William Henry Harrison Part 5: Our Civic Center Was His Magnum Opus

William Henry Harrison Part 5: Our Civic Center Was His Magnum Opus

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.

From 1930 until his retirement in 1978, Harrison designed more than 600 buildings, most of them schools, but the Whittier Civic Center buildings represent the crowning achievement of his career. These buildings confirm his place among those Mid-Century architects who retained the best of the past as they captured the prosperity of the growing post-World War II middle class and its fascination with the promises of the Space Age.

Whittier Civic Center

Built between 1955 and 1959 at 13230 Penn Street, Harrison designed a cohesive 11-acre campus containing two major buildings. Harrison noted (WDN 1987) that intensive energy went into the planning of the Civic Center, with nine separate studies made to determine where to put it in relation to traffic flow patterns, school districts, and population.

Photo Courtesy Whittier Museum

In designing the City Hall and Police Station (1955), now a designated Whittier landmark, Gebhard and Winter in Los Angeles: An Architectural Guide to Southern California, note that the architect “looked at the Modern through the eyes of Eliel Saarinen. A tower with a stone base surmounted by two cylinders dominates the north side of the building.” The poured concrete structure uses Arizona flagstone on the exterior. The lobby walls are Italian travertine and maple. The original flooring (still under the carpet) was a variegated black terrazzo. The two-story lobby with a floating concrete stairway has glass walls at both ends; those to the south open out onto a terrace and garden.

In 1959, the editors of Southwest Builder and Contractor wrote, “the Kaibab stone-faced tower at the entrance of the city hall is topped by a beacon symbolizing enlightened government, and terminates in an illuminated super-structure of concrete and aluminum that can be seen many miles away.”

In 1976, the citizens of Whittier dedicated the Peace Memorial to those from the Whittier area who gave their lives in WW I, WW II, Korea, and Vietnam.

Image result for whittier peace memorial
Photo: Waymark

In 1988, the year of Harrison’s death, Whittier created a Centennial Garden to the west of City Hall to celebrate the city’s 100th birthday. Sitting on a rock by the pool was Tita Hupp’s 1988 sculpture The Barefoot Boy, inspired by the John Greenleaf Whittier poem.

Photo courtesy Whittier Parks and Recreation

The city placed the statue in storage when it built a new Police Station in 2010. Four years later pool and statue were relocated outside the east entrance to the Whittier Public Library.

Whittier Public Library

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

The Library at 7344 Washington Avenue was begun in 1955 and opened June 1, 1959. In designing the library, Harrison drew upon the “pavilion forms” we associate with the work of Edward Durrell Stone, who aimed to create a timeless, eternal quality through the integration of classical and modern elements. His most-noted buildings include Radio City Music Hall, the Theatre in Rockefeller Center, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C.

Stuart Pharmaceutical Company Headquarters

Photo: pcad.lib.washington.edu

Pasadena boasts Stone’s populuxe Neo-Formalist design at 3360 E. Foothill Blvd., with its milky-white Persian-inspired screens, reflecting pools and fountains, courtyards, formal landscaped grounds, and light-filled atrium. The Los Angeles Conservancy notes that the style was emulated in Southern California and beyond, demonstrating that industrial architecture could be attractive as well as cost-effective. The AIA named the Stuart Building one of the five best buildings of 1958.   

Harrison’s library is open, flexible, and possessed of an abundance of natural light. The building’s long, low, horizontal design, cantilevered roof with deep overhang resting on slim columns, curved concrete ramp rising to the glass entrance, and long screened wall stretching into the distance embody the Mid-Century dream—a future with endless possibilities founded on the knowledge available within.

Pierced concrete blocks, or grilles, were hugely popular in Mid-Century Modern architecture, because they were affordable and easy to install. Although they fell out of favor by the 1970s, there is renewed interest in their use today, and increased urgency in preserving original examples. In 2011, architect Robert Chattel readapted the Stuart campus into apartments and a performing arts center (A Noise Within), and entirely preserved the 1958 Mid-Century Modern façade. The architects currently remodeling the Whittier Public Library also intend to preserve Harrison’s grille.

Perhaps the greatest honor bestowed on Harrison was the documentation of his work by the photographer, Julius Shulman, the most esteemed American architectural photographer of the last century.

Born in Brooklyn, Shulman came to California with his family as a child. He briefly studied at UC Berkeley, where he earned pocket money by selling his photographs to fellow students. When he returned to Los Angeles in 1936, a friend enlisted him to photograph a new Hollywood residence designed by Richard Neutra. Upon seeing the pictures, Neutra gave Shulman his first assignments.

Largely self-taught, Shulman worked primarily in black and white, with unconventional infrared film to reduce his subjects to clean, essential lines and shapes. He photographed the work of many—Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, and—William Henry Harrison.

Job 2863: William H. Harrison, Whittier Public Library, four photographs, 1959

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

Shulman’s meticulous compositions reveal not only the architectural ideas behind a building’s form, but the visions and dreams of an entire age. His pictures spread California Mid-century modernism around the world as he built one of the most comprehensive visual chronologies of modern architecture and of the development of Southern California.

The story goes beyond Whittier. The most influential architects of 1950s Los Angeles often worked together, thereby creating a series of interconnections. Harrison employed architect Isamu Philip Furukawa, who served during WWII in the all-Japanese American 442nd Army Regiment with Whittier artist and teacher, Yoshio Nakamura, and who worked for William Pereira, a Chicago-born architect who formed a Los Angeles partnership with Charles Luckman.

“Theme Building,” LAX

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

Although modified in construction, the original 1959 design for the airport created by Pereira & Luckman, connected all terminals and parking structures to a huge glass dome, which was intended to serve as a central hub for traffic circulation.

This concept replicated Harrison’s much-copied prize-winning airport design of 1929.

These architects built Los Angeles. Today, many of their structures have been or are about to be renovated for contemporary use, including Harrison’s Whittier Public Library. As we preserve our heritage, we come to understand the vision of those who built that environment, an understanding that can aid us as we create tomorrow. Walter Gropius, the “father” of these architects, said, “A modern, harmonic and lively architecture is the visible sign of authentic democracy.”

This concludes the fifth and final installment in this series examining Whittier buildings designed by William Henry Harrison.

Lead photo: David Ag / Creative Commons

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