Harris, Harwell Hamilton (1903-1990)

Harwell Hamilton Harris, FAIA (July 2, 1903-1990), was a modernist American architect who lived and practiced in North Carolina from 1962 to 1990. He built more than twenty buildings in North Carolina and planned many more. As one of the preeminent residential architects in America, he was known for work that embodied a gentle modernity and a strong sense of place. He was a visionary in regional, modern design.

Harris was a native Californian who embraced the new movements in art and architecture that arose after World War I. He discovered new ideas in art as a student in art school and about architecture through his admiration for Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) and his apprenticeship to Richard Neutra (1892-1970), who brought European modernism to California. Though thoroughly modern, Harris’s work was deeply rooted in his native California landscape, as it would become rooted in the landscapes of Texas and North Carolina where he would later work.

Harris was a third generation Californian. His paternal grandfather, Benjamin Butler Harris, arrived in California in 1849, traveling overland from Texas on the Gila trail. His father, Frederick Thomas Harris, was born in San Bernadino and could recall the early days when the twenty-mule teams came through. Fred Harris was a rancher and an architect, who used the profession of architecture to support his various ranches. Harris’ mother, the former May Julia Hamilton, was a schoolteacher. Her father had moved to California shortly after the Civil War.

Harwell was born in Redlands, California, on July 2, 1903. For much of his childhood, the family lived in town. But from the age of 10 to 14, Harris lived with his parents on a ranch near El Centro in the Imperial Valley, where his father grew alfalfa and corn and raised hogs on land reclaimed from the desert and irrigated with water from the Colorado River. In the summer the family lived on their apple ranch in Beaumont.

Although his father was an architect, young Harwell was not interested in the profession. But he was naturally observant. Decades later he remembered the gridded streets of San Bernadino, laid out by Mormons, “which predetermined my affinity to the unit system of design,” he said. And living on his father’s ranch, he was aware of the rightness of certain indigenous building patterns, which, he recalled, “were still about natural wood, visible construction, expression of shelter, regard for sun, plants and landscape.”

In 1921, a year before his father died, Harris entered Pomona College to study liberal arts, thinking he might become a journalist. In 1923, however, he entered Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles to study sculpture. He worked mostly in clay. “I built my forms with small bits of clay rolled between my fingers,” he said, “adding one pellet at a time to a piece of sculpture. It enabled me to look ahead and keep the form in mind. It invited form to suggest itself and, seemingly, to realize itself. This anticipated the procedure I later followed with architectural form.” Harris discovered the work of Gaugin and Cezanne in avant garde magazines, and later the paintings of Diego Rivera. On Saturdays he studied drawing and color with Stanton Macdonald Wright, whose theory of color was to be instrumental in his later work.

Then, in 1924, he saw Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Hollyhock House,” built for Aline Barnsdall, in Los Angeles. That was when he knew he would become an architect. “It resembled nothing I had ever seen before,” he recalled. “Its language was fresh. Because its words were not worn, they did not deceive me. Hollyhock House seemed born, not made. With this experience I learned what architecture could be.” Meeting R.M. Schindler (1887-1953), another European modernist emigre, and Richard Neutra at Schindler’s studio-house on the Kings Road in Los Angeles, convinced him to become an apprentice to Neutra in 1928. For the next two years he worked intermittently under Neutra and took engineering courses at the Frank Wiggins Trade School. With his fellow apprentice Gregory Ain, Harris worked with Neutra on design competitions and modern houses, including a competition design for an airport that foretold how airports would be built decades later. He recalled that he and Ain learned in a few weeks working with Neutra what would have taken years to learn if left on their own.

It should be noted that Harris never attended a formal school of architecture. This was an obstacle to his career because, until 1952, eighteen years after building his first building, he could not call himself an architect. It was also an invaluable asset. Being self-taught, he was used to finding his own way with ideas. Like many self-taught individuals, he questioned conventional thought and discovered unconventional solutions. He was an original.

Harris accepted the principles of function, structural clarity, and simplicity of form from his modernist mentors, but the California landscape’s impact on his thought cannot be ignored. Harris grew up thinking of nature as something to be accommodated, not tamed. He combined the principles of modernism with the regionalism of his Californian predecessors Bernard Maybeck, Charles and Henry Greene, Irving Gill, and the countless redwood board-and-batten bungalows that dotted the California landscape where he grew up. His work was widely admired because it was both modern and familiar.

Harris designed his first house in 1934 for Pauline Lowe in Altadena. It was an 1100-square-foot, one-story bungalow that embraced a courtyard. He used low-cost materials, including board-and-batten redwood siding adapted from indigenous California construction, in a rhythmically ordered plan reminiscent of Neutra and Japanese domestic architecture. All of the bungalow’s rooms opened to a private patio or to the courtyard. Although small, the Lowe House had the dignity, spaciousness, and privacy of houses many times its size and budget.

