For more information about Purcell & Elmslie, please consult the staff for the Northwest Architectural Archives.
An exhibition from the
NORTHWEST ARCHITECTURAL ARCHIVES
Special Collections Gallery
O. Meredith Wilson Library
University of Minnesota
"Open up our office ... A lady client comes -- and goes -- for good I guess. We get our stationery and have typewriter fixed. Evening at home."
On a cold day in January 1907, William G . Purcell wrote in his diary of this inauspicious beginning of what was to become one of the leading architecture firms of the early 20th century -- Purcell & Elmslie.
Two weeks earlier, he and his new partner, George Feick, had arrived in Minneapolis to start their own practice -- the first such venture for them. They had been classmates at Cornell, had followed separate paths after graduation until reuniting in 1906 to embark on the customary tour of Europe. Upon their return to America late that year, they decided to form a partnership and chose Minneapolis as a likely economic base in which to work. Two years later, they were joined by George G . Elmslie, whom Purcell had known in Louis Sullivan's office in the Auditorium tower, and the firm was complete. As David Gebhard has written, Purcell & Elmslie's practice was a direct successor to Sullivan's -- in a sense (through Elmslie), it was a continuation of it, and they viewed it as such. They settled down to design progressive, sometimes playful, but always intrinsically innovative and functional man-centered structures.
Purcell came from an environment of economic comfort and intellectual stimulation. He grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, living in the same neighborhood as Frank Lloyd Wright, and was raised through his own choice by his grandparents, Dr. and Mrs. William C. Gray. His grandfather was editor of The Interior for three decades, and he was a lover of nature and fine literature. These enthusiasms were acquired by young Purcell, who enjoyed access to Dr. Gray's 3000-volume library and spent delightful summers (1887-1901) at Island Lake, the isolated family retreat in northern Wisconsin. "Thus I came to grow up in this family where talk was always good, good books always at hand," Purcell wrote. "The home atmosphere was of professional writing and publishing. Well known public men were coming to call and to visit."
After his first sight of Sullivan's newly-built Auditorium at age 10, the awestruck Purcell resolved to become an architect. He studied at Cornell from 1899-1903, and following graduation, he returned to Chicago where he entered Sullivan's office. Although he spent only five months there, it was a profound experience: he was exposed to the organic philosophy of the Master's architecture which was to infuse his own work thereafter, and he became a close friend of George Grant Elmslie, Sullivan's chief draftsman. Thrown out of work by lack of business, Purcell traveled to California, working with John Galen Howard in San Francisco, and later to Seattle, where he joined the firm of Bebb & Mendel. After that came the reunion with George Feick in 1906, their European trip, and the decision to form a partnership in Minneapolis. "It was twenty below zero," Purcell recalled fifty years later of the day the two men arrived in the city. "The date was January 2, 1907. Through the triple winter-glazed windows of a softly rolling sleeping car, the clustered dusty tubes of grain elevators clattered past.... George and Will were soon hurrying through the hot station to the sharp cold of the frozen, gritty sidewalks ... [and] rented a room in ... a large old home on 8th St., left over from the prosperous 1890s.... Purcell & Feick soon found an office on the 1Oth floor of the New York Life Building, Number 1007."
The commissions that were executed by the firm during the first two years were relatively few and rarely outstanding. Purcell's espousal of the open plan concept surfaced early in his residential designs but lacked the maturity of future years. He consulted with Elmslie (who was still with Sullivan) on numerous occasions, respecting the older man's critical ability and aesthetic judgment. This close contact finally resulted in the absorption of Elmslie into the firm late in 1909, after his break with Sullivan.
Elmslie was born in Scotland and migrated to the U.S. with his family in the mid-1880s. The family settled in Chicago and there, at his parents' urging, he embarked on a career in architecture. His first employment was with Joseph Silsbee, a noted Queen Anne architect, in whose office he met Frank Lloyd Wright and George Maher. Wright left shortly afterward and within a year (1889), as Elmslie later wrote, "asked me to join him as a friend and hopeful understudy in Adler and Sullivan's office...." Eventually, Elmslie became chief draftsman and designed most of the ornamentation that graced Sullivan's buildings. After twenty years, Elmslie regretfully left the Master, whose irracibility combined with chronic alcoholism had brought about a virtual standstill in business. At the beginning of 1910, the firm became Purcell, Feick & Elmslie.
