Lynn Bensel Hewitt, Architect (2)
February 9, 2017
When Lynn joined Friday Architects, the firm was rising to become a force in Philadelphia’s design community. Their offices, on 22nd Street, occupied the second (top) floor of a commercial building at the corner of Chestnut Street. The partners were leaders in the local AIA and often had parties for all the nearby firms. As she was raised in a dysfunctional family, Lynn found the atmosphere welcoming, and quickly became a trusted employee. There were other Yalies working at leading firms, and Lynn joined a vibrant group of young designers in helping to shape the city’s architecture scene.
So close was the design community in Center City that when work slacked off at one firm, another might take on its young designers for a short time until things got better. Lynn thus had the opportunity to work for a short period at Venturi & Rauch (later Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown) on Pine Street. The nation’s Bicentennial was approaching, and several leading architects were collaborating on an exposition to coincide with celebrations in the city.
When I came from Yale to study architecture at Penn in the fall of 1975, Lynn began working on drawings for a show of Friday’s work for the following year. When it opened the national press took notice, giving the firm a boost in prestige beyond the local market. I recall a lecture by David Slovic and Don Matzkin at Penn that greatly impressed me. During my third year in the master’s program Friday offered a studio, shared with Robert A.M. Stern, in which Lynn was the faculty critic. I was lucky enough to get into this popular class, and that is where I met my future wife.
After I finished my thesis in 1978 Lynn and I began dating. We lived together in Powelton Village while she continued at Friday, and I joined the staff at Venturi & Rauch. The friendships from those years sustained us, even after we moved to New York in 1980 so that I could fulfill a dream of working in the city. That year we were married in Philadelphia, at University Lutheran Church of the Incarnation.
Lynn had a successful career in New York, working first at Gwathmey Siegel Associates and later at Kliment & Halsband. I think it was significant that she worked for three husband-wife partnerships during her career. Robert Kliment became a mentor for Lynn, and she was given responsibility for several major projects. She often said that she did her best work while in their studio.
In 1982 we moved to Houston. I became an assistant professor at Rice, and Lynn was quickly hired as an adjunct critic there as well. Leslie Barry Davidson, a prominent Houston architect, saw Lynn’s talents and hired her as an associate. She also became active in the Rice Design Alliance and the local design community. Many female architecture students at Rice found her to be an inspiration, and her studio teaching was always strong. As married faculty, we led two sophomore class trips during spring terms, one to Southern California, the other to London.
Sarah was born at the Rice Medical center in 1985, just as we left for New York, where I got a job teaching preservation at Columbia. Lynn and I chose to open a joint practice, and we were successful in getting two large residential commissions. During our years in New Jersey we worked effectively as a team, later moving to Hope, in Warren County. Unfortunately, following our relocation Lynn became seriously ill with depression, probably a condition inherited from her father. Her mental illness eventually contributed to our separation and later divorce.
Lynn continued to practice architecture sporadically after 1995, while raising Sarah in their small rural community. She fought through two bouts with lung cancer, and continued to struggle with psychological challenges as well. Eventually her health deteriorated so markedly that she was compelled to live with her brother, John, in Williamsburg, Virginia. John as his wife Beth nursed her during her last years, through a period of dementia, until her passing in January.
Lynn traversed a challenging path as a woman architect in the late twentieth century. She won the respect and admiration of many peers, particularly Allan Greenberg, Frances Halsband, Arlene Matzkin, Leslie Davidson, Peter Papademetriou, Robert Stern, and Susanna Torre. Her students and colleagues cherish their memories of a gentle but fiercely intelligent woman who made an impact in her profession.