Paul Philippe Cret papers
Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
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Paul Cret was born in Lyon, France, on 23 October 1876 to parents of modest means: he was their third son and their only child to survive infancy. His father, Paul Adolphe Cret, died in 1881, leaving Anna Durand Cret and young Paul, five years old. Paul Cret's earliest surviving letter, 30 December 1881, tells his mother not to cry and assures her that he will take care of her. Anna Cret's opportunity to provide a future for her son came through the marriage of her sister to a businessman who was the younger brother of a prominent Lyon architect, Joannes Bernard. By 1892 Cret was enrolled in a fee-paying school, Académie de Lyon. In 1893 he withdrew from that school before graduation and entered the École nationale des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, where he studied architecture and won the Prix de Paris in 1897; the award provided a stipend from his home city for his subsequent study at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Cret placed first in the entrance examinations for the École des Beaux-Arts and did superior work as a student there. He was attached to Atelier Pascal, whose patron, Jean Louis Pascal, promoted his career and corresponded with him in collegial tones until his death in 1920.
The École des Beaux-Arts drew students from all over the world, including a significant number of Americans; enterprising young French architects from the École des Beaux-Arts traveled widely in search of active architectural careers. The American students who returned home opened doors for their French colleagues both in architectural practice and in the expanding schools of architecture in the United States. Cret had come to the United States briefly in 1902, working at small jobs arranged through contact with his American fellow students. The opportunity, however, that shaped his career occurred in 1903, when he was offered the position of Assistant Professor of Design in the School of Architecture of the University of Pennsylvania. According to John Harbeson, students of the School of Architecture had longed for good training in design, and graduates had collaborated to raise money to bring in a first-class design teacher. Their search to fill the position naturally turned to the École des Beaux-Arts, where many of their number had gone to fill out the deficiencies of their architectural training at home. Paul Davis, a graduate of the School of Architecture and a former student of Atelier Pascal in the École des Beaux-Arts, consulted Jean Pascal, corresponded with Cret about the possible appointment, and proposed Cret for the position to Warren Laird, head of the School of Architecture.
Cret was warmly received by American architecture students. He taught design in the style of the French atelier and also lecture courses in the history of art and the philosophy of architecture. In the evenings he was patron (unpaid) of an atelier on the French model sponsored by the T Square Club, Philadelphia's architectural society. The atelier was open (at a very small fee) to practicing architects and to draftsmen with experience in architectural offices, who hoped to develop advanced skill in design to balance their experience in the practical side of architecture. Both atelier students and university students participated in competitions and exhibitions sponsored locally by the T Square Club and competed in regular design competitions sponsored by the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects. Cret's students especially appreciated his keen attention to their drawings and his constructive criticism and suggestions. In 1910 he was elected the most popular professor by the University of Pennsylvania senior class, the first time the senior class had honored a member of the architecture faculty. Through the years he trained many of America's future architects and architectural educatures, and by his retirement he was surrounded by colleagues across the nation who had also been his students.
From his first year at the University of Pennsylvania he maintained a private practice in tandem with his teaching, and that practice never stopped, even during his service in World War I. His early architectural projects were done in collaboration with architects who maintained full-scale offices, which could handle the day-to-day business of accounts and routine drafting. Even before he opened a formal office, he practiced out of his home and employed some of his students and former students, most notably John Harbeson. Later he formed a partnership with Harbeson and three other former students, William J. H. Hough, William H. Livingston, and Roy F. Larson. While he delegated responsibility for certain aspects of his projects to his partners, he remained in full control of all of his firm's work to the end of his very active career.
Until his professional practice became firmly established in Philadelphia, however, it was not entirely certain that Cret would remain at the University of Pennsylvania. He kept in touch with his colleagues at other American universities, and from time to time he was tempted to go elsewhere. In 1906 his old friend from the École des Beaux-Arts, M. J. Prévot, gave him to believe that a position would be available at Cornell University, where Prévot was teaching. Cret wrote to Cornell's president, but the position did not materialize. In 1910 Cret's University of Pennsylvania colleague C. F. Osborne proposed that they both leave for positions at Washington University. In this case, the university was eagerly offering the position and Cret accepted at first, but immediately he backed down and convinced Osborne not to leave either. By 1913 when he was asked whether he would be interested in the Directorship of the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana, he declined to pursue it.
