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BENTSEN, KENNETH EDWARD

BENTSEN, KENNETH EDWARD (1926–2013). Kenneth Edward Bentsen, architect, was born in Mission, Texas, on November 21, 1926, to Lloyd M. Bentsen, Sr., and Edna Ruth (Colbath) Bentsen. He initially attended the University of Texas before enlisting in the United States Naval Air Corps during World War II. After his service, he attended the University of Houston, where he studied under noted architects Donald Barthelme and Howard Barnstone, and graduated with a degree in architecture in 1952. Bentsen showed a precocious talent and designed his first building, a residence for his parents in McAllen, Texas, in 1950 while he was still an architecture student. He worked with the noted Houston firm of MacKie and Kamrath until he left to open his own office, Kenneth Bentsen Associates, in 1958. 

Among Bentsen’s first works were bank buildings in Houston for Gulf Coast National Bank (1959) and South Park National Bank (1960)—both steel-and-glass pavilions influenced by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. A few years later he designed the Southwest Tower (1964), a twenty-one-story office building in downtown Houston for Bank of the Southwest. Banking clients in the Rio Grande Valley led to commissions for First National Bank of Mission (1960), First National Bank of Edinburg (1964), and Texas Commerce Bank–McAllen (1982). 

In the early 1960s Bentsen joined with John H. Freeman, Jr., to design an addition for the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston (1962). This was the first of many projects for institutions in the Texas Medical Center as Bentsen developed an expertise in the design of healthcare facilities. He did renovations and new buildings for M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, Texas Children’s Hospital, and University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. 

Bentsen was creative in his designs for educational institutions and often employed courtyards, breezeways, and other climatic devices. Of his three buildings for the University of Houston, the most distinctive was the award-winning Agnes Arnold Hall (1967), a mid-rise classroom building. Its sculptural, three-dimensional façade results from his decision to interweave open-air balconies and breezeways with tall brick towers that house stairs and restrooms. 

Bentsen’s masterwork is his campus for Pan American University (now part of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley) in Edinburg, Texas. Beginning in 1967 he designed the master plan for the campus and eighteen of its buildings. In this, his biggest project, Bentsen used architecture to define an identity for the new institution. He drew on regional architectural traditions that showed a connection with the past while his modernist architectural language looked to the future. His campus project is grounded in the traditional brick arcuated construction of Mexico and the American Southwest but also shows a debt to the modernism of Louis Kahn. Bentsen’s interpretation of South Texas regionalism is also evident in the courtyard house he designed in McAllen for R. Dan Winn and Betty Bentsen Winn (1965).

Bentsen’s best-known project was the Summit (1975), a professional basketball arena in Houston. The facility was home to the Houston Rockets and hosted many sports and entertainment events until Lakewood Church acquired the building and renovated it in 2005. 

Bentsen’s buildings won many awards for design and frequently appeared in publications. He achieved national attention as early as 1966, when Fortune featured him in a profile of successful young architects. In 1971 the American Institute of Architects honored him with election to its College of Fellows, a distinction reserved for those who make important contributions to the profession. Bentsen retired from architectural practice in 1991. 

Bentsen was active in a number of organizations and sat on the boards of Texas Children’s Hospital; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston. He also served on the Texas Commission on the Arts and on the board of the Texas Society of Architects.

On December 3, 1953, Bentsen married Mary Dorsey Bates of Houston, daughter of William B. Bates and Mary Estil Dorsey. Bentsen and his wife had four children—Molly, Elizabeth, Kenneth, and William. He was a Presbyterian. Bentsen’s brother, Lloyd M. Bentsen, Jr., had a distinguished career in business and in politics. Bentsen’s son, Kenneth Bentsen, Jr., later served as a U. S. Representative from Texas. 

Kenneth Bentsen died on September 24, 2013, in Houston and was interred at Glenwood Cemetery. His papers are housed in the University of Houston Libraries, Special Collections.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Kenneth E. Bentsen Architectural Papers, Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. Stephen Fox, “Kenneth E. Bentsen (1926–2013),” Texas Architect, 1 / 2 2014. Houston Chronicle, September 25, 29, 2013.

Stephen James

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Handbook of Texas Online, Stephen James, "Bentsen, Kenneth Edward," accessed October 17, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fbent.

Uploaded on September 13, 2016. Modified on November 22, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.