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David Paul Witmer, 1894-1981

D. Paul Witmer, ca. 1949-1959
D. Paul Witmer, ca. 1949-1959

The Hershey Chocolate factory expanded regularly over its first fifty years. So did the town. Homes, businesses, schools, and recreational facilities needed to be built to keep up with the needs of a growing workforce. In addition, Hershey’s growing reputation as a tourist destination resulted in the need for more amenities to enhance the visitor’s experience. During the early years, chief engineer Harry Herr and Hershey Lumber Company carried out the majority of this work. By the early 1920s Herr, realizing he needed an experienced assistant, hired D. Paul Witmer as his draftsman and project estimator. Witmer began work for Hershey on April 15, 1924.

D. Paul Witmer was born in Elizabethtown, Lancaster County in 1894. At the age of 17 he entered Stevens Trade School in Lancaster City. After three years of rigorous training he graduated from the Department of Carpentry in 1914.

After working in Erie and Cleveland, Witmer came back to Elizabethtown in 1918. As an employee of the Elizabethtown Planing Mill, Witmer designed and built a three-story brick dormitory for Elizabethtown College. Dedicated on June 7, 1921 as Fairview Hall, the building was later renamed Wenger Hall.

Coming to Hershey

By the time he came to Hershey in 1924, Witmer was an experienced designer and builder. Milton Hershey quickly realized that Witmer’s training and previous experience had more than adequately prepared him for his new responsibilities in Hershey. A tireless worker possessed with an inquiring mind, Witmer earned certification as a professional engineer and registered architect without the benefit of formal training beyond what he received at Stevens Trade School.

Witmer’s first major project was to supervise construction of the Derry Township Junior-Senior High School building on East Granada Avenue. Construction began in April 1924 and was completed in April 1925.

The first project Witmer both designed and constructed was the Hershey Filling Station and Garages at 283 West Chocolate Avenue. Construction lasted from April through October 1924. The two-story garage building located behind the station housed 90 private garages and truck storage for 32 trucks on the first floor. The second floor housed three five-room apartments.

After working for Hershey Lumber Company for only one year, Milton Hershey placed Witmer in charge. As Manager, Witmer coordinated a massive building boom that saw the construction of numerous homes, businesses, schools, sporting venues, and churches in and around the town of Hershey for more than three decades. As an experienced carpenter and draftsman as well as a professional engineer and registered architect, Witmer developed the unique ability to blend function with beauty to create buildings meant to serve both residents and visitors alike well into the future.

The majority of Witmer’s work can be divided into four broad building categories: commercial, recreational, educational, and residential.

Recreational Projects: Hershey Community Building

In 1928, using plans originally drawn up in 1915, Witmer began construction of the highly ornamented, Italian Renaissance style, Hershey Community Building. The building, located at the intersection of Chocolate and Cocoa Avenues, was expected to take three years to complete.

The exterior of the six-story building is made of Indiana Limestone. At the time of its completion in 1932, the original interior consisted of approximately six acres of floor space under one roof and housed a number of community services and facilities. The building included the public library, the original Hershey Hospital, a cafeteria, banquet dining room, recreational facilities (bowling alley, gymnasium, indoor swimming pool, golf driving range), 200 seat community theater and provided classroom space for the Hershey Junior College.

Hotel Hershey

Milton Hershey came to D. Paul Witmer with the idea of building a grand Mediterranean-style hotel on a hill overlooking the town of Hershey. Witmer was to base his design on a 30-room hotel Milton Hershey had once visited. Witmer was to take the look and feel of the small hotel and transform it into a 170-room hotel appropriate for central Pennsylvania and loaded with the latest in comfort and leisure activities.

One of the most well known architectural features of the Hotel is its Circular Dining Room. Milton Hershey insisted on the shape of the room. He wanted a room where everyone had a good view. Originally the room had a large column in the center to support the weight of the ceiling and the room above it. When Milton Hershey was shown the preliminary drawings for the room, he demanded that Witmer remove the column.

Removing the column from the center of the dining room was no simple matter.  Witmer responded to the challenge by designing a revolutionary truss support system.  His talent as an engineer, his innate ability to solve problems, and his productive nature certainly earned him the trust and respect of Milton Hershey.

Hershey Stadium

The Hershey Sports Stadium, an open-air venue, was the last major component of the building boom in Hershey. Complete with lights for nighttime activities, the facility was completed in 1939 after two years of work. It was originally designed to attract high school, college and professional football. A macadam track around the outside of the field was designed specifically for midget auto racing.

Commercial Projects: Hershey Chocolate Corporation Headquarters

D. Paul Witmer and the Hershey Chocolate Corporation pioneered office-building design with one of the nation’s first windowless office buildings. Completed in September of 1935, the Windowless Office Building provided a tightly controlled environment for employees. It featured central air conditioning, “scientifically” planned artificial lighting, glass partitions in place of walls, and outdoor scenes painted on walls in place of windows.

