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Donald Barthelme, Sr., F.A.I.A., Architectural Papers

Identifier: 2001-003

The Donald Barthelme, Sr. FAIA Architectural Papers cover the period 1924 to 1997 and are comprised of his architectural drawings; business and personal files; memorabilia; photographic prints, negatives, and slides; as well as lecture notes and other materials from his teaching career. The collection occupies 35 linear feet and 15 drawers of flat files, and is stored in 43 boxes and 92 oversize folders.

Barthelme's architectural drawings document his professional practice, from his earliest commissions in Galveston in 1933, to his last, in Houston, in 1964. Of the 1,883 sheets of original drawings, the majority are (a) studies and preliminary drawings and (b) working drawings. Few presentation drawings survive, but many have been preserved in photographs. Of particular interest are the materials for his two largest projects, the Adams Petroleum Center and West Columbia Senior High School, because of the large number of colored-pencil renderings, which he did to study different design ideas. Missing are projects that he may have done in other offices, such as his Philadelphia, Dallas, Staub, and defense work. With the exception of materials for a few early projects, for the Adams Petroleum Center, and for the Kellaway house, most of Barthelme's business correspondence and project files are believed to have been destroyed when he closed his office in 1963.

Barthelme is remembered as a teacher and a philosopher. He left extensive lecture notes for his courses at the University of Houston and memoranda that outlined his new curriculum for the Architecture Department at Rice University. His lecture notes illustrate his ideas, but the best organized statement of his philosophy of architecture is found in his writings. Of special interest are his manuscript for a book, a handwritten critique of the manuscript by an unknown reviewer (probably his son, Frederick), and an attempt to articulate his ideas on architecture in a lengthy 1975 letter to John McGinty, then head of the Houston Chapter of the A.I.A.

Other writings show the breadth of Barthelme's interest in education. In October 1959 he appeared at a conference at the University of Michigan in which prominent architects discussed Dr. Lloyd Trump's study for educational reform, funded by the Ford Foundation. Barthelme presented his own proposals for a new secondary school curriculum and a schematic design for a high school. The conference proceedings were published the next year. Barthelme also prepared 359 slides in connection with this presentation, which are part of his photographic materials.

As an enthusiastic amateur photographer, Barthelme took thousands of pictures and often did his own processing in a home darkroom. This large photographic collection documents his architectural practice and his travels in Mexico. It is comprised of 1,309 black-and-white prints (most 8 x 10 and larger); 999 4 x 5 black-and-white negatives; 67 35mm black-and-white negatives; 840 2 ¼ x 3 ¼ black-and-white negatives; 49 2 ¼ x 3 ¼ color glass-mount transparencies; and 2,856 35mm color slides. In many cases a print has a corresponding negative, but these materials are not cross-referenced. Many pictures of Barthelme's buildings are known to be the work of Dallas photographer Ulric Meisel, but unless noted otherwise, Barthelme is presumed to be the photographer on the items in this series.

Among the photographic materials is a bound scrapbook of photographic prints and clippings of Barthelme's architectural projects. It also includes important awards, certificates, and licenses, although some that had become loose were removed to a separate folder. The scrapbook comprises 120 prints (mounted and unmounted) and 72 leaves, or 116 total items.

When the Department of Special Collections processed Barthelme's papers, his heirs allowed the department to create digital files of a portion of their large collection of family photographs, which were retained by the heirs. This collection, covering the period 1930 to 1986, includes pictures of Barthelme, his wife, and his children, mostly in and around the family home in Houston. Approximately 150 sheets of photographic negatives are preserved in 2,887 digital images on CD-ROM, with record prints in a binder. This is intended only as a study collection for scholars. The images are owned by the Barthelme estate and may not be copied or reproduced without its written permission.

Barthelme's professional career is further recorded in his extensive file of newspaper and magazine clippings. Personal materials include biographical information, student work, interviews, and correspondence, as well as artifacts and memorabilia.


  • 1924-1997


Conditions Governing Access

Open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Special Collections owns the physical items in our collections, but copyright normally belongs to the creator of the materials or their heirs. The researcher has full responsibility for determining copyright status, obtaining permission to publish from copyright holders, and abiding by current copyright laws when publishing or displaying copies of Special Collections material in print or electronic form. For more information, consult the appropriate librarian. Reproduction decisions will be made by Special Collections staff on a case-by-case basis.

Restrictions on Digitization

By agreement with the copyright holder, the Donald Barthelme, Sr. Architectural Papers may not be digitized without express permission of the copyright holder.


30.0 linear feet

Biographical Information

Donald Barthelme, Sr. was a prominent Houston architect and professor at the University of Houston and Rice University. He was the first Houston architect to attain international recognition, and during the 1950s was one of the city's best known architects. His career was notable because he combined a distinguished architectural practice with an intense commitment to architectural education.

