A Few Moments with Wilbur C. Harrison, Architect


At the foot of the mountains that form one edge of Altadena, many houses from the 20’s still survive.  A mix of Mission and, Arts and Crafts, the homes reflect their locale and period.  Altadena has a mix of housing types, but as one gets closer to the mountains, the old homes are upper middle class.  Beautiful, but not extravagant, aspiring, but restrained by the familiar issues of space, budget, propriety.  One of our current projects is a renovation and addition to an old period house in this area, its privacy protected by the mountain to its rear, perfectly positioned to have a clear vista of a peak a couple of miles away.  As with all out of town projects, I have extra blocks of time to walk about, explore and take a few moments for myself.  A planting shed sits on the south edge of the property.  After a year on the job, I realized that I had never entered.  The space was absolutely beautiful.

The planting shed must have been an afterthought, an add-on, a luxury only possible if the budget for the house was on track.  I say this because the materials are basic and modest.  The assembly is simple.  The language, like the house and the covered deck, are pared down Arts and Crafts.  Using standard lumber, 2×2’s and 2×6’s, the joints delicately articulate frame, pitch and screen.  These members are tapered and bolted together with standard hardware.  But what comes together is refined and elegant.  The proportions are exquisite, and moving gently up the three tiers, the pacing seems absolutely spot on.  Two doors face one end, one is opaque on an opaque half.  The other is open battens, within the batten screen that clads the entire structure.  A simple symmetry/ asymmetry composition.

A couple of sketches of the house remained from an addition designed, but not executed, by the original architect, Wilbur C. Harrison, in 1965.  The original house was built in the late 1920’s and, no drawings remain.  The addition drawings were the only way I could have known who the original Architect had been.  Harrison seemed to have built a fair amount in the area, but not prodigiously.  If you google his name, he was one of the early original Board members of the Long Beach Petroleum Club, a social club in LA that exists today.  No references to any of his architectural work though.  If this house was typical of his work, he had commissions that were certainly above the norm.  I know from the children of the original client that their father was a very successful doctor who, in his spare time created an independent music label for striving jazz musicians.  For Harrison, there was probably room to design a beautiful house, just not overly big, not overly extravagant, not overly daring and of course, not overly expensive.  In the end, he succeeded.  The house is well proportioned, practical, graceful.

Yet, after spending long days and nights, walking, studying and drawing this house, it was my quiet step into the lowly planting shed where I met Wilbur C. Harrison.  I felt the rigor of his plan making, the refinement of his joinery and, the intensity of his thinking.  Few people will ever know about Harrison.  His archives are buried away if they exist at all.  But this story ends happily.  Architecture aspires to elevate the lives people live.  Architects hope to connect and communicate with others through their work.  And if the work is really good, architecture can move the spirit and emotions, whether small or large.  I think Harrison moved many, many people over the course of his career.  Even today, years after he past, his work moved my spirit in a quiet way.  For that brief time alone in the planting shed, I felt a had a few moments with Mr. Harrison.