One of the most influential forces in Philadelphia architecture during the early part of the twentieth century, Paul P. Cret was born in Lyons, France. He first studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of Lyons; and there won the Paris Prize, which enabled him to move to Paris and attend the Ecole there as well as become a member of the Atelier supervised by Pascal
. In 1903 when many schools of architecture in the United States were importing teachers from the Ecole, Cret was persuaded to move to Philadelphia and become a Professor of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, arriving in August 1903. Throughout his 34 year tenure, Cret trained many of the students graduating from the University's Department of Architecture and acted as patron
of the T-Square Club Atelier; the Beaux-Arts stamp could be seen on the work of those students long after they had graduated and dispersed to various parts of the world.
In 1907 Cret, in partnership with Philadelphian Albert Kelsey, won the first of many national architectural competitions which he would enter, the design of the International Bureau of American Republics in Washington, DC (the Pan American Union). Before the first World War interrupted his career, Cret would participate in several other competitions, including the Robert Fulton Memorial Competition (1909: Third Place), the Perry Memorial Competition (1911: Third Place), and the Indianapolis Public Library (1914: First place, with Zantzinger, Borie & Medary).
Cret was in France when World War I broke out, and he simply remained there in the army for the next five years, returning to Philadelphia when he was discharged. At the end of his time in the service, Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt asked him to design a memorial to her son, Quentin, who had been killed in the War. This was designed in 1919 for a site at Chamery, France. For his work during the war, Cret was awarded the Croix de Guerre and made an officer in the Legion of Honor.
Upon his return from France, Cret was again engaged in an active practice combined with his teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. It was during this time that he designed his first bridge, the Delaware River Bridge in Philadelphia, on which he collaborated with engineer Ralph Modjeski. The 1920s were a thriving time for Cret's work and included work on the Detroit Institute of Arts (with Zantzinger, Borie & Medary), the Frankford War Memorial in Philadelphia, the Barnes Foundation Gallery, Merion, PA, and the Integrity Trust Co., Philadelphia. He was also called upon to use his planning skills for several major campus plans (Brown University, University of Pennsylvania, and, later, the University of Texas at Austin).
In his capacity as Consulting Architect for the American Battle Monuments Commission from 1923 to 1945, Cret was in a role where he could affect the image of the United States which was projected abroad through the design of memorials, chapels, and cemeteries in honor of the dead of the first World War. He would continue in this capacity until his death and be followed in this position by his student and colleague John F. Harbeson.
Cret's firm flourished until his death. Over the years he designed many memorials, civic and commercial buildings, and, beginning in 1933, even railroad cars. His practice was chiefly non-residential, perhaps because his designs were better suited to the monumentality required by public structures; however, a few residences such as the James M. Cameron residence in Harrisburg, PA (1927) attest to his firm's abilities in that area.
Cret's memberships included the National Academy of Design, National Institute of Arts and Letter, American Philosophical Society, Society of Beaux-Arts Architects, the T-Square Club, the American Institute of Architects, and the French Benevolent Society, among others. His areas of public service included serving as a member of the Art Jury of the City of Philadelphia from its foundation until his death, serving on the National Fine Arts Commission for two terms, and chairing the American Institute of Architects National Committee on War Memorials.
A great number of awards came to Cret in recognition of his contributions to city planning, American architecture, and architectural education. These included the Bok Award (1931), the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects (1938), the medal of honor of the Architectural League of New York (1920), the Paris Grand Prix, the Prize of Honor at the 5th Pan American Congress of Architects at Montevideo (with Zantzinger, Borie & Medary), and the Award of Merit of the Pennsylvania Alumni Society. He received honorary degrees from Brown University (Master of Arts, 1929), the University of Pennsylvania (1913), and Harvard University (1940). In addition to his architectural design and city planning work Cret published several articles which described the Beaux-Arts method and reacted to the modernist principles of design.
Presentation of the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects to Paul Philippe Cret.