Cret had arrived from France in a period of ferment in American education. Just as lawyers could still choose to "read law" in a practicing lawyer's office, architects could still begin as practicing draftsmen instead of college freshmen. University-based professional education was growing, however, and would ultimately replace various types of apprenticeship in the professions. This transition was much debated in the professional literature of the early twentieth century. Also under debate was the direction and content of the university course of study. Architectural engineering was becoming a separate specialized field, seen by some as a serious challenge to architectural design. And within the sphere of architectural design, the influence of the French École des Beaux-Arts tradition was challenged by some who viewed it as inhibiting the development of an American national style. The Beaux-Arts tradition in America placed considerable emphasis on the use of competitions, both in education and in professional practice, to select an architect for a major building project. The use of competitions was challenged in addition to the French influence in design and ornament. Cret followed the debates keenly and participated actively. During his tenure as Professor of Design, the University of Pennsylvania emerged as a model for other universities opening or developing programs of architectural study, and Cret published significant contributions to the theory of architecture and architectural education in professional journals.
This was also a period in which burgeoning city growth was coming under the civilizing control of city planning. In his city planning work Cret brought his French heritage of boulevards, vistas, monuments, public buildings, and gardens to bear on the relentless rectangular street patterns so characteristic of nineteenth-century American cities (and on the successful American businessman's characteristic determination to build productive structures on every available parcel of land). In 1907 in Philadelphia, he was appointed by the Fairmount Park Art Association, together with C. C. Zantzinger and Horace Trumbauer, to draw up the plan that became the Philadelphia Parkway, now the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In Cret's absence during World War I, Jacques Gréber continued to work out the Parkway plan. After the war Cret resumed city planning projects in Philadelphia and continued to serve on the Philadelphia Art Jury. He executed major design work on Rittenhouse Square, the Schuylkill River embankments, and numerous other city amenities; he also designed and built many Philadelphia bridges, including the Delaware River Bridge (now the Benjamin Franklin Bridge), for many years the longest suspension bridge in the United States.
Cret's bridges display several facets of his complex personality in a way that illustrates the basic consistency of his convictions. He designed his bridges as pieces of public art forming part of the design of a city or public space. With bridge engineer Ralph Modjeski and his successor Frank M. Masters, he designed and built many bridges, large and small, including the Delaware River Bridge, the Calvert Street Bridge in Washington, D.C., and the Falls View Bridge in Niagara Falls, New York. This long and fruitful collaboration shows Cret's conviction that designing architects and engineers must work together to make the best use of new materials and construction techniques while maintaining the pre-eminence of artistic considerations in the design process. His bridge designs were functional and modern in spirit, demonstrating his respect for the styles of his own time, but they were also rooted in his rich knowledge of the history of architectural design.
Cret's city planning work was not limited to Philadelphia. The overall plan of the city was an essential part of his design of each of his public buildings, monuments, and memorials in cities across the nation. In the nation's capital the Pan American Union, Folger Shakespeare Library, Federal Reserve Board Building, and Cret's bridges and roads bear witness to his skill in planning his designs in relation to other buildings, parks, and open spaces with a larger city design in mind. His appointment in 1940 to the United States Commission on the Fine Arts was a fitting recognition of his role in American city planning and in the design of Washington, D.C., in particular.
His work as planning consultant to universities is similar in many ways to city planning, as each institution can be seen as a little city in itself as well as part of the larger city plan. Cret began this kind of work in collaboration with Warren Laird, completing planning projects for the University of Wisconsin, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brown University. Brown University later retained Cret alone as continuing consultant, as did the University of Pennsylvania on a number of occasions. His largest single university planning project concerned the University of Texas, for which he served as consulting architect from 1930 to 1945. During his tenure he drew up an overall university plan, designed and built nineteen buildings, and designed the landscaping of the grounds. He also did substantial consulting and design work for Pennsylvania State University in the 1940s.
