Paul Philippe Cret, the prolific Beaux-Arts architect who designed many structures in and around Philadelphia, was born in Lyon, France in 1876. After studying in his hometown and then in Paris, Cret sailed for America to teach architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1903. Although he had established a his own firm in Philadelphia by 1907, Cret served in the French army for the entire span of World War I, and received several military honors. Before returning to Philadelphia in 1919, Cret designed a European memorial at the request of Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, whose son Quentin had died in combat.
Cret’s architectural firm flourished through the 1920s. After World War I, there was a high demand for monuments to commemorate people who had served. The Frankfort War Memorial at Wakeling and Large Streets was designed by Cret, as was the National Memorial Arch at Valley Forge, and several commemorative structures in France.
Beginning in 1922, Cret designed the Delaware River Bridge (now the Benjamin Franklin Bridge), which at the time of its completion was the longest suspension bridge in the world.
The construction of the bridge was extremely technical and complicated, and required workers to dig to the bedrock at the bottom of the river in chambers so highly pressurized that the laborers could not expel enough air to whistle while they tunneled. The building of the bridge cost $37,103,765.42 (over eight million dollars more than expected) but was employed by 32,000 vehicles over the course of the first day it was opened. Cret subsequently drafted the University Avenue Bridge and the Henry Avenue Bridge. In 2012, Courier Post went behind the scenes of the Ben Franklin Bridge and shared this video.
Cret began making plans for the Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA in 1923 and competed the project two years later. Not long after, he collaborated with Jacques Greber to design the Rodin Museum, and in 1936, Cret drafted the plan for the sturdy granite gates to The Woodlands Cemetery.
Throughout his career, Cret advised several major universities including Brown, Harvard, Penn and the University of Texas at Austin on campus architecture.
On September 8, 1945 (68 years ago, yesterday) Paul Cret died of heart disease in Philadelphia, at age 69. He is buried in Section K of The Woodlands, beneath a marker of his own design. Many of his creations still stand today in Philadelphia, and have made an immense impression on the architectural fabric of the city.
by Rive Cadwallader