Barthelme was born in Galveston, Texas on August 4, 1907. He attended the Rice Institute in Houston for two years before transferring in 1926 to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied under the French master Paul Philippe Cret. He graduated in 1930, winning the Arthur Spayd Brook Bronze Medal for Design. After graduation he worked first in Cret's office and then in the Philadelphia firm of Zantzinger, Borie, and Medary.

The Great Depression forced Barthelme to return to Texas late in 1932. He practiced on his own in Galveston for several years, surviving on small commissions. In 1935 he moved to Houston to work for noted architect John F. Staub, but stayed only a few months before being called to Dallas to work on the Texas Centennial Exposition. There he was the lead designer of the Hall of State, the centerpiece of the exposition and today considered a masterpiece of the Art Deco style. In 1937 he returned to Staub's office in Houston, where he remained for two years before leaving to open his own practice. In his spare time he entered design competitions, and in 1939 won Eighth Prize in the Insulux Glass Block Competition. In the early 1940s he did war-related work, first as a designer on the Avion Village Housing Project near Dallas, and later as supervising architect for the Big Spring Air Base in West Texas and defense housing projects in Galveston and Sweeny, Texas.

Barthelme's career began in earnest in 1942, with the first of many projects for the West Columbia Independent School District in Brazoria County, Texas. Over the next two decades his school designs earned national and international awards and appeared in numerous publications. His best known project, and arguably his best work, was the West Columbia Elementary School (1951). He designed other elementary schools in West Columbia and Sweeny, Texas; additions to the high schools in West Columbia and Sweeny; and finally, the West Columbia Senior High School (1963). During the 1950s he was acknowledged as an expert on the design of schools, and wrote and lectured extensively on the subject. This led to his election in 1955 as a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, an honor accorded architects who make a significant contribution to the advancement of architecture.

Although he retired from active practice in 1963, he continued to participate in competitions and in 1964 was one of seven finalists in the competition to design the headquarters building for the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C. His other works include the Barthelme Residence (1941), St. Rose of Lima Church and School (1948), the Adams Petroleum Center (1957), and Highland Heights Elementary School (1959) in Houston. St. Rose of Lima was the first modernist Catholic church in Houston, and was the first Houston building to win an award of merit from the A.I.A.

Barthelme began his other major professional endeavor in 1946, when he joined the faculty of the Architecture Department at the University of Houston. He helped shape the program in its early years and was an influential member of the faculty until his retirement in 1973. He also served as William Ward Watkin Professor and chairman of the Architecture Department at Rice University from 1959 to 1961. He is remembered at both institutions for his rigorous standards and for his efforts to redesign the curriculum to integrate all parts of the architectural education process. He also was a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Tulane University.

In retirement Barthelme turned to writing, as he recorded ideas developed over a lifetime of practice and teaching. In the late 1970s he began writing a book promoting his philosophy that architects should be more concerned with the user's experience of architecture than with its purely formal aspects. Together with his voluminous lecture notes, the partial manuscript and related materials in the collection form a body of writing that captures the humanist values he tried to instill in his students.

Barthelme married Helen Bechtold (1907-1995) of Philadelphia on June 21, 1930. From 1931 to 1947 the couple had five children: Donald, Joan, Peter, Frederick, and Steven. Donald (1931-1989) achieved fame as a writer and novelist and from 1980 to 1989 was a professor at the University of Houston, where he helped establish the reputation of the University's acclaimed Creative Writing Program. The Donald Barthelme Literary Papers are housed in a separate collection in the University of Houston Libraries' Department of Special Collections. Also accomplished writers, Frederick and Steven Barthelme teach Creative Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi on the faculty of the university's Center for Writers. Peter has also published several novels, while Joan served for many years as an executive with a large Houston oil company.

Donald Barthelme, Sr. died on July 16, 1996.


Stephen Fox, "Donald Barthelme, 1907-1996, "Cite 35 (Fall 1996): 8-11.

Yolita Schmidt, "Donald Barthelme,"Texas Architect (Nov.-Dec. 1989): 44.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The Donald Barthelme, Sr. FAIA Architectural Papers were donated to the University of Houston Libraries by Frederick and Steven Barthelme in 2001.

Digital Collections

Donald Barthelme, Sr. Architectural Drawings and Photographs digital collection


Box 4A, Item 5, A Selection of Storefronts from the Insulux Glass Block Competition No. 2, was transferred to the collection in 2016 from the University of Houston Architecture and Art Library, which apparently had received it as a donation from Barthelme many years earlier.

Guide to the Donald Barthelme, Sr., F.A.I.A., Architectural Papers
Stephen James
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the University of Houston Libraries Special Collections Repository

University of Houston Libraries Special Collections
MD Anderson Library
4333 University Drive
Houston TX 77204-2000 USA