From this time until the dissolution of the partnership a dozen years later, the firm enjoyed a large and diversified practice. They produced banks, churches, residences, court houses, garages, and other types of buildings, all bearing unmistakable characteristics of the Prairie School. Purcell and Elmslie became the dominant design partners, while Feick remained primarily the engineer and specifications writer. Gradually, the latter found himself less and less able to share in their experimental approach to design problems, and in 1913 he returned to his home in Ohio to work as a contractor.
In some of their projects it is possible to determine whether Purcell or Elmslie was chiefly responsible for the design; however, so well did they mesh that one cannot confidently say that one or the other executed the majority of commissions. Almost all of the projects bear the imprint of both men who brought their own individuality into the firm. Their banks are small gems, all built on a square or rectangular plan, but each unique in concept and siting. The residences are of three dominant types: open plan, experimental, and formal. In the first two, the firm was probably most successful, brilliantly incorporating features which made the houses more livable, more efficient. The firm was always seeking ways to lower construction costs, without sacrificing quality.
The partnership endured until 1922, though both men already operated offices in separate cities. Elmslie lived in Chicago, after the death of his wife in 1912, and through his contacts there helped to secure several important commissions. By the time the partnership formally ended in 1922, he was practicing under his own name and continued to do so for the next decade. Stylistically, he was to revert to the heavy formalism that marked his period under Sullivan and was never able to successfully break free. His practice suffered as a result, forcing him to retire by the late 1930s.
In 1917, Purcell became an advertising executive with Alexander Brothers in Philadelphia, a manufacturer of leather power belts. Two years later, he moved to Portland, Oregon, for his health. There, he formed the Pacific States Engineering Company and continued to design buildings, successfully adapting his style to meet contemporary regional tastes. He retired in 1930 to southern California but continued active as a contributing editor and writer for Northwest Architect until 1955.
Unlike Elmslie, Purcell took a lively interest in the welfare of his own and the firm's records. Through his efforts and with the assistance of two long-time colleagues in Minneapolis, John Jager and Frederick Strauel, this valuable collection remained intact. After his death in 1965, it was donated to the University of Minnesota by David Gebhard and Dorothy O'Brien, literary executors of the estate of William G. Purcell.Alan K. Lathrop, Curator
Northwest Architectural Archives
Rollerskating down the Great Hall at Hatfield, flying kites in the garden at Buckingham Palace -- these are the indulgences of Princes. It is one thing for Princes to be unabashed by the grand when they are young, but when they become Kings, they would be fools to be unmoved by the magnificent.
What is true for Kings is true for us -- that is why we should be grateful for an invitation to heed that splendor of architecture which is our common midwestern inheritance. For too long it has been underrated merely because it is accessible, merely because it is here and not in some celebrated somewhere else. Here, in this river-washed and fecund central valley, here, depicted in this exhibition, are artifacts of classic quality. When we, the natives of this place, fully acknowledge this, a Great Betrayal will have come to an end.
These are the two themes of these few pages: first, that we are celebrating works of art deserving to be denoted "classic," and second, that this art was betrayed in a failure of taste two generations ago and is still insufficiently redeemed.
A classic is a work of art which has significance beyond its time and place. Classics, like these buildings, are not merely "typical," not just examples dotting the regression line of some pedant's imaginary trend. They stand on their own. Proud. Self-defining. Worthy to be hallowed.
So much nonsense has been written and spoken about these buildings that it is difficult to clear away the clutter and look at them as they are. Let us try. Let us begin by discarding that useless notion that they fit into a "Prairie style" of shoe boxes with lids painted brown.
