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

Betelle in “Pencil Points”

February 3rd, 2007 · No Comments · Architecture, Articles

An interesting architecture magazine I discovered is Pencil Points: A Journal for the Drafting Room. Running from 1920 to 1943, Pencil Points was produced by, and for, working architects, not the more general public as with titles like Architecural Record.

Pencil Points Reader is a recent collection of articles spanning the journal’s run. It gives a great feel for what it was like to work in architecture at that time, and how they dealt with the Depression and the onslaught of European Modernism.

Nothing in the Reader mentions James Betelle, but he is in the June, 1931 issue. He took park in an Architect’s and Producer’s Symposium, discussing their “mutual problems”.

Betelle contributed about a page on the subject. It’s mostly dry stuff, but here are a few excerpts where he takes a decidedly curt tone in regards to contractors:

JAMES O. BETELLE
of Guilbert & Betelle, Architects, Newark, N.J., Says:

“Those who are most intimately connected with the production of a building consist primarily of the following: the owner, the architect, the general contractor, the subcontractor, and the producer. The modern general contractor, for reasons which we are all familiar with, is interested almost entirely in price; quality receives comparatively little valuation. As price is a dominant factor to the general contractor, the subcontractor finds he must meet price competitor, and the producer of a quality article finds that he is also forced to meet price competition and his quality line suffers accordingly.

“There is no one connected with the production of a building better able to understand, or in a better position to insist upon and obtain, quality than the architect. Price and quality are inseparable and for this reason the architect’s position will become relatively more important as price competition and standardization force the architect more and more to be the judge of quality. By the right of the contract between the owner and the contractor, and through the medium of his plans and specifications, the architect can become the sole judge of quality, and he can back up his judgement, if necessary, by the legal machinery of the country.

“The general contractor, in the form in which he exists today, is a product of this day and generation. Unlike the master builders of the past, he oftentimes has no intimate knowledge of craftsmanship or building materials. In many cases he has gradually lost touch with craftsmanship and quality so that now administrative, distributive, financial, and similar activities have taken up practically all of his time. In other words, he has developed into a broker and financier, rather than an actual builder, and he oftentimes subcontracts the entire work.”

Betelle makes another, more interesting appearance in this issue of Pencil Points, which I will reveal in a follow-up post.

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