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.