Excerpted from a monograph originally produced for the Library Foundation Board at the request of the Whittier Conservancy.
William Henry Harrison is, in many ways, THE Whittier architect. He focused his career on designing places where learning, sharing, and growth take place—schools, libraries, civic buildings. His work encompassed styles from Art Deco to Mid-Century Modern, and his buildings form a majority of the most iconic and impressive structures in Whittier.
Harrison was born a birthright Quaker in Richmond, Indiana, the home of Earlham College, on January 2, 1897. He grew to adulthood there. He served five months in the United States Army during WWI (June 4-Nov 30, 1918), and then attended Cornell University. He graduated in 1921 with his B.Arch. Degree.
Following stints at architectural firms in New York and Indianapolis, Harrison and his family moved to Los Angeles in 1926. By 1938, the Harrisons were in Whittier, living at 963 Philadelphia Street.
In a way, William Harrison simply joined the family trade, for his father was also an architect and builder. Harrison said, “My father was a contractor. He designed and built the house I was born in. It looked like a fairyland castle.” He also said, “My mother was very artistic and did a great deal of painting, so I grew up with a deep appreciation for color and design.” (WDN 1987)
Harrison designed for a wide variety of uses, Rockwell and the Veterans’ Administration among them, but he focused his work on schools and civic buildings—over 60 educational institutions.
A Brief History of the Whittier Public Library
One of Harrison’s most noted buildings, the Whittier Public Library, was preceded by an equally famous structure.
In 1905, a grant of $12,500 from Andrew Carnegie allowed architect F.P. Burnham to design a library building in the Classical Revival style, which opened on June 29, 1907.
In 1955, Whittier architect William Henry Harrison was given the contract for a new Civic Center. His Mid-Century Modern design included the present library, which opened June 1, 1959. The city then razed the earlier Carnegie Library to build a J.C. Penny store.
On July 27, 2016, the Historic Resources Commission recommended local landmark status for the properties qualified by the “City of Whittier Non-Residential Historic Context Statement and Resources Survey” conducted by GPA Consulting, Inc. These included the City Hall and the Library.
In April of 2018, the City Council proposed ballot Measure L, a bond issue to remodel the library, but it failed by ten votes. On September 12, 2018, the Council considered the HRC landmark recommendation, and approved local landmark status for the City Hall but withheld designation for the Library.
In 2019, the City, with the help of State and County government, secured alternate funding and issued a contract for rehabilitation of the library. The architects intend to preserve the exterior of this valuable historic resource in the remodel.
Other Works by Harrison
Without a guide to the dozens of buildings in Whittier that Harrison designed, it’s hard for those of us living here today to understand how profoundly he shaped the built landscape that we take for granted.
Harrison designed buildings or additions to existing structures for the school districts of Whittier, East, West and South Whittier, La Habra, Los Nietos, La Puente, Pico Rivera, and Fullerton. He also designed fourteen buildings on the Whittier College campus, and, as he said in a 1976 interview, over $11,000,000 worth of work for UCLA and CSU, Long Beach.
This series explores buildings in Whittier that Harrison designed, with particular emphasis on the role of Mid-Century Modern style in defining Southern California. The architecture of the 1950s captured the prosperity of the growing post-World War II middle class and its fascination with the promises of the Space Age.
The next installment in this series will take a closer look at Whittier buildings designed by Harrison.