William Henry Harrison Part 3: A New School of Architecture

William Henry Harrison Part 3: A New School of Architecture

Excerpted from a monograph originally produced for the Library Foundation Board at the request of the Whittier Conservancy.

Recap: William Henry Harrison is, in many ways, THE Whittier architect. 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.

Most of those structures were schools. As Harrison’s career progressed, he embraced a new architectural style that embodied the ideals of the postwar educators who inhabited his buildings. (This author also inhabited them—attending sixth grade, junior high, and high school in Harrison schools in Whittier.)

The style was Mid-Century Modernism, an amalgamation of earlier Modernist movements that included Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. It embraced simplicity of form and sought to bridge the gap between art and industry. It reached its height in the 1950s.

World War II had triggered experiments with new materials—steel, plastic and plywood–that made new effects in building possible. Studies in nuclear physics and a growing obsession with science fiction resulted in futuristic forms. Rocket ships captivated a public that dreamed of landing on the moon, so architects used those motifs. Buildings possessed clean lines, with minimal ornamentation. Roofs were often fantastical upsweeping butterfly or parabolic shapes that suggested travel to the future.

A booming postwar economy made the American Dream a reality for the middle class. Mid-Century architects believed that futuristic design could stimulate social change and lead to a better society. They also valued functionality and integration with nature, and made liberal use of organic materials. Many say this mix of the traditional and the new are what made Mid-Century design so popular, and why it retains its attraction—it looks Back to the Future. (Scenes from the movie of this title were filmed in a Harrison building—Whittier High School.)

Designers wanted to open interiors and bring the outdoors in. New post-and-beam construction replaced bulky support walls with walls seemingly made of glass. There was a surge in school construction. One writer said, “with these walls of glass, children became engaged and open-minded because the environment stimulated the senses in a different way.” Harrison’s schools gave form to these progressive ideals.

Christian Sorensen, a Dane, came here by ship around Cape Horn. In 1868, he and his brother Daniel purchased 80 acres from Pio Pico, and Sorensen became a prominent orange grower in West Whittier. He was a founder, along with Harrison’s uncle, A.C. Johnson, of the Whittier National Trust and Savings Bank. When he died at age 89 in 1929, his family donated land that now supports a park, library, and the Christian Sorensen Science Academy at 11493 E. Rosehedge Drive.  

Photo: Sorensen Facebook Page

Lydia Jackson College Prep Academy, at 8015 S. Painter Avenue, links Harrison to early Quaker colonists. Curtis and Josiah Jackson came from Ohio the year the City of Whittier was founded—1887. The next year, they convinced sister Lydia Jane, a teacher, to come and keep house for them. Lydia never taught in Whittier, but she provided a great deal of financial aid to Whittier College through its first difficult years. She died in 1922 and is buried at Rose Hills.    

Photo: Whittier City School District

Walter F. Dexter (1886-1945) served as President of Whittier College from 1923 to 1934.

Photo: Whittier College

He authored Herbert Hoover’s campaign biography in 1932, was secretary to Governor Frank Merriam, and served as California State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Dexter and Harrison were fellow members of the Whittier Lions Club, and Dexter was president of Lions Club International 1938-1939.The Whittier College Student Center is named for him, as is Walter F. Dexter Middle School at 11532 E. Floral Drive, built in 1952.

Photo: Pinterest

California High School

Photo: Whittier Union High School District

Built in 1953-54 at 9800 Mills Avenue

Katherine Edwards Junior High School

Photo: DGO Media

Built in 1955 at 6798 Norwalk Boulevard, this school added sixth graders in 1998, and became Katherine Edwards Middle School. In 2018, it added STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math). Katherine Edwards was a former WW I army nurse and Whittier City School District nurse for many years.

El Rancho High School

Photo: Wikiwand

Built at 6501 S. Passons Boulevard in Pico Rivera in 1954-55, the school plan is one- and two-story buildings with exterior corridors. It won an AIA Award of Merit and an award from the American Association of School Administrators in 1955.

Sierra High School

Photo: http://www.roadarch.com

Built in 1957, at 9401 S. Painter Avenue, its structural innovations and science laboratories attracted world-wide notice, with an exibit in Geneva, Switzerland. It closed in 1979 and now houses continuation and alternative high schools, adult education, and district offices.

The next installment in this series will examine other Whittier buildings designed by Harrison.

Headline photo of Dexter School courtesy Whittier Public Library (undated/mid-century and unattributed).

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