James Betelle, Where Are You?

The Search for a Lost Architect

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An architect who agrees to design a building for an absurdly small fee has but little respect for his services—but then he probably knows what they are worth. — James O. Betelle

Down Wilmington Way

May 27th, 2008 · 1 Comment · Architecture, Biographical, Diary

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In March, 2008, I took a three-day excursion to James Betelle’s hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. My plan was to visit a few research libraries, see significant locations, and, well, just get a sense of where Betelle came from. What follows is a recreation of the trip presented in the dramatic diary format.

Thursday, March 13.
6:30 pm: After an early dinner, kissed the wife and boy and saddled up in the Volvo. I left like a sad-sack businessman trudging off to a shower curtain manufacturer’s convention in Boise—except it would be Delaware and a dead architect. Programmed my stops into the ludicrously indispensable GPS and headed down through the swamps of Jersey.

9 pm: Arrived at the outskirts of Wilmington on a US Route-type highway—the kind peppered with strip malls, theme restaurants and carpet stores. Taking in this bland vista I joked to myself, “no wonder Betelle left.” Yes, you tend to talk to yourself on long solo drives. My hotel, a Courtyard by Marriott, was down a short access road, flanked by two others like circling wagons.

As I pulled into the lot, I noticed across the road a TGI Fridays, a Lone Star Steakhouse and an Olive Garden—a culinary trove. A very tall, thin gentleman in a purple suit bearing the name tag “Stretch” checked me in. The room was decent and had internet access, but the view of the dumpsters was not particularly inspiring.


Friday, March 14.
8:30 am: Began the day with a breakfast of rubber eggs in the hotel dining area. It was a buffet, and I like buffets, but this one didn’t fill my stomach with confidence. Jerry, a kindly older gentleman, trudged over and poured me acidic coffee I could easily have gotten myself.

9:30am: Headed to my first destination, the Hagley Museum and Library. I was surprised how quickly the chain-store hotel highway turned into beautiful rolling hills, handsome older homes and dense woods.

NC Colored School Dedication

Hagley is home to the archives of Pierre S. du Pont, Delaware’s much-revered playboy, philanthropist and munitions manufacturer. du Pont hired Betelle to draw up the plans for the nearly 200 rural schools he endowed to the state, so the archives promised to be rich with material.

10 am: Spent about four hours sifting through photographs. They had hundreds of photos of Guilbert & Betelle schools, along with shots of scruffy Our Gang moppets in dilapidated one-room schools. Amazingly, I found a photograph of Betelle. He is pictured at the dedication ceremony for the “New Castle Colored School”. The photo isn’t dated, but I place it sometime in the late 1920s, gauging by his corpulent physique.

1 pm: Lunch at a local sandwich shop. It came with a pickle and bag of chips.

4 pm: Finished up a few hours searching Hagley’s manuscripts archives in the Soda House, a beautifully restored factory building. I was in a tall, quite room where arched brick windows gave calming views of the landscape. I was allowed only a pencil, pad and my scanner inside; these guys are serious. Not much new learned here, but it was good to read through a number of letters written by Betelle to du Pont. I like how he always signed his letters with the archaic flourish, “With personal regards, I beg to remain yours, James O. Betelle.” It’s both formal and intimate, definitely a lost art.

Betelle Plot

4:30 pm: Arrived at Riverview Cemetery, home to the Betelle family plot, which I had discovered last year by sheer luck. Riverview is abandoned, but maintained by a group of volunteers. It’s not what I expected from an old city cemetery; it was large and flat in a low-lying industrial area, not a dense, hilly ramble in the middle of the city.

It took all of 2 minutes and 42 seconds to find the stone, thanks to a map provided by the group. I quickly learned something new: on the back is inscribed the family of Betelle’s uncle, who originally co-owned the lot with his father. Stuff like this really helps flesh out the family tree.

5 pm: Long shadows lay across the field of stones lending them a gentle, restful evening vibe. It had been a intense day of research, so I took it as a cue to wind things up. There’s only so much you can do at a grave (legally, anyway).

6:30 pm: Back at the hotel. Gave Stretch a detached smile, rested up a bit, then hopped across the access road for dinner at the Lone Star. I had BBQ chicken and beer at the bar, where I dazzled the too young and too perky waitress with the adventures of researching a dead architect. She feigned interested just enough to merit a decent tip.

Saturday, March 15.
9:30 am: Couldn’t face Jerry and the buffet today. Just grabbed a cup of coffee and got in the car. It was my last full day in Wilmington, so I wanted to make the most of it. Today I would be going to the library, historical society and walking around the residential areas.

The heart of Wilmington’s downtown was nice and somewhat quiet; not a big surprise for a Saturday morning. Then I noticed people starting to gather along a large road wearing a suspicious amount of green. Yes, I had stumbled upon Wilmington’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. There was a quaint charm to the proceedings, but I definitely felt like a detached observer.

