Wells Ira Bennett, Educator and Architect

Wells Ira Bennett, Educator and Architect

Wells I. Bennett led the College of Architecture and the University of Michigan as Dean from 1938 to 1957. Arriving at the university in 1912 as Instructor, Bennett rose to leadership through his early interest in low-cost housing and city planning. As a practicing architect in Ann Arbor, Bennett was active after 1921, developing a considerable residential practice mainly with faculty clients.

Taking a sabbatical leave in 1932-33 to study schools of architecture and post-WWI housing projects in Europe, Bennett published two articles on housing projects in the US and France in 1935. In addition he offered a course analyzing practices in low-cost housing projects with various forms of government intervention in England, Germany, Austria, Holland and France.

At this time in the Depression the US government authorized over three billion dollars for low-cost housing and slum clearance but with the proviso that each specific project be presented as part of a larger plan. At the time there were few trained town and city planners, opening a field for city planning that MIT stepped up to meet in 1934. At this same time Bennett, working with then Dean Emil Lorch, developed courses in this area, including housing, that gave Michigan’s program a unique place in the Middle and Far West. A formal degree in City Planning entered the architecture school’s curriculum in 1946.

A key initiative by Bennett starting in 1940 was a Forum gathering of architecture school administrators and architects at the university for the purpose of sharing insights and defining common interests. The first gathering brought together a who’s who of practictioners, including Eliel Saarinen and Eero Saarinen at Cranbrook, and Joseph Hudnut, Dean of the Harvard School of Design and a 1912 alum of the UM architecture school. The collegial dynamic inspired by these yearly meetings proved invaluable to the university in 1948 when venerable Professor Jean Hebrard retired and high enrolment created a need for recommendations for new staff and teaching leadership in architecture. These recommendations, for example, led to bringing in William Muschenheim in 1950.

Bennett served on the Ann Arbor City Planning Commission since 1935 and on the State Board of Registration for Architects, Engineers and Surveyors since 1939. He was a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and was President of the Detroit Chapter from 1946 to 1947. During his tenure as Dean he brought a series of fine teachers to his program, including Mary Chase Stratton (1937), Gerome Kamrowski (1946), Herbert Johe (1947), Edward Olenki (1948) and William Muschenheim (1950).

By Jeffrey Welch, March 11, 2016