In 1937 Harris completed a tiny two-room house in Fellowship Park, Los Angeles. Perched on a fern-covered hillside, this little pavilion captured the imagination of architects from Japan to South Africa, which is especially remarkable since it didn’t have an indoor bathroom. (Harris added one later when his practice grew.) Here architects discovered a new kind of modern architecture—an architecture not made with the steel tubes, shotcrete, and aluminum panels that Neutra used, but instead made with familiar, local materials, including redwood and rush matting. Harris left the redwood completely unfinished and used accents of black lacquer and teak to bring out the bloom of the wood. In 1941 Harris completed the Weston Havens House on Panoramic Way in Berkeley, California. Life magazine featured the Havens House that year as exemplar of Californian modernism. More recognition followed quickly. Harris’s work was published and exhibited nationally and abroad.

These early buildings showed most of the features for which his work became known: imaginative concept, sympathetic scale, the skillful adaptation of building to site, rhythmic development of modular elements, and sensitive use of materials and colors.

In 1937 Harris married Jean Murray Bangs, who would be his companion, business manager, and editor until her death in 1985. World War II interrupted Harris’s practice, as it did for architects all over the United States. In 1943 he left California—for the first time in his life—to teach at Columbia University in New York City.

Returning to Los Angeles after the war, he reestablished his practice. Over the next few years he produced several houses that quickly became recognized as masterpieces of mid-century American design, including the Wyle House in Ojai and the Johnson House in Hollywood, both in wood; and the Harold English House in Beverly Hills, made of wood and stucco. His wood detailing became more expressive. His houses of this period opened seamlessly to the outdoors and the benevolent southern California climate. His work in the development of the California house influenced generations of architectural students and, through them, residential design in many parts of the United States. Frank Gehry named Harris as one of the two architects who influenced him most, the other being Frank Lloyd Wright. Alvar Aalto sought Harris out when he visited California, and Frank Lloyd Wright himself praised Harris’s work.

In 1951, over one hundred years after his grandfather moved from Texas to California on a mule, Harris relocated to Austin, Texas, to become director of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas. He intended the move to be temporary; he thought that the Korean War would stop architecture, just as World War II had. But this was to be his final break with California. He would later say that he hadn’t left California; California had left him. Miles of post-war suburban houses displaced the orchards where he grew up. But the impact of California’s landscape on his thought—its variety, remoteness, and its wildflowers—never left him.

Texas offered Harris new challenges. His buildings there would grow out of new materials and a different climate. He began to build in brick as well as wood. Like his mentor Schindler, he believed all building existed in a continuum between the nest and the cave. “With brick,” he said, “I began thinking in sculptural terms. I enjoy shaping something. I enjoy unbroken surfaces—geometric shapes whether inside or outside. But then I always enjoy the opposite—something without mass, thin, the spider web.”

At the University of Texas, Harris became an educator-practitioner, involving his students directly in the design of some of his houses. He believed this was the ideal way to learn. As director of the School of Architecture, he hired Colin Rowe, John Hedjuk, Robert Slutsky, and Marcus Whiffen, all young professors who later had a major impact on architectural and art education throughout the United States.

After four years he left the university to open an office in Fort Worth. Harris’s Texas buildings were a direct response to that state’s climate and the pattern of life his clients asked him to shelter. The Woodall House in Big Spring, for example, was organized around a courtyard pool that cooled the house physically and psychologically, contrasting with the harsh west Texas landscape outside. For the Treanor House in Abeline, he designed a completely enclosed garden court, sheltering the family from frequent dust storms. The interior colors of the Treanor House were cool and subdued—ochre and green—in contrast to the glare of the west Texas sun. He designed two churches, a glass-enclosed atrium court filled with parakeets and fountains for the Dallas Trade Mart, a mausoleum, and a masterly renovation of Louis Sullivan’s Security Bank in Owatonna, Minnesota. Resisting suggestions to “modernize” the bank’s interior, Harris gently inserted new tellers’ spaces, restored the interior, and brought Sullivan’s masterpiece back to its original glory. His respect for an earlier, ornamented expression of modernism was especially notable in 1957, when mid-century modernism was in full stride.

During a lull in his Fort Worth practice, Harris accepted a professorship at the School of Design at North Carolina State University, moving to Raleigh in 1962. Under Dean Henry Kamphoefner’s leadership, the school had recruited an impressive visiting and full-time faculty that included Buckminster Fuller, George Matsumoto, Matthew Nowicki, and Lewis Mumford. Kamphoefner encouraged his faculty to teach and practice, so Harris continued to practice as an architect and educator in North Carolina.

