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.
In this installment, we return to one of Harrison’s earliest designs, a building that looks ‘back to the future’ as it demonstrates the architect’s ties to Whittier and its Quaker heritage.
Art Deco was an early Modernism movement introduced in Paris. The popularity of the style peaked in the 1930s. Its simple lines and lack of ornamentation made it financially viable during the Great Depression.
National Trust and Savings Bank Headquarters
This 1931-1932 building at the northeast corner of Philadelphia and Greenleaf, exhibits Deco vertical emphasis with stepped lower floors, and a zigzag roofline. The ornamentation recalls Egyptian style and anticipates cubism. On the joined pilasters flanking the entrance, sit four stylized NRA eagles, symbolic of compliance with the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. Whittier Landmark #21 won the 1938 Southern California AIA Award of Merit.
Harrison designed the bank building at the invitation of his uncle, A.C. Johnson, Chairman of the Board. A.C. Johnson had married Harrison’s aunt Susan in Indiana, and the couple moved west in 1898. A.C. rose from cashier to bank president. Susan Harrison Johnson became one of the first female professors in the country and taught Greek and Latin at Whittier College. A.C. served on the Board of Trustees from 1902 to 1946.
Lilian Katz, the renowned leader in early childhood education, tells a wonderful story about Susan Harrison Johnson, recounted in the July 22, 2014, Whittier Museum News Gazette. It was just after WW II, and Ms. Katz, a recent immigrant from the UK, had just lost her father to a heart attack. Now an 88-year-old retired professor, Susan Harrison Johnson wrote, “If thee is admitted to Whittier College, I will pay thy tuition.” Professor Johnson paid for the education of 49 young women. The couple also donated the Susan and Clifford Johnson Library of Quaker Literature, perhaps the largest collection of books by and about Quakers in the west.
In a roundabout way, Harrison designed for another Whittier banker. Charles Delano Henry, affiliated with “the bank across the street,” was the father of Louise Henry, later known as Lou Henry Hoover, wife of President Herbert Hoover.
Lou Henry Hoover Memorial Hall at Whittier College
Lou Henry Hoover was a trustee of Whittier College for many years, until her death in 1944. In 1948, Harrison designed this classroom building named in her honor, one of fourteen of his buildings on the campus.
Whittier Art Association
Harrison’s community service took him into many activities. He was a member of First Friends Church, the Whittier Lion’s Club, and the Whittier Historical Society. An avid photographer, he designed the art gallery in 1939, which still stands at 8035 Painter Avenue.
It is another school, however, built between 1938 and 1940 on the northeast corner of Philadelphia and Whittier Avenue, that is one of his finest architectural achievements in town.
Whittier Union High School
The high school auditorium, now Vic Lopez Auditorium, was part of a $1,000,000 PWA contract that included the Commerce building, two buildings cut apart and made into a girls’ gym, and the Administration building.
Pictures of the auditorium were published throughout the British Empire. The San Francisco Exposition of 1939 contained a model. The acoustics received particular praise, for the building featured one of the first stereophonic systems. The sound was so good, that during World War II the Los Angeles Philharmonic broadcast regularly from the stage to American armed forces overseas. (WDN 1987)
Harrison’s administration building takes us Back to the Future in a literal sense—it served as the face of Hill Valley High School in that 1985 multi-award-winning film starring Michael J. Fox. Perhaps words from fan Ronald Reagan’s 1986 State of the Union Address, recalled all these years later and tinged with more than a little nostalgia, still challenge us upward: “Never has there been a more exciting time to be alive, a time of rousing wonder and heroic achievement. As they said in the film, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”