Even while Cret became a significant part of America's professional and educational establishment, he remained rooted in his native country. In 1905 he had married Marguerite Lahalle, sister of his long-time friend and fellow student Pierre Lahalle, and brought her to Philadelphia. Throughout their forty-year marriage, they returned each summer to her father's country home, Beauvois, in Loiret, France. In 1909 Cret was made a member of the French Academy. Paul and Marguerite Cret were at Beauvois in the summer of 1914, when World War I began. Cret, as a reservist, reported for duty and was assigned as a private soldier to the Chasseurs alpins. Marguerite contributed to the war effort as a volunteer hospital worker and carried on a voluminous correspondence with her husband. During the war Cret remained in active correspondence with his colleagues, kept his mind focused on the reading matter Marguerite regularly sent him, and poured out his thoughts in his letters to her. His architectural practice in the United States continued even in his absence. His associated firm, Zantzinger, Borie & Medary, completed construction of the Indianapolis Public Library, and John Harbeson managed other commissions left incomplete at the beginning of the war. After the United States entered the war, Cret, now a lieutenant, was assigned as interpreter first to the American First Division and then, after that division entered Germany, to the 92nd Division. For his wartime service to his country, he was awarded the Croix de guerre, and in 1925 he was made a member of the Légion d'honneur.
Although Cret became an American citizen in 1927, he remained loyal to his heritage. He and Marguerite had no children, and they were devoted to their families in France. Cret kept in touch with them through correspondence and through their annual summer residence at Beauvois, and he consistently assisted relatives in need (both his and Marguerite's) throughout the years of postwar recovery, the Great Depression, and the World War II. He was an honorary member of the Société académique d 'architecture de Lyon and published articles in French professional journals. During a period when sculpture was a prominent part of architecture, he engaged a number of French sculptors (as well as Americans) to design sculpture for his buildings. It was a serious disappointment to him that after many years of work and substantial financial expenditure, his French Embassy in Washington, D.C., was never built. The Depression and politics in Paris finally deprived him of this achievement, as it appears the same factors conspired to stop the exhibition hall that he designed with Jacques Carlu for the French exhibition at the Century of Progress Exposition at Chicago in 1933.
Cret's greatest professional legacy was in his adopted country. In addition to his profound influence on young architects during thirty-four years of teaching and his major contributions to the professional debates of his day, his own built work has left an enduring mark. His architectural contribution in Europe came by way of America, as he designed monuments to commemorate the war dead for the state of Pennsylvania and for the American Battle Monuments Commission and served as juror for the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Competition. In the United States his public buildings, commemorative structures, bridges, boulevards, and parks remain as vital parts of the cities over fifty years after his death. And the admiring imitation that his built work sp arked in his contemporaries has multiplied his influence on American cities many times over. It is noteworthy that the very Depression that frustrated his work for the French government resulted in increased commissions from the American government. His important public buildings and monuments had already established him as a vital force to be reckoned with in national circles, and during the years of major federal investment in construction during the Depression and World War II, he designed or participated in the design of a large number of government buildings, hospitals, monuments, bridges, dams, and military installations.
Cret's idea of rest and enjoyment was to work on his architectural projects. He retired from teaching in 1937 on the advice of his physician, but he never stopped his professional work. When his larynx was removed in 1939 because of throat cancer, his office carried on his work while he recovered, and he returned to his practice as soon as possible. On 16 August 1945 he was in the midst of several ongoing projects and on a site visit to one of them when he suffered a heart attack. Typically, he returned home before he sought medical attention. This time he could not return to work. He died on 8 September 1945 at the age of sixty-nine.
The Paul Philippe Cret Papers were donated to the University of Pennsylvania by John Harbeson, Cret's partner and a partner in the successor firm of Harbeson, Hough, Livingston and Larson, later known as H2L2. The first donation included architectural drawings, correspondence, and personal and family materials. Later donations added materials related to Cret's projects, including working drawings and collections of photographs, offprints, and clippings. The drawings held by the University of Pennsylvania Library are now housed in the Architectural Archives of the School of Fine Arts and are available for study there. After Harbeson's death in 1986, H2L2 offered for sale a further group of Cret materials, which were acquired by the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. The drawings held by the Athenaeum are available for study there and are cataloged in Franklin.