The sites where Harris built in the Piedmont region of North Carolina comprise rolling clay and sandy-clay hills shaded by pines and deciduous forests and dotted with dogwood blossoms in spring. The climate is hot and humid in summer with five months of frost in winter. Responding to this climate, Harris increased his roof overhangs to block the sun and designed rooms with windows on two sides for cross ventilation, views, and daylight. He favored casement windows because they could reach out to catch the breeze. Typically he painted the windows olive drab so that they would merge with the leaves outside. His North Carolina buildings were made of natural materials—wood, stucco, brick, shingles, and rough shakes—left natural or stained. Shadows from their eaves and projections combined with muted colors made his buildings hide among the grays and greens of the forest. He enjoyed the soft line that pine needles made when they fell on his roof eaves, likening it to a temple he had seen in a print by Hokusai. Yet inside his buildings were flashes of color, like a rainbow trout glimpsed in a stream.

Most of his North Carolina projects had modest budgets, but Harris had learned from Schindler the promise of inexpensive, unconventional materials. The Lowe House had windows made of waxed paper used in chicken houses, the floor of Fellowship Park was covered in rush matt that cost ten cents a square foot, and the railings of the Havens House were made of chain link fence. In North Carolina, he used color to enliven even the most modest structures, making his inexpensive buildings as rich and satisfying as projects made with more costly materials. His palette in North Carolina included acid yellow, olive drab, and green-browns, which he combined with gray-blues. They seemed to merge with the shadows of pine and deciduous forests in the soft hills of the Carolina landscape.

His largest completed work in North Carolina is St. Giles Presbyterian Church in Raleigh. Harris noticed that fledgling churches in the South often started small and then added buildings as the congregation grew, which could result in a hodge-podge of unrelated structures. He wanted growth at St. Giles to be orderly. So he designed the church as a family of buildings to be built over the years, touching the hillside lightly and embracing a clearing in the pine forest. Thus, St. Giles would appear complete at any stage in its growth. The buildings are connected by an exposed wood-covered walkway, a kind of pergola whose structural rhythm acts in harmony with the congregation as they walk along it.

When construction began in 1967, St. Giles was on the outskirts of Raleigh. From his experience with sprawl in California, Harris assumed strip malls and subdivisions would eventually surround the church (he was right), so he faced his buildings inward to a clearing. For Harris, the pine needle covered clearing was the spiritual center of St. Giles. And he once remarked, “Well, have you ever heard of a great revelation that took place indoors?” On one side of the clearing he placed a wooden bell tower. Typical of Harris’s pragmatism, the bell tower covered an unsightly manhole. Today three of the four buildings he designed for St. Giles have been built.

At St. Giles, low, three-in-twelve sloped roofs parallel the hillside site. Rough cedar shakes clad the exterior walls, resembling the pine bark of the surrounding forest. The interiors are painted soft green with accents of red, violet, and dusky blue. The east and west walls of the sanctuary are paneled in horizontal pine boards, left natural, with vertical battens at rhythmic intervals. The carpenters told Harris how much they appreciated this pattern because it eliminated waste and covered every joint beneath a batten.

Harris was conscious of the natural tendency of wood to twist, shrink and separate at the joint, thus destroying the continuity of line characteristic of modern architecture. “I realized that the way to get continuity was to work not with unbroken lines but with broken lines, broken at regular intervals, and preferably rather small intervals, then one wouldn’t be conscious of the break. It’s simply a step in the journey.” Under the eaves at St Giles, Harris made the rafters a very prominent feature of the design, lending continuity to the family of buildings. Above the Fellowship Hall porch, rafters are doubled and tripled to increase the cantilever span. The rhythm they create is as elegant as the dentils in a classical cornice.

Harris had learned from Richard Neutra the importance of listening to a client’s real needs, regardless of the size of the project. He called his houses “portraits” of his clients. The Harold English house in Hollywood, for example, was arranged so that its arthritic, half-blind client would appear normal and at ease despite his disabilities. The Treanor House in Texas was built so that its family could endure frequent dust storms. “When you are young,” he said, “you want the permissive client. When you are older, you want complexity. It forces you back on your originality.”

The building in North Carolina that best illustrated his approach was his own Harwell Hamilton Harris House in Raleigh, built in 1968 to accommodate his and Jean’s advanced years. He built it on Cox Avenue near the North Carolina State University School of Design. From his back door he could walk across a stream and through a park to the school. Cox Avenue was a medley of college life: apartment buildings jostled with rental houses, student parking was everywhere, and beer cans littered the street at dawn. So Harwell designed his and Jean’s home to be inward looking—half outdoors, half indoors. Seen from the street, the house was a stucco cube, elegantly detailed but visually quiet.

