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Welton Becket architectural drawings and photographs, 1913-2009, bulk 1930-1969

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Becket (Welton) Architectural Drawings and Photographs

Biographical/Historical Note

Welton Becket (1902-1969) was an acclaimed architect whose iconic designs defined the built environment of Los Angeles in the mid-twentieth century. Through his work with a series of firms - Plummer, Wurdeman and Becket; Wurdeman and Becket; and Welton Becket and Associates - Becket was responsible for many of the best known landmarks in the city: the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, the Capitol Records Building, the Beverly Hilton, the Cinerama Dome, and the Music Center. The was also the master planner for the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Century City.

Born in Seattle in 1902, Welton David Becket was introduced to architecture at a young age. His father and a significantly older brother were builders who regularly took him to construction sites as a boy. Becket enrolled in the architecture program at the University of Washington and seemed destined to follow this path; yet there was a significant potential diversion. Becket was a popular athlete, a quarterback, and in 1927, as well as receiving his B.Arch, he was offered a contract to play football with the Green Bay Packers. In the end, he listened to his mother and opted for architecture, although his football experience remained a touchstone throughout his life. Becket then spent a postgraduate year in France at the École des Beaux-Arts, Fontainebleau. After returning to the United States in 1929, he worked briefly as a draftsman and designer for Los Angeles architect C. Waldo Powers.

During his freshman year at the University of Washington, Becket met another student, Walter C. Wurdeman (1903-1949), who would have a profound influence on the rest of his career. Sharing classes in the small and relatively new architecture program, the two became fast friends. Although Wurdeman was slightly younger, he was in some ways much more worldly. In the wake of family financial misfortunes, Wurdeman had finished high school early and by age sixteen was working as a riveter and sheet-metal worker in the Puget Sound Navy Yard. He used this income to enroll at the university, first as an engineering student but soon switching to architecture. Wurdeman preceded Becket to Fontainebleau, and then completed his architectural education with a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1928. During this time in Boston, Wurdeman's drawings were seen by Charles F. Plummer, an architect visiting from Los Angeles, who hired the young man as a draftsman in his practice back on the west coast.

So, by chance, the two college friends from Seattle, who had been out of touch, encountered each other one day in Santa Monica. Both young men were rather dissatisfied, feeling under-appreciated and constrained in their current employment. They soon decided that they should return to Seattle, where Becket had connections, and practice together.

In 1930 Welton Becket passed the Washington state licensing examination and began to practice in Seattle. Becket designed several small commercial and residential projects in a range of styles, working both independently and with Walter Wurdeman, who during much of this period was also working for the large Seattle firm of Bebb and Gould. This Seattle practice would be short-lived however, for by 1933 Becket and Wurdeman had returned to Los Angeles. In late 1932, Wurdeman's former employer, Charles Plummer contacted him in Seattle and offered him a partnership. After Wurdeman initially declined, further negotiations led to both young men becoming partners and the formation of the firm Plummer, Wurdeman and Becket, which operated from 1933 through 1937.

Charles F. Plummer (1879-1939) was born in Wisconsin, but as a boy he had moved west and was raised in Seattle. By 1913 he had moved to Los Angeles and set up an architectural practice with Joseph Feil. Plummer and Feil, Interior Designers produced a small body of commercial and residential work before the practice dissolved in 1917, after which Plummer continued to practice independently. Plummer joined the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1921 and was active in the local chapter and in other professional organizations. By 1933, after twenty years in Los Angeles, Plummer was a solidly established architect who had designed a substantial number of projects. Although the majority of these were small commercial structures, especially restaurants, a few large commissions stood out, such as the Club Casa Del Mar and the Young's Market Building.

Initially the new firm of Plummer, Wurdeman and Becket continued to work primarily in the area of small commercial projects, often drawing from Plummer's earlier client base. The firm survived the Depression economy by taking on a multitude of small jobs, many of them alterations and additions, with very narrow profit margins, even literally working for food for Clifton's Cafeteria. Yet, looking back, Becket would credit the lessons of trying to maintain a practice during these years as a key element in his later success. The firm's big break came when it won the competition to design a venue for the 1935 National Housing Exposition. Their Pan Pacific Auditorium brought the firm substantial critical attention, but perhaps ultimately more important was the fact that Walter Wurdeman used his share of the prize money to join an exclusive tennis club and make contacts. Soon the firm was gaining high-profile and lucrative residential commissions from the Hollywood community.

In later Becket publicity materials and interviews, if mentioned at all, the firm of Plummer, Wurdeman and Becket is said to have ended with Plummer's death in the spring of 1939, but the actual work of the firm indicates an earlier de facto dissolution. Although the three men would continue to share office space, as of the beginning of 1938 the clients appear to have been divided and the drawings, which previously bore a signature block for the firm of Plummer, Wurdeman and Becket, are either signed by Plummer alone or by Wurdeman and Becket. There is no further work under the Plummer, Wurdeman and Becket name.

