West Orange honors long-working local architect

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Gilbert Seltzer doesn’t go to work on Fridays.

Cut him a break, though. He just turned 105 years old.

The West Orange resident has been an architect since 1937, when he graduated from college and moved to New York City from his native Toronto, Canada, to work for the William Gehron firm. It’s a job he’s held onto for the last 82 years, going from employee to partner to owner of the firm, which is now called Gilbert L. Seltzer Associates. The West Orange Township Council honored Seltzer at its meeting on Oct. 7 ahead of his birthday on Oct. 11, at Town Hall just a block away from his office on Main Street where he still sits at his drafting table four days a week.

Seltzer was living in Verona and had an office in the Empire State Building with 44 employees and was eight years into a 10-year lease when a real estate agent found another tenant who wanted to rent his office. The offer to leave was too good to pass up, so Seltzer and his partner decided to move their operation across the Hudson River to New Jersey, where they had been working a lot anyway. They ended up in West Orange, and Seltzer eventually moved here too.

An architect who specializes in government and education buildings, Seltzer’s work can be seen at colleges around the state. He worked at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, now the Rutgers School of Biomedical and Health Sciences; New Jersey City University; Kean University; and William Paterson University.

“Just about everything at William Paterson was designed by me,” Seltzer said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Oct. 16 at his office.

His mark can also be found in West Orange — the library at West Orange High School was Seltzer’s brainchild, as well as the West Orange School District’s headquarters. He had several projects at other schools in the district as well.

Seltzer didn’t always want to be an architect. He didn’t even know what an architect was until he was older. He said he was always sketching as a child, and wanted to be an artist.

“I don’t know why,” he said. “I may have seen the name somewhere, or the word. I knew no architects. I had no connection with architects or construction. Then when the time came, I went to college to study architecture.”

In order to graduate from the University of Toronto, Seltzer had to have experience working at an architecture firm, which he gained at William Gehron during the summer before his last year of school. When he graduated in the midst of the Great Depression and couldn’t find a job in Toronto, he decided to head south and make the States his home.

A four and a half year break from his 9-to-5 job came when Seltzer was drafted into the Army in 1941; he was going to transfer to the Canadian Armed Forces, but then learned that the American Army allowed Canadians to apply to Officer Candidate School. He left the Army after being a member of the Ghost Army, a unit that in World War II used visual, sonic and radio deception to convince enemy troops of Allied units’ locations when they were actually in other places. A 2013 documentary, “The Ghost Army,” features Seltzer and his Army comrades talking about their unit.

When he returned home from the Army it was business as usual for Seltzer, and he went on to design the Utica Memorial Auditorium, a nearly 4,000-seat arena in Utica, N.Y. The roof is built using cables, the first time the method was used. The arena is Seltzer’s favorite of all his own projects.

“It’s the first successful use of cable anywhere in the world,” he said. “Now it’s well-known throughout the world and served as inspiration for Madison Square Garden. That has a similar roof, taken from Utica.”

All professions change over time, but in 82 years Seltzer’s process has remained largely the same. He refuses to use a computer to design a building, instead preferring to pick up a pencil and paper. He is an artist, after all.

“I have to feel it, the pencil in my hand,” Seltzer said. “Architecture is an art. Computers and art don’t mix too well.”

Gilbert L. Seltzer Associates is now just Gilbert L. Seltzer, and he estimates that he spends about 50 percent of his time designing offices for other tenants in the building. He also still works at William Paterson University.

“I would say I’m gainfully employed,” he joked.

Seltzer could have retired 39 years ago. But he isn’t interested in rolling up his blueprints for good.

When asked why he’s still working, he asked, “Why not?” and added, “The alternative is not very attractive.” 

Photos by Amanda Valentovic, and Courtesy of Judy Donnelly and Gilbert Seltzer