Wells I. Bennett

The career of Wells Ira Bennett, professor and Dean of the College of Architecture and Design at The University of Michigan, was divided throughout between the academic and the practical, the traditional and the contemporary. Although most of Bennett’s actual work was done in Michigan, his studies of the architectural implications of urban growth and development earned him a far broader reputation. His interests, as reflected in his writings, ranged from parking structures and low-cost housing to seaports and post-war Korean architecture. The papers in this collection date from 1916, the beginning of Bennett’s career as an architect, and extend to his death in 1965.
As a graduate student and young professor at The University of Michigan, Bennett worked closely with Fiske Kimball, an architect then on the faculty of the University of Virginia. Their correspondence deals primarily with the Colonial architects and architecture of the Southern and Middle Atlantic States. While Kimball devoted his entire career to these traditional forms, Bennett soon moved on to more pragmatic contemporary, architectural concerns.
Following brief service as an architect with the War Department in 1918, Bennett became increasingly interested in low-cost, functional architecture. He toured Europe in 1932-1933, noting with particular interest the architecture of those countries which had undertaken extensive rebuilding programs after World War I. Bennett corresponded with his mentor Emil Lorch while on this trip, commenting not only upon architecture, but also upon European political, social and economic conditions. They discussed at length the impact of the current financial crisis upon education and compared its severity on the two continents. The collection includes the originals of Bennett’s letters to Lorch, and copies of Lorch’s replies.
A study of French housing conditions, conducted in 1933-1935 with the assistance of Madame A. Bonnaud of the Office Public d’Habitations de Departement de la Seine introduced Bennett to the issues of public housing and urban planning. Believing that an efficient housing program would promote economic recovery, and strongly opposed to government funded housing projects, Bennett accepted a position as architectural advisor to the Prebilt Housing Corporation, one of the early private ventures in American prefabricated housing. His correspondence with Ernest Pavey the company’s director traces the industry’s development from the earliest idea through the point of actual production, dealing particularly with the need to combine “land planning, careful financing and the latest technical developments.” While working on this project, Bennett began to explore the potential uses of steel in building. He became fascinated with this medium and continued to use it throughout his career.
As a result of his work in housing, Bennett’s interests expanded into urban and campus planning. He was appointed to the Ann Arbor City Planning Commission in 1935 and did extensive work on parking structures and urban traffic flow in the early fifties. He worked as an advisor to the planning committee of the Flint College and Cultural Center in 1957-1958 and wrote several articles on Flint’s industrial history.
Throughout these years Bennett continued to work as an architect in Ann Arbor. The collection includes a list of his specific works and detailed accounts of the work on his own home and the E.R. Sunderland residence. He maintained a strong interest in the architectural history of the University. A letter to James M. Babcock (April 27, 1964) identifies the architectural firms responsible for various early University buildings and lists their other works in Michigan. In 1952, he published an article in Architecture, entitled “The Law Courts Building – University of Michigan.”
As an educator, Bennett was concerned with the development of his profession and its schools. He served on numerous state and national accreditation boards, and was instrumental in developing guidelines for the standardization of licensing and accreditation practices.
Bennett became Dean of the College of Architecture and Design in 1937, the year in which the department was first granted the status of an independent college. In his efforts to improve the quality of education, he invited outstanding architects to the University for lectures, seminars and conferences. Among those who visited the University and with whom Bennett corresponded were R. Buckminster Fuller and Eric Mendelsohn.
After his retirement in 1957, Wells Bennett continued to travel and to write. His travels resulted in many comparative architectural studies and a special interest in the sea, ships and harbors. Bennett died in 1966