The largest portion of the Cret Papers now housed in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library of the University of Pennsylvania comprises Cret's correspondence, ranging in date from his letter (age 5) to his mother in 1881 on the death of his father to a letter to his office from his bed shortly before he died in 1945. Between those dates the collection is by no means comprehensive.
The collection includes correspondence for only a small number of Cret's projects, and even for those files the correspondence is not comprehensive. Because of the limited nature of the project correspondence, it has not been grouped together but, instead, has been filed alphabetically by correspondent in General Correspondence. Individual correspondent files, however, have been cataloged in Franklin; many of these 587 cataloging records contain brief summaries that mention various projects.
The most extensive project documentation found in Cret's correspondence relates to four projects. Correspondence with Cret's associate Albert Kelsey provides substantial documentation for the Pan American Union from 1907 to 1926. Correspondence with Louis Bernier and Louis E. Jallade documents their collaboration on Bernier's proposed French Embassy in Washington, D.C., which was never built. Albert Kahn, Clyde Burroughs, and W. R. Valentiner corresponded on behalf of the Detroit Institute of Arts with Cret and with his associates Zantzinger, Borie, and Medary. Correspondence in 1932 and 1933 with the Detroit Institute of Arts and with Detroit architect William E. Kapp addressed the controversy over murals painted by Diego Rivera in the museum on the walls of Cret's garden courtyard. Alexander Trowbridge was professional advisor to Henry Clay Folger for the Folger Shakespeare Library and sent Cret detailed information on his conferences and correspondence with Folger. Cret also corresponded directly with Folger as well as his wife and responded to their intensely detailed interest in the design and decoration of their building. For each of these projects additional correspondents contribute significant documentation.
The collection includes useful but more limited correspondence related to Cret's later additions to the Pan American Union, his own design for a never-realized French Embassy in Washington, D.C., the Indianapolis Public Library, the Barnes Foundation, the Rodin Museum, Brown University, the University of Texas, and his many varied projects for the United States government, including the American Battle Monuments Commission, the Army, and the Navy. There is spotty coverage of a wide range of additional projects, as well as architectural competitions in which he was a professional advisor, a juror, or a competitor. Occasionally correspondence about a competition contains information on the jury's reasoning for choosing the winning design.
In connection with his projects Cret corresponded with a number of sculptors and other artists who were commissioned to execute decorative details of his buildings or asked to submit proposals or estimates. The collection does not include comprehensive correspondence with any artist on any project. Significant correspondence is found with John Gregory and Brenda Putnam on the Folger Library. Others include J. H. Allen (architectural terra cotta: Pan American Union, Delaware River Bridge, Barnes Foundation); Alfred Bottiau (sculpture: Integrity Trust Company); Leon Hermant (sculpture: Calvert Street Bridge); Mrs. Buell Mullin (mural painting: Library of Congress Hispanic Room); and Jean De Marco (sculpture: Whitemarsh Memorial Park).
Cret's project correspondence includes public figures such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was personally active in planning the architecture and public spaces of Washington, D.C., and environs; General John J. Pershing in his capacity as head of the American Battle Monuments Commission; and Archibald MacLeish, as Librarian of Congress.
In addition to practical correspondence related to projects, Cret corresponded with many American architects active during the first half of the twentieth century, including advocates of widely divergent styles, ranging from Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue to Albert Kahn. Cret respected Frank Lloyd Wright's work and wrote, at the request of Otto Tod Mallery, to the Commissioners of Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania, in support of Wright's "Ardmore experiment" (Sun Top Homes ). His correspondence with Mallery contains copies of Wright's correspondence with Lower Merion Township. Occasionally Cret responded to a request for a list of American architecture that he considered noteworthy. The collection contains his responses to John Cushman Fistere of the Architectural Forum; Caroline Hewitt, wife of the architect Edwin H. Hewitt; and William Jones Smith, his former student. It is noteworthy that the collection contains no correspondence with or about one of his most famous students, Louis I. Kahn.
