Charles Howatt Biggar

Finding Inspiration in Every Turn

The man who designed some of the most iconic buildings in the county -- and gave Bakersfield much of its skyline -- is the subject of a discussion at Beale Memorial Library on Saturday.

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Charles Biggar is responsible for the beautiful Bell Tower Church, the stately Haberfelde, Bakersfield High School IT building, and Bakersfield City Fire Station No. 1 -- just a partial list of his elegant structures, which also grace the Kern communities of Taft, McKittrick, Keene, Wasco, Shafter and Delano.

Biggar, who was born in Danville, Ill., and received much of his training in Paris, certainly took the long way to Kern County, but when he got here, he brought an impressive pedigree.

Charles Howatt Biggar was born to Scottish immigrants in 1882. While in college, he changed course from medicine to architecture, enrolling at the University of Illinois. After college, he worked in Tennessee as a draftsman before making his way to Seattle in 1910, where he landed in the firm of the famed architect William P. White.

Although his tenure in Seattle lasted only a year, the experience bolstered his career and landed him in Los Angeles in a partnership with Thomas B. Wiseman. The next year Biggar traveled to Paris, where he met Léon Jaussely, the famous and beloved French architect who taught at the École des Beaux-Arts. The experience had a profound effect upon Biggar as his education in France greatly influenced the buildings he designed. By 1915, Biggar was back in the United States applying his knowledge when he designed the Vernon Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, a Carnegie grant library and one of six that was built between 1913 and 1916.

In April 1917, Charles Biggar married his sweetheart, Marian Whitney, and enlisted as an engineer in the California National Guard during World War I. By the end of the Great War, soldiers such as Biggar were given the opportunity to study fine arts under professors from the École des Beaux-arts, giving the architect a second chance for Beaux-Arts training.

The idea for educating soldiers in fine arts came from leaders of the American Expeditionary Forces Schools of Art in October 1918. The school was a hit with the battle-hardened soldiers like Biggar and many requested to be allowed to continue their studies in France. Biggar's post-war experience, coupled with his earlier experience with Jaussely proved to have a profound influence upon the skylines of Los Angeles and Kern County.

After his return to the States, Biggar's career took off. In a partnership with Thomas Wiseman, his first major task was to draw up plans for a veteran's memorial auditorium in Bakersfield. There were two sets of plans, one for a building that would occupy an entire city block and would seat 5,000. It would have housed the headquarters for a variety of groups, including the American Legion, Red Cross, Boy Scouts, the Grand Army of the Republic, Woman's Relief Corps, Spanish War Veterans, Canteen Committee, Kern County Chamber of Commerce, and the Bakersfield Commercial Club.

The final plan was much more modest, seating 3,500, and included a memorial museum. Funding for the building was to be through a county bond measure that was placed on the May 1920 ballot for voters to consider. The May 5 edition of The Californian reported that the bond measure failed to get the requisite two-thirds majority. The prevailing theory about the bond's failure was voters did not understand that the "historical museum" mentioned on the ballot referred to a soldier's memorial. While this was a defeat for Biggar (he would have other plans defeated at the ballot box), he was prolific in his contributions to Kern County architecture and his involvement with the community.

  • By The Bakersfield Californian