William Henry Gummer, the sixth child in a family of eight, was born in Auckland on 7 December 1884, the son of Thomas George Gummer, an accountant, and his wife, Jane Taylor Moginie. After attending Mount Eden School, Gummer was articled to the Auckland architect W. A. Holman in 1900. He travelled to England in 1908, where he worked briefly for Leonard Stokes. From 1909 to 1912 he studied architecture at the Royal Academy of Arts, which was dominated by beaux-arts classicism, an approach Gummer quickly absorbed. In 1910 he became an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architecture. The experience of working for Edwin Lutyens during 1911 profoundly influenced the young architect. He contributed to the design of Castle Drogo, the last of Lutyens's romantic country houses, and his mentor's perfectionism, fascination with abstract form and emerging classicism made an indelible impression on him. Returning to New Zealand via the United States, Gummer worked briefly in the office of the Chicago firm of D. H. Burnham and Company during 1912 and 1913.
He entered a partnership with Hoggard and Prouse, Auckland, in November 1913 and became a fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) in 1914. He quickly established himself as the principal designer of the partnership, which lasted until 1921. The major buildings designed during this period include the New Zealand Insurance Building, Auckland (1914), and the State Fire Insurance Building, Wellington (1915). Gummer's skilled manipulation of stripped classical forms, limited range of high-quality materials and structural innovation set new standards for commercial architecture in New Zealand.
His domestic works, although small in number, achieved equal distinction. The designs range from the Arts and Crafts inspired Champtaloup House, Mount Eden (1914), to the free-style classicism of Tauroa, Havelock North (1916), the proto-modernism of Craggy Range, Havelock North (1918), and the neo-Georgian Te Mata, Havelock North (1935). Gummer's flair for devising complex but lucid plans, learned from Lutyens, is best illustrated by Tauroa and his own house, Stoneways, Epsom (1927), where the problem of linking wings placed at oblique angles is effortlessly surmounted.
An indefatigable participant in architectural competitions from the outset of his career, Gummer had gained third place in the competition to design Parliament Buildings while still working in London in 1911. Many of his most prestigious commissions, including the unbuilt Auckland Civic Centre (1924), were secured in this way.
On 21 November 1923 at Moawhango, near Taihape, William Gummer married Edith Oiroa Batley. They were to have three children. That year Gummer established a partnership with C. Reginald Ford. Their long and productive association, which lasted until 1961, when both men retired, is attributable to their complementary skills and personalities. Gummer concentrated on design while Ford managed the practice and dealt with clients, although he also designed. Among the partnership's early successes was the Dilworth Building, Auckland (1925), originally conceived as one of a pair of matching buildings forming a monumental entrance to the city. The sculptural modelling of the facade reveals Lutyens's continued influence but also demonstrates Gummer's assured handling of large-scale forms. The Auckland railway station (1926), modelled on American prototypes, especially Pennsylvania station, New York, and Union station, Washington DC, represents a new departure in monumental civic architecture in New Zealand. It earned Gummer and Ford an NZIA gold medal in 1931. The station's clearly defined forms and finely detailed brickwork are seen on a smaller scale in the Remuera branch of the Auckland Public Library, for which they won an NZIA gold medal in 1928.
Gummer's skill at embodying abstract ideals in public monuments by combining traditional architectural elements within a framework of severe formal geometry is best illustrated by his designs of First World War memorials. For example, in the Bridge of Remembrance, Christchurch (1921), the form of the arch, symbolising both victory and triumph over death, evolves from an abstract analysis of the site. Other war memorials are at Auckland Grammar School (1921) and the Dunedin cenotaph (1921). He also designed the Massey Memorial, Wellington (1928).
In 1930 Gummer won the competition to design the national war memorial, art gallery and museum, providing him with an unrivalled opportunity to design on an urban scale. Although the carillon campanile of the National War Memorial was completed in Wellington in 1932 and the National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum building in 1936, the Hall of Memories was not to be finished until 1964. The tree-lined boulevard, which would have provided a dignified ceremonial approach, was not realised, and this compromises Gummer’s imposing concept.
Although he remained a traditionalist, Gummer was responsive to changes in contemporary architecture. In 1936 he travelled to Britain, Europe and the United States. Subsequent buildings, especially his second State Fire Insurance Building, Wellington, begun in 1940, reveal the results of this exposure to European modernism. However, the Second World War brought the most distinctive and productive phase of Gummer's career to a close. He had served with the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade in Egypt during the First World War, and in the Second served with the Corps of New Zealand Engineers Camouflage Section at home while continuing his architectural practice. Stress and overwork during these years impaired his health, although he continued to design up to his retirement, with no loss of skill.
Along with his friends William Gray Young and Cecil Wood, Gummer was one of the finest New Zealand architects of his generation. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architecture in 1926, and in 1933 served as president of the NZIA. A tireless perfectionist, who would rework designs long after others might have considered them complete, and a polished draughtsman, he was utterly dedicated to his profession. Experience in the office of Gummer and Ford was eagerly sought by young architects. Members of the firm, among them F. Gordon Wilson, subsequently made significant contributions to New Zealand architecture.
Tall, sparely built, with a finely chiselled face, Gummer was a reserved man, devoted to his wife and family. An enthusiast for the outdoors, he enjoyed garden development and construction, and family tennis. He died at Papatoetoe on 13 December 1966, survived by his wife and two sons.