Welton Becket and Walter Wurdeman, now equal partners in the firm of Wurdeman and Becket, would continue to work together with an amazing degree of closeness. For almost twenty years, from their arrival in Los Angeles until Wurdeman's early death in September 1949, the pair shared a single large desk, working across from one another, passing ideas and drawings back and forth. Although they were very different in personality, they complemented one another. Both men were skilled designers, but of the two, Becket was certainly the businessman, and the firm prospered in large part because of Becket's sharp business instincts and his charming manner with the clients.

The early years of the Wurdeman and Becket firm placed new demands on the partners. In 1939 the firm received its first large international commission, after the president of the Philippines saw the Pan Pacific Auditorium while on a visit to the United States. Becket spent the next two years in Manila shepherding the Jai Alai Auditorium to completion and trying to promote further business, while Wurdeman ran the Los Angeles office, continuing the production of the up-scale residences, for which the firm had become known. Soon after Becket's return in 1941, wartime restrictions on materials severely limited normal construction and the firm's commissions declined sharply. In response, Wurdeman and Becket joined with the San Diego architect, Louis Bodmer, and as Bodmer, Wurdeman and Becket produced huge quantities of housing for war workers and military families under government contracts. Becket later credited this period with teaching the two partners to feel comfortable with big projects and bureaucratic clients.

The end of the war marked the start of a new phase for the firm of Wurdeman and Becket, which took full advantage of the resulting building boom. Residential work was largely abandoned and the firm concentrated on large commercial projects. In the next few years, while turning out a string of award-winning buildings, the firm introduced principles of design, planning and construction now standard in the field, including lightweight construction methods, modular office design and the principle of "total design," in which the firm would handle all aspects of a project, from planning through supervision of construction to the decoration, signage and landscaping. The role of Welton Becket and Walter Wurdeman in the firm was also changing. They were now overseeing a much larger firm, and although they were still personally involved in the design process, much more time had to be given to managerial tasks and oversight. Then in the midst of this success, in September 1949, Walter Wurdeman died of a heart attack. Welton Becket continued to operate the firm as Wurdeman and Becket until the fall of 1950, when he bought out Wurdeman's heirs.

The new firm, Welton Becket and Associates, was solely owned by Welton Becket and would be an example of the newly emerging corporate architectural firm. Welton Becket no longer personally designed projects; rather, he served as the president of the firm, a role he would occupy until shortly before his death in January 1969. By that time Welton Becket and Associates was one of the largest firms in the country with around 500 employees in multiple branch offices; yet Becket retained a remarkable measure of control over such a large organization. He met with all potential clients, checked all plans before they were released, and visited job sites locally and internationally. One of his strongest skills as an executive was his ability to attract and retain immensely skilled designers for the firm. His unusual sole ownership allowed the firm to have a certain purity of vision that its competitors lacked. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, in contrast, had twenty-seven full and associate partners by the late 1950s, who each had a say in the direction of the practice and its designs.

Precisely identifying Becket's vision can be a bit difficult at first glance, for unlike many architects much of his work is not immediately recognizable. In the forty years of his career he never developed a singular personal style and he generally refused to discuss architectural theory in interviews. He did, however, frequently voice the belief that "a building should reflect the client, not the architect." For Becket, good design came from functionalism and truly understanding and serving the needs of the client, within the allotted budget. For most of his career, this meant working within a modern style, somewhere on the continuum of Streamline Moderne, Late Moderne, or the International Style, but even when he was designing his early Period Revival homes, he applied this principle. Becket's approach to architectural design brought him a certain number of detractors, but also a great degree of success. Welton Becket and his firms received dozens of local, national and international awards for the design and execution of their projects. In 1952 he was elected as a fellow of the AIA, one of the youngest architects to receive the honor at that time.

The week before his death in January 1969, Becket announced his transition to chairman of the Welton Becket and Associates and passed the role of president to his nephew MacDonald Becket. In this position and then as chief executive officer and chairman of the board, MacDonald Becket aggressively expanded the firm. Under the influence of such growth and its accompanying structural changes, as well as in the absence of Welton Becket's aesthetic governance, the architecture produced by the firm in the 1970s and 1980s assumed an increasingly corporate character. In 1987, the Becket Group, the parent company operating the subsidiaries which were the descendants of Welton Becket and Associates, merged with Ellerbe, a Minnesota-based firm, to form Ellerbe Becket, which in turn was absorbed by Aecom in 2009.

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