Ralph B. Bencker

 Philadelphia Modernism


The 1920s and 1930s were a time of architectural change in the United States.  European modernism following World War I was a paradigm shift from Beaux-arts, classically inspired design.  These new ideas combined with early American modernism led to an ornamentation style known as Art Deco.  Ralph Bencker is described as an Art Deco architect, but one must define the style and its context to see if this characterization is accurate.  Although Bencker creates buildings which can be seen as Art Deco, this term is dangerously over utilized.  Ralph Bencker should be more appropriately labeled a Modernist architect who was not a follower of a specific ornamental philosophy, rather one who is lumped into the Art Deco movement, which was not defined until the 1960s.




    Ralph Bencker was born December 24th 1883 in Philadelphia, PA.  His collegiate education began in 1902 at the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art, followed by a stint at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and finally Temple University.  Bencker's first architectural employment was in the office of Paul Davis.  Davis is known to have studied at L'ecole des Beaux Arts in France and designed under such tenets.  The next firm to employ Bencker was Price and McLanahan.  With this firm, Bencker was exposed to the Arts and Crafts movement primarily seen in residential dwellings.

    Following William Price's death in 1916, Bencker became a partner with M. Hawley McLanahan, eventually forming the firm McLanahan and Bencker.  This partnership, which lasted from 1916 - 1925, afforded Ralph Bencker the opportunity to explore modern design principles.  In 1923, the partnership was awarded the AIA Philadelphia's Gold Medal award for Meritorious Work for their addition placed on the Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. 

    Although successful, Ralph Bencker decided to dissolve the partnership in 1925 and focus on his modernist design.  The Philadelphia Architects and Buildings survey contends that Bencker was one of few Philadelphia architects to embrace deco design, but a center city walking tour reveals otherwise.  Numerous small, commercial buildings include deco detailing, but Bencker's notoriety gives him prominence similar to Paul Cret.  Practicing until his death in 1961, Bencker combined his innovative designs with an understanding of commercial needs to leave a lasting effect on the Philadelphia streetscape. (PAB)


Bencker's Modernism & Art Deco

History and Definition of Art Deco


Nick Kraus

University of Pennsylvania

HSPV 600

December 2005