Biographical / Historical
Kenneth Edward Bentsen (1926 – 2013) was a prominent architect in Houston, Texas. He 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 graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in Architecture in 1952. Bentsen showed a precocious talent and designed his first building, a residence for his parents near 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 21-story office building in downtown Houston for Bank of the Southwest. Clients in the Rio Grande Valley called on Bentsen to design buildings 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 UTMB-Galveston.
Bentsen was creative in his designs for educational institutions, often employing 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 in Edinburg, Texas, now part of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Beginning in 1967 he designed the master plan for the campus and eighteen of its buildings. The project is noteworthy because its Southwest regionalist style was a departure from the modernism that characterized his buildings elsewhere in the state. Its design was abstract and modern but influenced by the traditional Mexican and Anglo precedents of the Valley. Bentsen’s interpretation of South Texas regionalism is also evident in the courtyard house he designed in McAllen for his sister Betty Bentsen Winn and her husband Dan (1965).
Bentsen’s best-known project was the Summit (1975), a professional basketball arena in Houston. It was home to the Houston Rockets and hosted many sports and entertainment events until Lakewood Church acquired the building and renovated it in 2005. In Austin Bentsen designed buildings for the University of Texas Graduate School of Business (1977) and the State Bar of Texas (1977).
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.
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. Bentsen’s brother, Lloyd M. Bentsen, Jr., had a distinguished career in business and later in politics, as U.S. Senator from Texas, Democratic Party nominee for Vice President, and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Bentsen’s son, Kenneth Bentsen, Jr., served as a U. S. Representative from Texas.
Kenneth Bentsen died on September 24, 2013 in Houston. He is buried in the city’s Glenwood Cemetery.
“Bentsen, Kenneth Edward,” Handbook of Texas Online, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fbent
Stephen James, “Kenneth Bentsen’s Pan American University: Regionalist Architecture and Identity in the Borderlands,” ARRIS 28 (2017): 46.