Featured Member: Gilbert L. Seltzer, AIA

Gilbert L. Seltzer, owner of West Orange, New Jersey's Gilbert L. Seltzer Associates, is a centenarian architect and celebrated World War II veteran.

Gilbert L. Seltzer, AIA, might be the only 105-year-old practicing architect in the world. Every morning, he heads to his office in West Orange, New Jersey, to continue plying his trade. His long list of projects includes the Utica Municipal Auditorium, a revolutionary stadium that inspired Madison Square Garden and one that still honors him today with a portrait in their sports bar. But his story goes beyond a long-lasting career in architecture; he was also a member of the Ghost Army, the famed deception unit in World War II that has been covered extensively in books and documentaries. Classified top-secret until 1996, it was a truly unique operation, and Seltzer is a truly unique architect.

Over the course of my lifetime, the profession has changed greatly. For starters, I think I am one of the few architects who still draws with a pencil. I don’t use a computer; I can’t stand them. I also remember a time before we advertised. People ask me, “Is that true? We didn’t advertise?” In fact, it was considered unethical. We got many of our jobs through word of mouth. There were a few architects who were well known; they got jobs because of their names. But for architects at my intermediate level, the best advertising was a satisfied client. When I was referenced and someone called, I usually got the job.

The biggest job I ever worked on was the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. I was dining with a client and the maître d' shouted my name: “Mr. Seltzer! You have a call.” It was my secretary. She said, “The state treasurer of New Jersey called. He wants you at your desk at 1 p.m.” I went back to my office and soon after, the telephone rang. It was the treasurer, and he said, “Do you remember that medical school you expressed interest in? I want to talk to you about the project.”

I hung up and asked my secretary, “Did we ever express interest in a medical school?” She checked our records; we had indeed come across a notice in the newspaper about the state building a medical school. But all we did was send a letter that said, “We heard you were building a school, and we’d be interested.” No resume, no brochure; just that letter. That’s how it sometimes worked. You sent a letter; you got a phone call. Three offices were involved. I was appointed partner-in-charge.

Of course, in the early part of my career I paused for 55 months to serve in the army, which included my time in the now-famous Ghost Army. To us, it was a job. We didn’t recognize that we were being uniquely heroic or saving lives. We had a job to do, and we did it. It didn’t occur to us that it was anything more.

What was different about the outfit was that we had a lot of artists – including Ellsworth Kelly, Bill Blass and others – many of whom continued to sketch in their spare time. We recognized that these soldiers were not quite the GI type that you’d find elsewhere. We even considered ourselves a strange outfit, which added to the mystique, along with the fact that so few knew we existed. It was classified top secret for 50 years. We weren’t allowed to talk about it; we weren’t even allowed to tell our wives.

The Ghost Army was a three-pronged unit. We had a visual arm, which was the 603rd Camouflage Engineers, my battalion. We had a radio company, which used messages by script to fool the Germans who were listening in, and we had a sonic company that could simulate the sound of tanks moving into the woods, for instance, or men building a bridge.

It seems we were very successful; the imagination of the locals was such that, when we moved through a town with the speakers blaring, the next morning the locals wouldn’t say, “Did you hear the tanks last night?” They’d say, “Did you see the tanks moving?” They actually thought they saw them. The human imagination is unbelievable.

Maybe our biggest exercise was when the Allied armies crossed the Rhine; our orders were to attract the German army and their forces 20 miles south of where the actual crossing was to take place. The U.S. Army expected casualties of around 30,000; they lost a total of four. They attribute that to the fact that we lured the Germans to the wrong place. They say we saved 30,000 lives. I don’t know about that; we were just doing our jobs.

In a word, the Ghost Army was a success. And it seems to remain a fascinating subject for all who learn about it. –As told to Steve Cimino

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Image credits

Gilbert Seltzer working in his office

Gilber L. Seltzer Associates

The Memorial Auditorium in Utica, NY,1957. The innovative roof structure is supported by cables, a system that has since been employed for projects all over the world, including Madison Square Garden.

Schmitz/Architectural Forum Magazine

The lobby of Thayer Hall at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, 1950. The building was originally the riding hall for the West Point Cavalry.

Sigurd Fischer

A 1500 seat lecture hall in Thayer Hall at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY, 1950.

Sigurd Fischer

East Coast Memorial at Battery Park, NY, 1960. The memorial serves in memory of those lost in the Atlantic during World War II and was designed for the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Sigurd Fischer