Donald Barthelme, Sr., architect, was born in Galveston, Texas, on August 4, 1907, to Frederick Barthelme and Mary (Anderson) Barthelme. In 1924 he enrolled at the Rice Institute (now Rice University) in Houston but two years later transferred to the University of Pennsylvania where he studied architecture under the French master, Paul Philippe Cret. He graduated in 1930 and won the Arthur Spayd Brook prize for design. After graduation he remained in Philadelphia to work with Cret and later in the firm of Zantzinger, Borie and Medary.
In 1932 Barthelme returned to Texas and did small projects in Galveston for several years. In 1935 he moved to Houston and worked for well-known architect John Staub but within a few months departed for Dallas to join the team of architects designing the Texas Centennial Exposition. Barthelme became lead designer of the Hall of State, the centerpiece of the Exposition. The Hall of State, his first important building, is considered a masterpiece of the Art Deco style and is today a National Historic Landmark. In 1937 he rejoined Staub’s office in Houston where he stayed until 1939, when he left to open his own architectural practice.
In 1942 Barthelme designed the first of a series of projects for the West Columbia Independent School District in Brazoria County, Texas. This relationship led to a commission to design the West Columbia Elementary School, completed in 1951. The school won many awards and appeared in professional journals and popular magazines throughout the 1950s. The West Columbia Elementary School represented a new approach to school design; Barthelme eliminated the long corridors found in traditional school buildings and organized the classrooms around two large courtyards. Each classroom opened to the courtyard through a wall of glass. The stylish modernist building featured exposed steel framing, extensive use of glass, and a flamboyant scalloped canopy at the front entrance.
Barthelme is significant as one of the first modernist architects from Houston to achieve national and international fame—largely the result of acclaim for his West Columbia Elementary School. He had other important projects, such as his St. Rose of Lima Catholic School in Houston, which won an award of merit from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1949. Nevertheless, his schools in West Columbia and nearby Sweeny, Texas, solidified his reputation as an expert on the design of schools. In 1955 the AIA honored him with election to its College of Fellows, a distinction reserved for those who make important contributions to the profession. In 1957, to celebrate its centennial, the AIA chose the West Columbia Elementary School for an exhibition of the ten outstanding works of architecture of the past decade. This and other honors showed the respect with which architects viewed Barthelme and his work. Yet, in 1963 he surprised his colleagues when he retired from active practice at the age of fifty-six. The following year, however, he was one of seven finalists in the 1964 competition to select a designer for the AIA headquarters building in Washington, D.C.
Barthelme’s legacy depends as much on his role as an educator as on his work as an architect. He was passionate about educational reform and lectured and published extensively on the subject. In 1946 he joined the architecture faculty of the University of Houston and for nearly three decades was influential in shaping the next generation of architects. He also served as head of the Rice University School of Architecture from 1959 to 1961. At both institutions he created an innovative curriculum that integrated all aspects of the architectural discipline. In 1974 he retired from teaching at the University of Houston.
Barthelme married Helen Bechtold of Philadelphia on June 21, 1930, shortly after they graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. They had five children: Donald, Joan, Peter, Frederick, and Steven. Their son Donald Jr. was a significant American literary figure for two decades, and their sons Frederick and Steven also built careers as important writers.
Donald Barthelme, Sr., died on July 16, 1996, in Houston. His papers are housed in the University of Houston Libraries, Special Collections.