10 am: Frustrating—the library had nothing on Betelle. It did have a few clipping files on his father, though. Apparently he was a noted local artist, sailor and model ship builder, enough to merit an obituary (noting his son, the “distinguished New York architect”). He raced a catamaran named Annie & Elle. Annie was his wife; no idea who Elle was…

Betelle's first home

11:30 am: Ventured to the surrounding neighborhood to find a few of Betelle’s homes. The streets were lined with sturdy brick Victorian row houses. The homes mostly all seemed in good shape, well tended by residents.

On the corner of 8th Street was the Betelle residence from about 1880-1884, when James was a newborn. As I stood across the street taking pictures, a car stopped. The woman driving asked me, “Are you taking pictures of that house?”

I’m accustomed to suspicious looks when poking around architectural sites, and for some reason photography really sets people off. I began to mentally prep my response about who lived there, his significance, etc., but started with, “Yes…”

“Ooh, that is such a beautiful home inside!”

I guess this wasn’t one of those times. “Oh really?” I answered, humored by the response.

“I grew up across the street…shame it’s in such bad shape now.”

I nodded in solidarity. She waved and drove off. Stuff like this happens a lot, really.

11:45 am: Hoofed up to North Adams Street. The Betelles bounced from home-to-home those early days, but once they settled at Adams St. around 1887, they would stay for about 40 years (John moved away in 1927, six years before his death).

Betelle Home

Adams St. is a long, sloping road butted up against a recessed highway, it was a bit noisy. The Betelle home is actually a unit of an historic early urban housing project. It’s a modest two-story house, but some nice brick detailing and terra-cotta accents lend a classy touch.

12:30pm: For lunch I found a little candy store/restaurant on Market street. It was mostly empty; everyone was a block away at the parade. The waitress, a kindly middle-aged woman, regaled me with the history of the restaurant while peeking out the back door at classic cars in the parade. She served me the driest tuna sandwich in creation.

2pm: Last scheduled stop of the day, The Delaware Historical Society library. Couldn’t find any specific Betelle family information, but they did have an excellent set of Wilmington city directories going back a good 150 years. It was through them I was able to reconstruct more of the family’s residences.

4 pm: After a solid day of walking the streets of downtown Wilmington, weighed down by bags, camera and sweat, I was satisfied to return to the hotel. Rested up a bit at the room, then went to the local mall. Bought a Wilmington history book at Borders. I ended up staying there for a crappy dinner and a preposterous movie.

Sunday, March 16.
9 am: One last excruciatingly bland breakfast with Jerry. Packed up and ran to the car (it was a dank and rainy). I was eager to get home, but decided to do one more thing before leaving Wilmington—see a nearby Guilbert & Betelle building, The Charles B. Lore School. Lore was converted into an assisted living home about 20 years ago, so I thought I had a good shot at seeing the interior.

Charles B. Lore School

9:30 am: Parked on a side street and took a leisurely walk around the building. It’s a simple, handsome effort from Guilbert & Betelle, probably a later work, I guessed. I found the cornerstone and was surprised to see it marked 1932; later indeed.

9:45 am: Entered the lobby, hoping to find a dedication plaque. No plaque, but I did strike up a chat with the woman at the front desk. The lobby was completely renovated, it barely looked like a school anymore—drop ceilings and pastel carpet will do that (brick wainscoting and the occasional old oak door did echo its former purpose somewhat).

A nearby employee mentioned the plaque was in a basement storage room. He agreed to show it to me and give a brief tour of the building. We dragged the solid brass plaque into the hallway so I could get a good look. It was dated 1931, and, as always satisfying to see, named the architects.

Charles B. Lore School, lounge

I learned many of the Lorelton’s residents were former teachers and students; some even lived in the their old classrooms (I imagine this has to be disconcerting to the battier ones). I peeked into the auditorium, now the dining room. I noticed a few residents quietly eating breakfast. I wondered—did they remember coming there for assemblies 70 years ago?

10:15 am: Graciously thanked the Lorelton staffer for showing me around and hit the road (for real, this time). The GPS told me I would be home in about three hours.

While this trip may not have unleashed a bounty of new information on James Betelle, it was nevertheless revealing. Traveling to and exploring his hometown—albeit 130 later—has helped me get a better sense of the environment that produced the man I have been so doggedly chasing for two years.

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Don // Dec 19, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Love the site! For some reason, this is exactly the kind of stuff I’m interested in. I’m a former architect, now a writer and web designer. I enjoy doing research projects of this type and think you’ve made a nice, clean, simple, informative, funny website. I am now going to have the 2nd driest tuna sandwich in history.

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