Construction of the Windowless Office Building began in September 1934. The art-deco designed exterior is made of local limestone accented with Indiana Limestone and granite trim. The roof is perfectly level and designed to hold 2 ½ inches of water. This method of holding water on the roof is intended to help insulate the building in both summer and winter. The large towers placed along the building façade are not mere decoration. They are an important part of the air-conditioning and ventilation system.

The original design for the new office building called for an “L” shaped building of conventional design. Construction had already begun on the foundation when Witmer was told by Milton Hershey to change his design. Working night and day and without stopping construction, within one week Witmer successfully modified his design to meet the new requirements.

Educational Projects: The Vocational Program in Hershey

Realizing the value of teaching skilled trades to young men, Milton Hershey had Witmer design and build a vocational school for the town of Hershey in 1929. The building was two-stories high in the front and four-stories high in the rear. Completed in February 1930, the building originally contained seven class rooms, six large shops, a gymnasium, and locker rooms. The vocational building, located along East Granada Avenue, physically united the Junior-Senior High School building built in 1925 with the grade school building built in 1914.

Hershey hired Earle Markley to assist Witmer and to head the vocational school.  Students from both the community and the Hershey Industrial School attended.  Markley and Witmer believed that the best way for students to learn was through practical experience. Together they came up with the idea of teaching construction trades to high school students by building actual houses.

The first student house project was built during the 1931-1932 school year at 110 Maple Avenue. The Hershey Trust Company provided the land and Hershey Lumber Company the building materials. Witmer and Markley supervised the construction.

In 1932, Milton Hershey decided that the Hershey Industrial School [now known as the Milton Hershey School] should have a separate high school and substantial facilities for vocational education. After completion of the building in 1934, Markley became Director of Vocational Education. He continued the house building program. From 1931 through the end of the program in 1993, Milton Hershey School vocational students built forty-four houses.

Hershey Industrial School Junior-Senior High School

The long stone building which dominates the hill overlooking Hersheypark and the town of Hershey, now known as Catherine Hall, was originally built as the Junior-Senior High School for the Hershey Industrial School. Constructed between November 1932 and September 1934, the building contained both classroom and vocational shop space. The massive brick over steel structure is actually a series of 13 buildings placed side-by-side. The building exterior is composed of sand covered brick trimmed with Indiana Limestone. Similar to the Windowless Office Building, the roof is perfectly level and designed to hold 2 ½ inches of water as a means of insulation.

Of the many projects D. Paul Witmer worked on for Milton Hershey, this is the one that worried him the most. Hershey was out of the country for much of the construction and the building was finished without his input. Fortunately, Milton Hershey was very pleased when he saw the finished project.

Derry Township Elementary School

One of the last major building projects undertaken by D. Paul Witmer was the design and construction of the new Derry Township Elementary School. It was officially dedicated on September 12, 1954 as the Milton Snavely Hershey Memorial Building.  Located along Homestead Road, the building is still home to the Elementary School.

Residential Projects

Between 1931 and 1939 Hershey Lumber Company built a total of 37 homes in Hershey. Known as the Maple Avenue Development, these homes were built of brick and frame, 1 ½ stories high with a basement, five rooms and one bath. Twenty-four distinct designs were used. Paved streets, curbs, gutters, street lighting, sewers, gas, grass and shrubbery were included to make this neighborhood complete in every detail.

After 1939, as the town of Hershey expanded, D. Paul Witmer and Hershey Lumber Company continued to design and build homes in Hershey.

Between 1927 and 1937, D. Paul Witmer and Hershey Lumber Company constructed 40 farm units for the students at the Hershey Industrial School. The first home constructed was Student Home Cloverdale, which opened on November 12, 1931. It was located at the corner of Route 322 and Meadow Lane, just north of Founders Hall.

Leading Milton Hershey School

Witmer’s can-do attitude and success in designing and building earned him the respect and trust of Milton Hershey. Milton Hershey made Witmer a member of his inner circle of advisers, placing him on several Hershey corporate boards where he could play a key role in the overall decision making process. Late in 1938, with a vacancy at the head of the Industrial School and knowing that his building boom was coming to an end, Milton Hershey entrusted D. Paul Witmer with his most important project by appointing him Superintendent of the Hershey Industrial School.

D. Paul Witmer became Superintendent of the Hershey Industrial School on September 1, 1938. The position had been vacant since the death of George Copenhaver, the first Superintendent of the Hershey Industrial School, on February 11, 1938. Witmer remained as Superintendent until his resignation on September 30, 1951 to become Chairman of the Board for the School. In addition to his duties at Milton Hershey School and on the various boards in the Hershey community, Witmer also remained as Manager of Hershey Lumber Company until his retirement, effective July 1, 1959.

By the time of his retirement, D. Paul Witmer had served on every Hershey corporate board, as Superintendent of the Hershey Industrial School, and was a charter member of the Rotary Club of Hershey.

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