James Betelle, Where Are You?

The Search for a Lost Architect

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The architects who constructed Columbia High School gave us a building that will serve us well for many, many years to come. It is solid, it is comfortable, it is clean and warm and it maintains an educational outlook that is both modern and classic. I don’t think we can ask for much more from our buildings. — American School & University, 1978

“Delaware School Architect Celebrates”

August 25th, 2006 · 2 Comments · Articles

This article was among the morgue clippings of The Newark Evening News, but given its slightly Delaware-centric bias, I don’t believe it’s from that paper. It isn’t dated, so my best guess is it’s from sometime between June and August of 1930, about the same time as other articles noting the 20th anniversary of Guilbert & Betelle. There isn’t much new here, but it does represent the most complete direct quotes from Betelle so far (portions of which had been reprinted in the Time Magazine article).

Delaware School Architect Celebrates
~~
James O. Betelle Marks 20th Anniversary of His Noted Firm

One evening twenty years ago, a young man was sitting in his attic office over an art shop in Newark, N.J., trying to figure out how his partner and himself could keep their business going.

It was apparent to James O. Betelle, native Delawarean, that he would have to do without wages so that needed draftsmen and other expenses might be kept going. That was back in 1910.

The young man in question had previously left a noted firm of New York architects where he was employed, because he could not see why he could not be successful in business for himself when so many other architects had succeeded in their chosen field. He also realized the difficulties encountered by people starting business in the great city with little capital, even if they did have great ability and unlimited energy. It was for that reason that Newark NJ loomed so bright in the eyes of the young man.

So to Newark he came. He had met Ernest F. Guilbert in the office in which he had worked. Both men decided to go into partnership, There was little, if any capital possessed by the two men. However, what they did possess was courage and ability and the great will to work.

Started Early With School Buildings
Betelle, ever interested in educational problems, decided early to make the design of school buildings his specialty. Suddenly there was quite a demand for schools, and the attic office hummed busily, Soon a small salary was drawn by the partners, and everything seemed to be going well, when along came the world war, and like many another heartache suffered in those days, the little attic office was wiped away.

In 1916 Mr. Guilbert died. After the war, very much depleted financially, but not awed in spirit, Mr. Betelle started business all over again. The good work formerly accomplished took immediate hold, and owing to the greater demand for education, work became plentiful.

James O. Betelle worked and studied and so prolific was his work that they moved to large and attractive quarters, and schools and public buildings became their specialty.

When seen at his offices which occupy an entire floor in the Newark Chamber of Commerce Building designed by him, we asked that internationally known architect how he accounted for his success.

Early Sacrifices Required
“I’ll try and tell you what I think,” he said. “When young men come to me seeking positions and complain of difficulties in getting along in their chosen work, I always wonder if down deep in their hears they are really desirous and longing to succeed and willing to get along slowly but surely. I only know 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 a glass of milk instead. Why? Why because I was saving my nickels and dimes. I wanted to go to Europe to study. You see, I was longing to get to the Old World countries like Italy and France to study architecture. My parents were in very modest circumstances and could help me but little. I realized an architect should be a man with broad cultural training, and conversant and familiar with all topics and things.

“Well, I worked hard, perhaps because I loved my work I needed very little play. I was fully repaid when at 25 I was able to get to Italy and France to study.

“Perhaps times are to blame today,” Mr. Betelle said, “but to me it seems very much the same then as now as far as human material is concerned. I have always observed that the fellow who gives himself wholeheartedly and honestly to his work rarely goes long without his reward. I really believe that the road to success in any profession or business is wholeheartedness of purpose, willingness, and being able to cope with difficulties when they come along.”

james-betelle-newarker-portrait.jpgIndividual Character Counts
Mr. Betelle suddenly became a mind reader, for the very next statement answered this question:

“Is modernism and jazz and the craze for pleasure and good times really the cause of so many of the better educated youth becoming failures?”

“Of course the trend of present times may have a great deal to do with so much fine human material going to seed, but I believe much depends on the individual and the stability of his character and makeup. There are just as many, if not more bright and clever young people about us today than ever before. In fact, education has expanded so tremendously and so much easier to obtain that if these youths who are just about to decide on a career for themselves adapted themselves to their work, were honestly doing their part and a little bit more, perhaps paying less attention to the office clock, I am certain that before long, their employer would take notice of them, and their efforts would soon be rewarded.

“One does not have to follow in the footsteps of others if those footsteps are not commendable,” Mr. Betelle said, “One cannot play hard a greater part of the night and the go to business next morning and work efficiently.”

“To sum it all up, I would say to the youth of America– ‘Pick out a profession, business or trade you care about, work hard and faithfully at it, study during your leisure time, and before long results will prove most gratifying.'”

Goes to His Business Daily
A glimpse into the life of the man behind so many beautiful structures must prove interesting, Although at the top rung of the ladder of success, James O. Betelle is to be seen daily at his offices, which are the largest of their kind in the country.

Newark and his adopted State have shown their appreciation of Mr. Betelle by electing him president of their Chamber of Commerce, member of the North Jersey Transit Commission, and a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. Intensely interested in all civic affairs, he is considered on of Newark’s first citizens.

Never too busy or tired to help the other fellow along, this man of great affairs has not let fame and fortune spoil him any.

Designer of most of the schools in New Jersey and many in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, his firm has for the past ten years been the architects for all the schools built in the State of Delaware through the efforts of Pierre S. du Pont. He is considered to be one of the greatest authorities on school building design.

A few of the outstanding buildings in Newark designed by Mr. Betelle are the Essex County Hall of Records, one of the most beautiful monumental buildings int he country, the Robert Treat Hotel, the Chamber of Commerce Building, the exclusive Essex Club, North Ward National Bank which one the prize for the most beautiful building int he city in 1925, also numerous hospitals, banks and public buildings.

Among some of his school are the $2,000,000 High School at Great Neck, L.I., High Schools of New Rochelle and Tarrytown, the beautiful Columbia High School of South Orange, also High Schools in Newark, Summit, Kearny, Morristown, the new Essex County Vocational School for Girls, and now under construction the Newark Public School of Fine and Industrial Arts, which will be, when completed, one of the finest schools of its kind in the country.

Built $70,000,000 Worth of Schools
The firm of Guilbert & Betelle, of which Mr. Betelle is the guiding force, has over $70,000,000 worth of schools to their credit.

Mr. Betelle celebrated the twentieth anniversary of his firm by being at his desk earlier than usual, and working harder than ever.

Except for his annual trips abroad which are taken for the further study of architecture, he rarely takes a vacation. One can find him daily at his work, for Mr. Betelle really practices what he preaches.

Born in Wilmington, educated in Philadelphia art schools, he is internationally known for his great accomplishments in architecture. Which all goes to prove that today’s recipe for success contains the same ingredients of industry, initiative, and integrity as it did yesterday, and if the laws of compensation are still in force, success may be enjoyed by the youth of today and tomorrow if they strive earnestly enough to attain it.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joanne // Jan 4, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    Hi Steve,

    Read the article in the Star -Ledger today and have been reading your posts. Any idea what locations in Massachusetts? I am from there and still go there a lot. Now you have my interest piqued! Plus now I am wondering who designed one of the schools in my home town! Wrong style for him, but now I want to know.
    Thanks for interesting reading.

  • 2 Steve Weintraub // Jan 4, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    Joanne – thanks for checking out the site, I’m glad you like it. Unfortunately, aside from a few references to works done in Massachusetts, I have no actual documentation indicating which ones. It may have been more in a consulting capacity, which Betelle tended to do further out from the Tri-State region.

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