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Beaumont architect Milton Bell remembered as ‘gift to our community’

January 5, 2019

Milton Bell, architect for powerful institutions and those of limited means alike, died Thursday. He was 89.

Bell built at Lamar University. He built the Babe Didirikson Zaharias Museum on Interstate 10, where thousands of motorists see it every day. He renovated some of Beaumont’s most prized buildings and designed, free of charge, the soup kitchen at Some Other Place, the ecumenical outreach ministry available to people on the outskirts of life.

“I can’t say enough good things about him,” said Paula O’Neal, executive director of Some Other Place. “He was a sweet, kind, wonderful man.”

O’Neal said Bell designed the soup kitchen in 1988 and told her that although he could build it more cheaply, it needed to last. Since then, the soup kitchen has stood up to hurricanes, tropical storms and other natural disasters.

“Everything he did was no charge. He did it all so quietly with no fanfare and expected nothing in return,” O’Neal said. “He was dedicated to his family, his community and country. They just don’t make any more Milton Bells. He was a precious gift to our community.”

Bell was a Korean war Army veteran and reservist who retired in 1980 with the rank of colonel. He was a 1953 graduate of Texas A&M University, earning his degree in architecture. He was a 1948 graduate of Port Arthur Thomas Jefferson High School.

“He was a great man, no doubt,” Beaumont Mayor Becky Ames said. “Milton served our city on so many different boards. He designed a lot of buildings in our city and was very passionate about saving old structures.”

Consider the Texas Energy Museum, for example. When legendary oilman Eddie Chiles of Fort Worth wanted, in the late 1980s, to endow a community with a museum he added the proviso that no tax money should ever support it. Beaumont leaders successfully bid for it with private support.

Bell stepped up to renovate what was then the Szafir’s office supply building, which in the 1910s had been the YMCA building.

Bell redesigned the exterior and interior, curator Ryan Smith said.

“He put a new skin on it and completely renovated the interior, keeping the integrity of a historic structure,” Smith said. “The museum owes him a debt of gratitude.”

Bell’s obituary on the Broussard Mortuary website lists other notable architectural accomplishments, including: the U.S. Embassy in Mexico; Biology building at Texas A&M University; a Mercedes Benz dealership; the Jefferson Theatre renovation; the Julie Rogers Theatre renovation; Minnie Rogers Juvenile Justice Center; I.B.E.W. Local No. 479 building; renovations at Trinity United Methodist Church; St. Marks Episcopal Church; All Saints Episcopal Church; First Christian Church; St. Mary’s Catholic Church; South Park Church of Christ.

He also designed such medical facilities as Beaumont Bone & Joint, Southeast Texas Medical Associates, Cardiology Associates and the city of Beaumont Health Center.

Rob Clark, a Beaumont architect and partner in Architectural Alliance Inc., called Bell “one of our great mentors.”

“We could look at the buildings as his legacy, but you can always do good architecture,” Clark said. “Ethics is the most important thing.”

Clark said he recently visited with Bell and they spoke of the new Lakeside Center next to the city’s Event Centre.

“He understood interaction,” Clark said. “He built places for people to meet and gather, to have interaction. He built shelters for human, flowing activity. He observed how people worked together. It wasn’t just architecture. It was sociology.”

Visitation will be from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the Nita McKnight Parlor at Trinity United Methodist Church. The funeral service will be at 3 p.m. in the church sanctuary, 3430 Harrison Ave. Entombment will be at Magnolia Cemetery.

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