a continuation of the stage floor of the auditorium. A folding wall provided partitioning. My best guess for this configuration was budgetary, as it allowed for a very compact floorplan, whereas a traditional separate gymnasium would have extended the building out further than perhaps was desired. This configuration was also used at the Clinton school, built in 1929.

marshall-overview.jpgToday, Marshall maintains the general appearance it has from completion, although a number of additions have obscured the side and rear elevations, and of course the original paned windows have been replaced by ubiquitous black metal ones. The current lanterns are not original, a chimney stack has been cut down in height and a wheelchair accessibility ramp has replaced the original front steps. Luckily these changes for the most part harmonize well with the original structure, and don’t detract from the original design too much.

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Catherine L. Bumpus // Jan 5, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    I went to Marshall School from K-5, before my parents put us all in Catholic School. I attended Marshall in the 1970’s.
    But as far as I remember, my dad went there, and My Mom also, as well as 6 of the 7 of us, at least for sometime. My older siblings all went there from k-6. We loved it there, and loved being able to walk there and go home for lunch. I distinctly remember the Principal then, and remember walking through that building, and loving the feel of it.
    It was a great school, and I still have friends from those days.
    We drive by it all the time, and it still looks as beautiful as it did back then.

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