Early in his life Cret corresponded with a number of French architects who had been his mentors, teachers, and fellow students, including a few contemporaries who also made careers in the United States, for example, Leon Arnal and M. J. Prévot. His own students wrote to him from study and travel abroad, from architectural practices all over the country, and from university teaching positions. His students wrote to him when he was serving in World War I and when they were serving in World War II. He corresponded with colleagues whose articles he had read and colleagues who had read his, discussing the big issues facing the architectural profession and architectural education in his day.
Cret's correspondence is nearly all professional with the exception of that with his family. Even Cret's social relations were largely professional; much of his social correspondence, therefore, reflects his academic and professional interests. His correspondents include two notable women with whom he had long-term friendships--Shirley Watkins, a novelist, and Marcella Du Pont, a poet and the wife of the architect Alfred Du Pont. In each case, the correspondence reflects broad and deep reading and articulate reflection on literature, philosophy, and public affairs as well as on art and architecture.
Of particular value to the researcher is his wartime correspondence with his wife Marguerite. He wrote frequently from the very beginning of the war to the end, and Marguerite saved his letters faithfully. At the front he was unable to save her letters, nor could he save consistently those of anyone else who wrote to him, including his mother. In one case he enclosed in a letter to Marguerite a photograph that his mother had sent him of herself, because he could not hope to preserve it. One must guess that the few surviving original letters received by Cret during World War I must have been sent on to Marguerite. One such letter, from the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, has written at the bottom in Cret's handwriting that it was damaged in the battle of Ypres. Two letters from children who did not know him (Blanche Ripert and P. R. T. Gluksman) have been preserved: they express their concern for his safety. His wartime letters provide a day-to-day view of World War I from the front and at the same time show how a man of Cret's sensitivity preserved his mental and emotional balance in the midst of the boredom and horrors by reading, thinking, and writing to his wife about art, philosophy, history, and public affairs.
The collection also includes correspondence about Cret. A bound volume contains more than one hundred letters recommending Cret for the Philadelphia Award. There is also a small amount of correspondence about Cret after his death, primarily correspondence with John Harbeson. A carbon copy of a letter of 1949 from J. N. Pease, an architectural engineer who collaborated with Cret on the naval hospital at Beauford, South Carolina, describes Cret's visit to the hospital site in August 1945 and the "slight attack" that he suffered at the end of that visit (Cret died September 8th).
The collection is rich in Cret's own writings, found in Essays, Addresses, Lectures, Interviews, etc., including notes, drafts, and revisions of many of his published articles and contributions to books as well as notes and m anuscripts for public lectures and less formal talks. Included are several drafts of a long article on architectural rendering, which was never published in its original form. Also included are published interviews and articles written by others containing lengthy quotations from a Cret interview. This collection of Cret's writings is not exhaustive. Some are not represented at all. Some lectures or talks are represented only by sketchy manuscript notes. Some published writings are represented only by an incomplete or preliminary manuscript or typescript draft. Some published writings are represented only by an offprint or clipping of the published article.
Material other than correspondence about Cret's projects is even less complete than the project correspondence. Material related to Cret's architectural practice includes contracts, accounts, reports to the client, reports an d notes for internal use, drawings, and printed ephemera. There is also a substantial collection of offprints and clippings about Cret's work, including a few from publications such as L'Architecture. Nearly all Cret's formal project drawings donated to the University of Pennsylvania are housed in the Architectural Archives. Only a very few drawings remain with this collection. Reports, memoranda, and notes--some to clients and some for internal use--are available for only a few projects but may be of considerable value to researchers; some include sketches. Reports and notes for the Detroit Institute of Arts are particularly numerous and substantial.
