James Betelle, Where Are You?

The Search for a Lost Architect

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Guilbert & Betelle are teaching us how we may learn to look away for a time from a too close dependence upon historical styles and to walk alone for a season into a more nearly American style of Architecture. — Rawson W. Haddon, Modern American School Houses

Unfinished Stones

April 2nd, 2007 · 2 Comments · Biographical, Diary

After a 4-6 week wait, I finally received a copy of James Betelle’s will from the New Jersey State Archives (along with some court documents, which I will discuss at a later date).

I had already seen a few pages from a 1930 version, acquired from the American Institute of Architect’s archives. Written when Betelle was still clearly successful, The ’30 draft earmarks donations to various institutions in his name, and directing his estate be left to his associates, Charles Bauer and Grant AC Behee.

This final will, written in 1952, is concise and contains no such altruism. He left the entirety of his estate to the care of his lawyer and friend, William K. Flanagan. But what stood out to me were the particulars of his burial request. Betelle wrote:

“I direct my body to be interred in Riverview Cemetery, Wilmington, Delaware, in the plot formerly owned by James Barton, my deceased uncle, and John W. Betelle, my deceased father, which said plot is now owned by me…I give and bequeath to the Riverview Cemetery Company the sum of Two Hundred ($200.00) Dollars for the perpetual care of my plot in the said cemetery, and the monument thereon erected.”

Given that Betelle was buried in Florence, Italy, two questions came to mind; why was his request not honored, and what became of the plot? In the grand scheme neither question is important to the details of the man’s life, but as I’ve written before, I will go to absurd lengths to answer seemingly trivial questions.

My first step was to contact the cemetery. A cursory search for a phone number of the cemetery turned up the frustrating fact that Riverview, a very old cemetery, had fallen into bankruptcy and was taken over by the state. Ergo, no office, no records (a book regarding the cemetery was released a few years ago, Reading the Stones).

It was in this search that a happened to do a quick check on Betelle’s name at the website Find A Grave. The site was familiar, as I had done the same search nearly a year ago when this project first started. Nothing had turned up then. I’m not sure why I plugged his name in again, there was no reasonable cause to do so. Good thing I did, though. This time something did turn up, and it blew my socks off.

Staring back at me was a search result that listed not just James Betelle, but three other members of his family; father John, mother Annie, and an older brother Alfred who, for obvious reasons, was previously unknown to me.

Clicking the link, I discovered this photograph of the Betelle Family gravestone. By sheer luck, karma or coincidence, the photo had been snapped by Find a Grave member Keith Sylwestrzuk at the end of January–explaining why I hadn’t seen it on my last search of the site.

Keith told in an email that it was just one of many stones he was shooting randomly that day. Little did he know the can of worms this photo would have – questions immediately filled my head; why isn’t James’ death filled in? If he had the stone made, why does it look so new? If he didn’t make it, who did?

I managed to track down the son of Betelle’s lawyer, a very kind man who enthusiastically spoke to me of his father and his own recollections of Betelle (which I will save for another post). In terms of the will and Betelle’s request for interment on this site, he didn’t know what might have transpired. He did recall his father telling him that Betelle’s burial in Florence, a seat of art, culture and architecture, was “fitting”.

I have a few other leads on this mystery, which I hope to follow up on soon. In any case, this has proven to be a bittersweet discovery. On one hand, it’s nice to see that the Betelle Family has a marker, but that James isn’t buried there, and worse- not fully inscribed- is a pity.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Don // Jul 6, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    Keep up the good work! I am a genealogist and researcher of Newark history, since my family is from there.

  • 2 Don // Jul 6, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    By the way, I was formerly an architect as well!

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