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

A Climb Up Columbia’s Clock Tower

April 10th, 2008 · 2 Comments · Architecture, Diary

CHS Tower This past Saturday I had the rare treat of being given a tour of the clock room and astronomical observatory of Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey.

As an alumnus of CHS, the massive clock tower has always been a source of some mystery. Lucky students have the chance to climb it, either for astronomy or the infamous “egg drop” experiment, but in general it is off limits. Studying the building in detail in relation to my James Betelle research, time and again I’ve read about the great telescope, the sometimes-working clock and rumored mysterious spaces.

Alan Levin, head of the Science Department, was kind enough to indulge my curiosity and meet me on that cool, clear morning to lead me up all those steps. He was full of interesting trivia and observations, which I will pepper throughout. At the end I’ll have a few bonus tidbits.

CHS Tower Stairwell

This stairwell is in a crenelated bay to the side of the tower. On hot days teachers would lounge on its roof.

The main stairwell leading to up the tower brings us to a landing at the base of the clock room. Doors here lead to the old “Female Teacher’s Lounge” and access to the roof and storage space under the gables. Behind a door and up one set of twisting steps brings us to the clock room (I’ve annotated a photo of the tower to make the geography a bit clearer).

Entering the clock room is a complete change of atmosphere from the school proper. The glazed brick, glass and plaster of the public areas give way to raw brick, wood and old, greasy machinery. A drop in temperature reminds you have left controlled atmosphere (I can’t imagine how sweltering it would be in August.)

CHS Clock

The clock was restored in 2004, but no longer runs unless coaxed by hand.

The first thing that caught my eye behind the caged off clock room was the massive bell affixed low off the floor. The coolest thing to me were the inscriptions on the front and back. I imagine there must have been some sort of ceremony presenting it to the school. The bell is (well, was), rung by a hammer on the side. Levin pulled it back and let it do it’s thing. It was a big, warm sound, but not deafening.

CHS Clocktower Bell

The bell, made by Meneely, Co. of Watervliet, NY, is inscribed, Columbia High School 1927 / Guilbert & Betelle, Architects / Runyon & Carrey, Engineers / Newark, N.J.

Clockworks

The clock mechanism lives in this wooden shed. It was apparently restored about 5 years ago, but you wouldn’t know from appearances. The motor on the floor is a modern addition; the clock was originally driven by weights that hung down long shafts in the front of the tower.

Tower room

Directly above the clock room was the second surprise. This tall, echoey space was apparently the original “Male Teacher’s Lounge”, but is now empty, save for an old school desk and an 80s-vintage IBM PC laying the corner. Two nested rectangles of the floor bear less finishing than the outer, indicating were rugs once lay.

The random white-washing gives it a somewhat sinister appearance, but a clean paint job and floor re-finishing would make it a handsome room. The light fixtures appear to be original. The stairwell up in the corner leads to the final stop on the tour, the observatory.

CHS Telescope

The observatory is a small, tight space. An old floor cushion in the corner gives the room a 70s vibe, despite a rack of modern security equipment sitting in the other. A neat feature which surprised me (but in retrospect probably shouldn’t have), is that the roof rotates on a steel track. It takes two or three people grabbing wooden handles to turn it to the desired point in the sky.

CHS Telescope

Dominating the room of course is the telescope. This is the original Brashear scope gifted to the school in 1927. Records indicate it was purchased second-hand for $400, quite pricey for the day (to put this in perspective, a Model-T Ford cost about $380 in 1927). According to Levin, the observatory itself was the idea of George E. Low, president of the BOE, an astronomy enthusiast. Being head of the district’s building committee, I’m sure Low had some extra pull.

CHS Observatory

We then exit a small door at the front of the room, to finally come out on the tower deck. The copper-clad roof of the observatory is the highest point of the tower, but can barely be seen from the ground, being shielded by the parapet. Pulleys inside the roof open a set of doors to the evening sky.

CHS Tower Deck

The tower affords a grand, sweeping view of the surrounded town. From below the tower seems very tall, but up there it doesn’t really feel very high. I’m not sure what that security camera is meant to be watching. Birds, perhaps?

Parker Avenue, 1927-2008

Parker Avenue, in front of the school. I took the shot on the right to match a similar view taken during CHS’s construction in early 1927. The view has changed surprisingly little; both along Parker Ave. and Valley St., the houses are mostly the same.

CHS Panorama

I stitched this panorama looking over the back of Columbia. The original 1927 structure is in the foreground, to the rear and sides are additions from the 50s and later. The lower roof in the middle foreground is the auditorium.

Bonus Tidbits
Hanging in a computer lab in the library are six leaded windows with stained-glass medallions. There is apparently some confusion about where they came from, so I will settle the issue definitively.

CHS Stained Glass Windows

The windows originally hung in the 3rd floor bay window on the right side of the building. This room was (and still is) a biology lab preparation room. The stained glass medallions represent, fittingly, aspects of biology: fish, frogs, birds, squirrels.

From the street these windows must have been a nice punctuation mark to the school’s facade. From inside the lab, they surely had special meaning to the students while carving into frogs and cow eyeballs. While it would be nice to see them behind their original mullions, one can’t argue they’re much safer now.

CHS Pipe Organ Chamber

And finally, a quick peek into one of the auditorium organ chambers. The pipes live behind tall grilles on either side of the stage. Accessing them takes a quick climb up metal ladders in the stage wings, and through a set of doors. The pipes and organ are in bad shape, but a plan is underway to restore them.

Thanks to Alan Levin and Elissa Malespina, librarian, for all this great access. More photos from the tour can be found at my flickr page.

~~~

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Wendy // Jun 17, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    This is an interesting collection of photography and stories. My best friend and I had the pleasure of roaming CHS in our final days there (not long ago, early 90s). Fascinating collection of buildings it really is. We wandered on our own until a janitor told us that if we wanted to see the basement, get dean approval. We did one better than that. We returned moments later with Mr. Jacobsen, Dean of Students, who gave us a personal tour of the stage, organ pipes, and catacombs deep beneath the auditorium. I will never forget the school or Mr. Jacobsen’s hospitality. I would love to get back in there an wonder again. Thanks for sharing your tour.

  • 2 Babara Edson Waddell // Feb 9, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    Loved this tour. My husband and I graduated from CHS in 1957. My Algebra class was in the tower at that time and we felt very special being up there away from the rest of the classrooms. The film of the town buildings and the Center of Maplewood are spot on – one car may have been of Jim coming from Dunnell Rd to his home across Valley St.

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