Benjamin Marcus Priteca was born into a middle-class Jewish immigrant family in Glasgow on 23 December 1889. His parents, Dina and Joseph Dombrowizky, escaped the Russian pogroms of the 1880s that were triggered after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II and made their new home Scotland. After Joseph and Dina divorced in 1895, Dina moved to Edinburgh with their children and eventually remarried another Russian immigrant, Charles Priteca, who adopted her children as well as having two more together. Benjamin grew up in Canongate and began his education at George Watson’s.
After turning 15, Priteca left school and apprenticed as an architect under Robert MacFarlane Cameron (a Watsonian from the time the school transformed from hospital to a day school) while also studying Architecture at the Edinburgh College of Art. After graduating in 1907 he went on to further study at the Royal College of Art in London until 1909 when he, like his parents, left the country of his birth and migrated west.
Priteca arrived in Seattle and quickly found work as a draftsman for Edwin Walker Houghton who designed theatres in the Pacific Northwest. However, it was a chance meeting with Alexander Pantages that kickstarted his career and allowed Benjamin Priteca to become the architect of some of the most celebrated theatres in the western United States.
Pantages was also an immigrant to America, arriving from Greece at the same time Priteca’s parents fled Russia. He discovered Priteca during the early days of his budding cinema and theatre business and over the course of their 20-year partnership, Pantages commissioned Priteca to design 22 theatres across the western U.S. and Canada. Pantages reportedly said when talking about Priteca, “any fool can make a place look like a million dollars by spending a million dollars, but it’s not everybody who can do the same thing with half a million.” According to historian Theodore Saloutos, “Priteca never signed a contract with Pantages, and Pantages never asked him in advance what his fees were going to be,” such was the trust between these two immigrants.
Some of Priteca’s best-known works include the Coliseum Theater in Seattle and The Hollywood Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles which is set to host Hamilton in October 2021. Priteca also designed the Warner Brothers Beverly Hills Theater which opened in 1931 and was one of three cutting edge theatres built in LA during the early ’30s. Tragically it was demolished in 1988 as activists physically testified at the Beverly Hills City Council for the historic building to be protected.
Priteca designed 128 theatres across the US and Canada from Tennessee to Alaska during a time of enormous transition in the entertainment industry. His works had to be able to accommodate vaudeville, theatrical performances, as well as both silent pictures and ‘talkies’. Priteca was versatile, yet even more impressively, he designed some of his most well-known works on significantly reduced budgets during the lean years of the Great Depression.
Over the course of his nearly 60-year career, Priteca also built public baths, synagogues, opera houses, civic buildings, and racetracks. He left a significant architectural legacy across the western U.S. and Canada and will be remembered as a pioneering architect in a time of significant transformation. He kept working as an architect well into his eighties and died peacefully in Seattle in 1971.