The Garner legacy, Herman Garner

by John Neiuber

Three of the most beloved buildings in Claremont—The Padua Hills Theatre, the Vortox Building and the Garner House—are the legacy of one couple, Herman and Bess Garner. All three are significant architectural works done in the Spanish Revival style by accomplished architects.

The theatre was designed by the Pasadena architectural firm of Marston and Mayberry. The Garner House was designed by another Pasadena architect, Arthur Munson. It is a city-owned building that sits in the middle of Memorial Park on Indian Hill Boulevard and is home to Claremont Heritage. The Vortox Building, located just south of the railroad tracks at Indian Hill Boulevard and Santa Fe was also designed by Arthur Munson.

The buildings are not only significant for their distinct architectural style and the architects who designed them, but also because of the people who built them and the cultural legacy they have left behind. Herman H. Garner and his first wife, Bess Adams Garner, contributed to the built, business, political and cultural environment of the community in which they lived and loved.

Herman Garner was born in 1886 in Marysville, Tennessee. When he passed away at the age of 95, at this home on Via Padova in Padua Hills, he had been a resident of Claremont for 77 years. Born in Michigan in 1887, Bess Fern Adams’ parents moved to Pomona when she was very young. Her father became prominent in the citrus industry. She and her four brothers attended the local schools and graduated from Pomona High School.

Herman and Bess met while they both attended Pomona College. Bess was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was the only woman to earn a letter as a member of the debating team. They graduated in 1910. In 1912, after Herman returned from Cornell where he earned his master’s degree, they were married. They lived first on Randolph Street near Hamilton Avenue in Pomona. During the first year of marriage, Bess taught school near Chino in the Spanish-speaking village of Prado. She noted later that this experience was “the inspiration for her study of the early history of Southern California.” Records show that Herman, known mostly by his initials, H.H., was teaching high school at the time. 

H.H. was not a teacher for long. Using his background in engineering, he soon began his own business—Pomona Air Cleaner in 1918. The business started out small, manufacturing air cleaners for agricultural equipment used in the citrus industry, an industry that had grown to international prominence. In 1922, responding to a demand for cleaner intake systems, he designed and produced the first oil bath air cleaner for tractor engines. The air cleaner design featured a swirling action of air or a “vortex.” That first simple design is still the design principle behind production of today’s air cleaners. It was also the vortex action of the air cleaner that gave the company a new name. Changing the “e” in “vortex” to “o” the company changed its name to the Vortox Manufacturing Company in 1924. H.H. held one of the first patents on air cleaners and at the time of his death was still working and developing new projects in the laboratory at Vortox.

The Garners moved to Claremont in 1925, and in 1928 Vortox moved to its new building on Indian Hill Boulevard. The company grew and flourished and by the beginning of World War II and through the Korean War, Vortox was a principal designer and manufacturer of air cleaners used on armored personnel carriers and tanks. As it grew, the company serve many industries, including oil, automotive, trucking, electromotive, alternative fuel, agriculture, industrial and defense.

After H.H. died in 1981, his son, Ted Garner led the company. In 2010, the manufacturing assets were purchased by a former employee and Vortox Air Technology was incorporated. The Vortox Building today is owned by the Keck Graduate Institute and in a few years when the current lease expires, Vortox Air Technology will find a new home and the building will begin a new chapter in its history.

In 1926, H.H. and Bess Garner, moved into their new house on Indian Hill. The Vortox Building followed in 1928, and in 1930, the Padua Hills Theatre was completed. Within a span of four years, the Garners had taken on three major construction projects. The Theatre project was an outgrowth of the Garners involvement with the community and, more specifically, with their involvement with the Claremont Community Players. The Garners hosted the Players for rehearsals at their home and when a permanent home for the group was needed, the Garners financed the construction of the Padua Hills Theatre.

H.H. served as the President of the Padua Hills Company, which had developed from an effort to save the foothills for community use.  Twenty public spirited citizens, representing college trustees, faculty, church leaders, business, townspeople, artist and writers had pooled their resources and bought approximately 2000 acres near the mouth of San Antonio Canyon. 

In 1930, the decision was made to use a portion of the land to subdivide and that a community center would be needed. The corporation’s vision was that it would not only be a community of artist, writers, and craftsmen, but people rich or poor with the education, background and appreciation so they would enjoy the homes at Padua Hills. Padua Hills Theatre became the community center of the little enclave at Padua Hills.

In Herman Garner’s obituary in the Claremont COURIER, Mack Parks, a real estate agent who had gotten his start selling lots for H.H. for the Padua Hills Company, said, “He deserves the credit for not allowing the hills to be developed just as an ordinary real estate development. I believe he was offered a large sum of money for the property many years ago so that it could be developed, but he refused to do it. He had an idea—he wanted Padua Hills to be really beautiful.”

Next in Part 2: The Garner Legacy—Bess Garner


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