Researchers interested in Cret's office and partnership will find a small amount of business information. In addition to financial information, there are manuscript notes about the partnership agreement. A description of how a building was studied in Cret's office was written by Harbeson for the "Paul P. Cret Exhibition of Architectural Drawings," held at the Philadelphia Art Alliance from 17 October through 7 November 1937. The exhibition included the following works: the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania; the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia; the University Avenue Bridge and the Henry Avenue Bridge in Philadelphia; and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The collection also includes a caricature strip (1927), found in Biographical material, showing Cret and members of his office: each caricature is signed by the subject. Cret's correspondence with his office collectively, found in General Correspondence filed under Harbeson, includes a Christmas card to Cret (1944) signed by members of his office and Cret's response (dated 21 August 1945) to a get well card during his final illness.
Photographs are available only for some projects and may include photographs of a completed building and/or miscellaneous working photographs of the proposed site and context, work in progress, and plaster models of decorative details or sculpture. There are also photographs of architectural drawings, including some of Cret's student work and some of his competition drawings, probably photographed for publication. Projects with large numbers of photographs include the Folger Shakespeare Library, the American Battle Monuments Commission, the Hartford County Building, the Providence War Memorial, Integrity Trust Company, Whitemarsh Memorial Park, Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, the U.S. Post Office and Court House in Fort Worth, Texas, and private houses built for Theodore Shaeffer and Clarence Geist in Philadelphia suburbs.
Apart from the correspondence, the most valuable research materials in the collection may be Cret's notes. Cret read voraciously all his life and taught for thirty-seven years. Through the decades he kept files of notes drawn from and commenting on his reading and observation, and they are combined with clippings and offprints, many of them annotated. These materials from a large body of notes and commentary, most in Cret's handwriting and many on scraps of paper, on a wide range of art and architectur al subjects from an extremely broad range of writers, many of whom are not often linked with art. He seems to have used these for different purposes at different times, including university lectures, project design, and writing for publication. As received by the Penn Library, a large number of these were roughly arranged as if for use in specific course lectures. A large number, however, of similar materials were found in no discernible order, while others had been pasted on sheets of paper as if for an exhibition focused on the wide variety of Cret's interests and comments. These materials have been grouped to make them more accessible. Notes and drafts in preparation for writing a letter are filed with the letter in General Correspondence. Notes and drafts that led to published articles are filed with the articles in Essays, Addresses, Lectures, Interviews, etc. Notes directly related to any one specific project are filed with the project in Material related to Cret's architectural practice. Cret's extensive notes on museums made in preparation for the Detroit Institute of Arts are filed with that project, even though the same notes also led to articles on museum design. Notes used for Cret's teaching and notes and articles related to architectural education are grouped together in Material related to Cret's teaching and to architectural education. The balance of Cret's notes forms a separate series, Miscellaneous notes and articles/clippings saved by Cret.
The collection contains a moderate amount of biographical material. Cret wrote no memoirs, but he saved birth certificates, obituaries, and a few other documents for some of his close family members. Cret suffered from serious deafness most of his life as a result of his service in World War I. After he lost his speech in 1939 as a result of surgery for cancer of the larynx, he communicated with others in his daily life largely by means of notes written on a note pad that he carried with him at all times. The collection includes a small number of these notes and written conversations. As with his other notes, conference notes about a project are filed with the project in material related to Cret's architectural practice. Many of these written conversations are found in miscellaneous notes and articles/clippings saved by Cret. Only Cret's written conversation with his physician during his final illness in 1945 is filed in Biographical material. The collection includes a substantial number of clippings and offprints of published material about Cret. John Harbeson added to the collection some biographical materials that he had prepared as well as a draft he had prepared for a book about Cret, which was never completed or published. The collection contains few personal photographs. Among photographs including Cret are group photographs of consultants to the Board of Design for the 1939 New York Exposition and members of the United States Commission of Fine Arts (1940 ). Most photographs in the collection are related to Cret's architectural projects, and any photograph related to a project is filed under the project in Photographs even if Cret is included in the image. The only photograph of his wife in the collection is a Budd Company photograph showing Mr. and Mrs. Cret seated inside a railroad car.
Gift of John Frederick Harbeson, 1967-1978.
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- Nancy Thorne
- Finding Aid Date
- The processing of the Paul Philippe Cret Papers and the preparation of this register were made possible in part by a grant from the Walter J. Miller Charitable Trust.
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This collection is open for research use.
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