Harwell Hamilton Harris
I discovered Harwell Hamilton Harris's work when I was a student: a black and white photograph of his Fellowship Park House stood out from thousands of other published houses because of the clarity of the design and the way the house seemed to belong to its Californian hillside.
Harris built the house for himself and his wife Jean in 1935. It was small, less than 500 square feet, consisting of one large room open on three sides to a lush ravine covered in ferns and live oak trees. Attached to the room was a tiny kitchen. The floors were covered in rush mats, unpainted redwood beams spanned the ceiling, and a beautiful oriental ginger jar was poised on the edge of the living room, hovering just above the trees.
The photograph of the room with the ginger jar was published worldwide. It presented a new image of Californian modernism, one that was forward-looking yet comfortable – a quality not associated in 1935 with the avant-garde.
I met Harris for the first time in 1982 at the School of Design at NC State University, where he was professor emeritus after leaving his native California. For 50 years his fame had been widespread, acclaimed by Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto as an American genius. Yet in person he was quiet and modest. He told me that he had built his hillside house for less than a thousand dollars, using parts salvaged from an earlier project in Hollywood. It had jump-started his career.
A few years ago, I visited Fellowship Park to discover the house for myself, which was then unoccupied. What I found was totally unexpected. I had known Jean and Harwell Harris in the last decade of their lives as gentle folk: kind, polite, and Edwardian in their courtly manners. Never did I think they started their marriage as Bohemians. But at Fellowship Park I discovered that to reach their house, they walked through the backyards of four neighboring houses; that their house had no plumbing for years; and that they showered outdoors with a garden hose, one partner keeping watch while the other bathed! But how perfect, I thought, that this symbol of domestic serenity was built out of relative poverty. Harris’s contribution to the art of American residential design began with a one-room shack. I was reminded of another cabin built with salvaged materials at Walden Pond, by Henry David Thoreau.
The house at Fellowship Park is slowly falling to ruin. The ferns are gone now; the hillside is thick with wild nasturtiums. I believe Harwell would accept this as natural. He believed that architecture, like delight, is ephemeral, and that ideas often outlast buildings.
Hangin' Out with HHH
I metHarwell Hamilton Harris in the mid 1980’s when I was in architecture school. I was going to California one summer to look at modern houses. Harwell arranged for me to get into his San Francisco Bay area masterpiece, the Weston Havens house.
This picture is frequently published but you can't actually see the Havens House from this angle in person. It's taken from way below a steep bank. The house has an extremely quiet and modest appearance from the street.
We became friends as I planned my trip. Later he also became my teacher. As I write this, I remember that Harwell wouldn’t want me to gush about him—he would think it undignified. So this will be modest, as he was.
I’ve never seen another architect whose personal life so closely resembled his buildings. Harwell, in his old but clean tweed jackets, appeared very modest on the outside. Many of his buildings do as well; they do not announce themselves to the world. One has to get to know them slowly to discover they are full of surprises. Harwell was elegant, as was his architecture. And as in his architecture, there was no clutter in his life, appearance or thinking. His work is unpretentious yet spectacular at the same time—quite a feat!
Harwell noticed everything and took nothing for granted. He had special appreciation for clients and gave them much credit for the success of his projects, speaking often of the Havens and Entenza houses. Harwell appreciated kindness, perhaps because he was kind himself. He wrote thank you notes. For everything! One time I gave him a bag of plums from my parents’ old tree. I got the most beautiful handwritten note on brown parchment paper from him. When I think of him now, I always picture him smiling. Harwell had a wide, beautiful smile, and he smiled often.
Harwell had friends but was always alone when I visited. The phone never rang. No one knocked at the door. It was the mid-1980’s and modernism was pretty much vilified everywhere you turned. Not that one could really peg Harwell as a “modernist” per se, though he used some of the restrained language of modernism. But at the time I knew him his work was not “in vogue.” I worried that he seemed lonely and perhaps forgotten by much of the outside world.
I invited Harwell to a 4th of July celebration and was thrilled that he accepted! 4th of July seemed like Harwell’s holiday. He was so quintessentially the American pioneer to me. In the same way, when I hear the music of Aaron Copeland, its clarity and openness always reminds me of Harwell. We had a great time that 4th, and I saw Harwell loosen up a little. He flirted with my lovely grandmother, who also hailed from California. I was impressed that she held the master spellbound as they discussed gardens and porches for most of the evening.
I think Harwell knew how much I appreciated him. I couldn’t help but be the wide-eyed acolyte. How tedious that must have been, but how tolerant he was! Spending time with Harwell, and learning from him, was the best experience of my college years.