Visitors entered the cube by passing under pollarded sycamore trees and crossing a bridge that afforded views down to a private, landscaped courtyard below street level. The ceiling over the entry bridge was scarcely seven feet tall, which made the taller ceilings inside seem spacious. (Harris deftly used proportions such as these to make his small buildings expansive and to give his large buildings a human scale.) Entering the house from the scruffy street was transformational. Everything in the house that might disturb its serenity was eliminated. The acid-yellow stucco exterior contrasted with the cool green interior, which was amply lighted by skylights and windows of translucent glass. The two-story living room overlooked an open-air garden room paved with the same frog-green tiles as the living room. At the top of the tall garden room walls, screened openings allowed views out on three sides into the swaying oak trees. These sequestered views and the translucent windows made visitors feel as if they were in a forest, not adjacent to parking lots and dumpsters. Accents of orange on the exposed roof trusses and red-violet on the stair wall enlivened light, space, and view.

The studio, also two-story, interlocked with the living area. In his commencement address to architecture students at the University of Texas in 1955, Harris said, “because you are an architect, you will not have to divide your time and thought into two parts: one part devoted to making a living and another part devoted to developing your person. In your case there need be no division, for it is possible to make life and architecture one.” His home and studio in Raleigh embodied that belief. He lived there until his death in November of 1990.

Harris used writing and lectures to reinforce his ideas. Beginning in 1928 he wrote numerous articles about architecture and landscape. As he was in his buildings, Harris was at his best when writing about specific, concrete issues—the particulars of a client or place, as he liked to call them. Among the most influential of his writings was “Regionalism and Nationalism” (1954), in which he extolled the value of a regional approach to design: “The most important assets of a region,” he wrote, “are its free minds, its imagination, its stake in the future, its energy, and, last of all, its climate, its topography, and the particular kind of sticks and stones it has to build with.”

He published “House for a Playwright” in 1965, describing the patterns of a person’s life as the generator of architectural design. Harris approached the ordinary and not so ordinary events of his clients’ daily lives with sympathy and understanding. Getting dressed, leaving the porch light on, or having a revelation were the particulars of human life around which he made architecture. In 1968, in an editorial in North Carolina Architect titled “Why Nature,” he wrote: “Nature may be the example the North Carolina architect needs most—needs even more than he needs the examples of his contemporaries’ work.” He argued that buildings should grow as natural organisms, whether the site is a city grid or a wooded slope. In his writing as in his buildings, Harris focused attention on architecture as the art of design.

In a talk Harris gave at the School of Design in 1987 regarding Bernard Maybeck, he quoted William Gray Purcell: “So this is Maybeck’s offer: His sense of structure and fitness. Constructivism was not logical or illogical, it was just natural; and for the rest, he gave all his ingenuity to making the elements, and all he could bring to them to create a living space for the spirit, to meet what he felt were going to be the demands of the people he hoped would come to love his building.” It is possible to imagine Harris writing this about himself. Like Maybeck, he was not afraid of beauty, and he wanted his clients to love their buildings. Most did.

For all his acclaim, Harwell Hamilton Harris lived modestly in his house and studio on Cox Avenue. He freely and generously acknowledged the influence of his mentors. He admitted to one of his interns that whenever he started a new design, he was terrified. To another he said that every setback was an opportunity. Slight in build, his hands had the grip of a blacksmith yet his touch with a colored pencil was as light as a feather. Beneath this gentle demeanor lay a passion for the Modern spirit.

The extensive Harwell Hamilton Harris Papers, including records of his work in North Carolina, are held at the Alexander Architectural Archive, University of Texas Libraries, University of Texas at Austin, Texas.

  • Lisa Germany, Harwell Hamilton Harris (2000).
  • Frank Harmon, interviews with and personal knowledge of Harwell Hamilton Harris.
  • Harwell Hamilton Harris (1903-1990) Papers: Drawings, photographs and archival records, California, Texas and North Carolina, Alexander Architectural Archive, University of Texas Libraries, University of Texas at Austin, Texas, http://www.lib.utexas.edu/taro/utaaa/00001/aaa-00001.html.
  • “Harwell Hamilton Harris,” Triangle Modernist Houses, http://www.trianglemodernisthouses.com/harris.htm.
Sort Building List by:
    image/svg+xml Durham Greenville Raleigh ChapelHill Fayetteville Wilmington Winston-Salem Charlotte Asheville Goldsboro Greens-boro Edenton New Bern Salisbury Warren-ton ElizabethCity