James Betelle, Where Are You?

The Search for a Lost Architect

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I heartily recommend Mr. James O. Betelle of the firm of Guilbert & Betelle. He is a genial man, easy to work with, and considerate of the needs and pocketbook of his clients. — Pierre S. du Pont, Hagley Museum and Library

Marie Betelle Sleeps with the Fishes

September 5th, 2006 · No Comments · Diary

This morning I went down to the Surrogate Court Building in New York to find information on Marie Betelle. According to her obituary, she died living in NYC, so I was hoping to both find a copy of her will and perhaps see what her building looked like (my first walk around that area revealed no structure where I thought it should be).

The Surrogate Court is a big, imposing cube of Beaux-Arts goodness plunked right down on Chambers Street. I crossed the main entrance, and was dazzled by a beautiful, mosaic-lined barrel-vaulted lobby. It was empty, save for a security desk and a metal detector manned by two guards; one big, one little.

After receiving a visitors pass sticker, I went through the detector. I collected my bag on the other side and headed towards the elevator, when the big guard said loudly, “Sir- come here please.”

I turned around, puzzled why they would want to see me after I had cleared security. The guard pointed to a thin, white object on the x-ray display of my backpack. “What is this, sir?”

“That’s an eyeglass screwdriver,” I replied, curious that this mundane object was suddenly under scrutiny. The little guard gave me a “we know it’s silly, but it’s the procedure” look.

“Take it out, please sir,” came the big guard’s unhurried reply.

So I took out the screwdriver and handed it to the big guard. He studied it for a moment, and to my amazement, walked away with it, leaving me standing there with the little guard. To break the silence I offered, “I carry it because my eyeglasses come loose often, so I need to tighten them.” It was the honest, if geeky truth.

A moment later, the big guard returned, morphing into Luca Brasi:

“Sir. I must now confiscate this item from your belongings. I will give you this red sticker with the number ‘8’ on it. I will write down the same number on my own sticker. When your business is completed you will come to this desk and I will return you your item. May your first child be a masculine child.”

Still fighting my amusement at all this procedure over a deadly $1.34 eyeglass screwdriver, I slapped the red sticker on my guest pass, and headed to the elevators.

Up in the records room I found a card for Marie, but she was listed as “Ann Betelle”. Her middle named was listed as Ann in the obituary, and the date was correct, so I was confident it was her. According to the notation of the record, she had no will, which is a disappointment. Nevertheless, I put in a request for the records, which may take up to three weeks to retrieve. The wheels of research move slowly, indeed.

My next stop was the Tax Photographs record room to find Marie’s building. The procedure is thus:

  1. Locate the block and lot of the address in a big book of maps from 1934
  2. Look up the block and lot in another set of books, which in turn gives the proper microfilm reel and section.
  3. Load the microfilm, find the photograph, hope it’s interesting.

It seems to me a couple of summer interns from nearby Pace University could computerize all this so one need only look up the address, but that’s probably asking a lot of a government facility.

Anyway, I didn’t get past step 1, as her address, 450 East 61st Street, was nonexistent; 61st went only up to about #435. Past that was gas works and docks. So either a) Marie’s building was built after 1934 (in which case there wouldn’t be a photograph anyway), b) the obituary printed a typo, or c) she lived in the East River. Hopefully the estate records I get in three weeks will settle this.

My vaguely unsuccessful trip completed, I headed back to the lobby to collect my contraband. The big guard saw me coming.

“Sir, this is the item we are holding for you. I have a red sticker with a number ‘8’. Please give me your sticker with the same number and I shall give you that which belongs to you…”

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