This Sunday’s New York Times real estate section profiles South Orange, N.J. in the Living In column. The joint school district of South Orange and Maplewood feature some of James Betelle’s finest school designs and continue draw young families today.
In the article, Dave Caldwell, a Maplewood resident, correctly notes Columbia High School as “…an 80-year-old Collegiate Gothic building that sits a block from the South Orange border.” A brief description, to be sure, but one that is often wrong (it was completed in 1927, not earlier, and is in Maplewood, not SO).
Kudos to Caldwell and the Times from this stickler of a Betelle historian.
“On February, 1930, we the class of January 1933, entered the portals of the State Normal School at Jersey City. Bewildered, cautious, lest we commit a grave offense, we wandered aimlessly about the halls. Attention was called to the foyer, the library, and the auditorium. We fairly drank in the beauty of a school so new, so enhanced by the character of its architecture.”
—The SNS Tower, 1932
Guilbert & Betelle designed a number of normal schools (later called teacher’s colleges). The earliest, Newark Normal School built 1913, is a handsome Jacobean design in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Newark. Two others, built in the mid 1920s, were Glassboro Normal School (today Rowan University) and New Britain Normal School (Central Connecticut State University).
The last such school built by the firm was the State Normal School at Jersey City. It is handsomely rendered in Betelle’s trademark Collegiate Gothic, and is certainly among his finest works. Today the building is named Hepburn Hall, and serves as the administrative building for New Jersey City University.
This web site was featured in the New Jersey Star-Ledger on Friday, January 4th. The column, Jersey Blogs, was a Q&A with staff writer Kelly Heyboer conducted in early December.
Any exposure for this arcane subject is welcome, and the article certainly gained a nice bit of readership. If you’ve discovered this site from reading the article, glad to have you here. Poke around, ask questions.
The whole interview can be read at Heyboer’s blog.
John Wesley Betelle was born, lived and died in Delaware. Spending most of his life as a clerk for the B&O Railroad in Wilmington, I suspect he traveled very little, if he left the state at all.
1921 was a big year for his son James. Between Guilbert’s death in 1916 and a stint in the US Army through 1918, his business had suffered greatly. But in 1919 he began cultivating work again, the biggest being a contract to design over 100 rural schoolhouses for Delaware. By 1920, he was designing schools in the New Jersey suburbs, including towns like South Orange, East Orange and Summit.
So it was that on March 23, 1921, James treated his father to a “pleasure cruise thru the West Indies, stopping at Cuba, Panama, Venezuela, Trinidad and Martinique” aboard the SS Megantic. It wasn’t James’ first ocean voyage—he had been to Europe a number of times already—but for the senior Betelle, it was likely a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, perhaps as a 75th birthday gift. With the architecture firm gaining success, Betelle could well afford it.
That I have this information is due to a number of recent releases of millions of ship manifests and passport records at Ancestry.com. It was in these records that I discovered not only this (and other) ocean voyages of Betelle, but also two new photographs. One is of the 42 year-old architect, and on his own passport form, that of his father, 75. Clearly the bald gene didn’t skip a generation in this family.
In my entry regarding the Franklin Murphy house, I ruminated that it was the only known residential structure designed by Guilbert & Betelle. As it turns out, I was wrong.
I’ve recently had the privilege of corresponding with members of the Guilbert family, who have shown a keen interest in my research. Given the circumstances of Ernest’s early death, they didn’t really know much about him, so I was happy to share what little I had discovered.
Fortunately, discovery is a two-way street: the Guilberts had a number of items dating back to Ernest’s day, and were gracious enough to send them to me for study.