Newark wears its history in plain sight. An astoundingly diverse collection of buildings, evocative street names and a rich narrative dating back over 300 years lay the city bare to those who even casually glance. James Betelle spent his 20 most productive years there, so it naturally comprises a good chunk of my research.
I’ve spent more time in Newark than any other town or city connected with Betelle, and I look for any opportunity to see it anew. So when I recently had the chance to attend not one, but two Newark architectural tours, I made all sorts of arrangements and deals with my wife to make it happen.
On Friday I would be visiting Weequahic High School, a late design by Guilbert & Betelle, and Sunday taking a tour of High Street and lower Broad Street. On both days I would be meeting in person some of the “Newarkologists”—historians, residents, aficionados—with whom I’ve had spirited email exchanges with over the last few years.
Poor New Rochelle High school. As if a devastating fire in 1968 wasn’t bad enough, the old girl suffered another indignity as lightning struck one of its towers about 6pm on Friday. The strike arrupted a blaze that basically destroyed the conical roof, but luckily it was a localized event, and should be fully repairable.
A few more photos of this and the 1968 fire can be found on flickr.
Thanks to our man in the field, John Elwood, for calling this in.
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.
After completing my tour of CHS’s clock tower on a Saturday morning in April, I continued on to check out the Guilbert & Betelle schools built in the nearby town of Summit. The firm designed the high school and a number of grade schools, much as they did in South Orange and Maplewood, so I was curious to see how they compared.
Summit High School
My first stop was the sprawling Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School, the former Summit High School (SHS), built in 1922 and expanded in 1927. There was a lot of activity on the grounds; baseball and soccer games, parents with kids and cameras streaming in and out of the building. I hardly looked out of place walking the perimeter with my own camera in hand, snapping away at the building.
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. Continue reading