These buildings are similar only in the aesthetic philosophy -- an international, not local one -- out of which they grew. They are composed of cubes and pyramids and all manner of shapes, according to their uses and manifesting their designer's desire to make something beautiful. They are not determined by long, low, deep-silt Iowa prairie horizons. That much a glance at them will tell. Then glance at the map: the best house Purcell and Elmslie built clings like a nesting sea-bird to a sand-pit looking out toward Martha's Vineyard. Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous house is built in a gulch near Pittsburgh. The largest public buildings created by the so-called Prairie School are Australia's capital buildings and a maharaja's palace. These architects' horizontalities were no more determined by the prairie than Gothic verticals were by the Alps. It is true that Purcell and Elmslie's last baroque gesture, the Woodbury County Courthouse, is in Iowa, but it has less in common with the Marin County Courthouse, Wright's last masterpiece, than it does with Richardson's Allegheny County Courthouse. If this was a "school," it had a wide open classroom. If the accent was midwestern, the language was international.
It was understood best, in fact, beyond the prairie. The peers and contemporaries of these architects who assessed them most accurately were in Europe and Australia.
Listen to Berlage in Holland -- he knew our neighbors here were creating classics, so did Behrens, in Germany, and Anton Rosen in Denmark. In Vienna, Wagner and Loos and Olbrich were grateful for these allies in an international movement to liberate architecture. Their Scottish colleague Mackintosh died in discouragement and drink like Louis Sullivan, but other Glasgow and London architects kept up the fight. In Finland the elder Saarinen and Aalto paid tribute to these, our exhibitors here, before their Minneapolis neighbors did. Now that the Decker and Little houses have gone, the best work of these men, on Lake Place in Minneapolis, in Owatonna and Winona, are still among the best that could be done by the international brotherhood of the unabashed than anything in the old world. But though they are the heads of the family, their siblings are to be found in Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Finland, England, Italy, Australia and India.
We honor here the American representatives of an international "school"-- a group of architects of many nations who knew each other's work, who kept up each other's spirits, who corresponded and criticized and influenced each other. We are not here to talk about some nice old people of our parish whom we patronize when we can't get something better.
A classic is independent of its place. It is also independent of its time. If we look at these buildings, we can see in them the three elements which we find in any great architecture, in any time: solid geometry, texture and Form.
As we approach, we first perceive them as shapes, a concatenation of blocks. Sometimes they show us their descent from the Picturesque, which was Ellis' metier and which Wright and Elmslie learned from Joseph Silsbee: jostling planes against the trees and sky, complexity and motion, variety, a dancing architecture. Sometimes they show us another and more solemn lineage: simplicity gains sway, symmetry, serenity, plain surfaces and clarity of statement, the architecture of repose. But whichever tradition predominates, this solid geometry, the composition of volumes, is the intellect's game.
This pleasure of the intellect gives way to pleasure of the eye and hand when we come closer. Then we feel the texture of their buildings, their ornament, the way their joints are made, their creases, the lines of character upon their faces.
Not nearly so much is written about texture as about geometry -- "solids" and "voids," perhaps because critics are by their nature categorizers, cerebral types who write monographs taking little steps from footnote to footnote as if they were mounting a rock face with pitons. Such people are more drawn to geometry than to ornament. Footnotes about feeling are often unintentionally funny, but even for critics the pleasure of the mind can be enlivened by the pleasure of feeling. The terracotta of the Powers House or the Winona Bank, the windows at Lake Place, the sawed wood and stencils everywhere in these buildings give joy to the senses.
I spoke of a third aspect of these buildings, which invites us to partake in a third pleasure. This is the Form of these buildings. I do not mean merely their shape, but their Form in the Platonic sense. Form does not follow, but it does contain and serve function.
A bank should look like a bank, not a temple. A small house should not be like a dehydrated cathedral, but be a beautiful small house. To impose upon one building the shape of another, because some curator of mankind's past successes approves of that model, is to deny Form, to suffocate its spirit inside a borrowed shell. Hermit crabs do not make architecture, they use architecture. So unhappily, do most architects. But these men, the great men whom we honor here, did. They listened and waited for the spirit of the building to determine its Form.
This statement will only seem too mystical for those who have never brooded over an architectural problem and then, suddenly, had its solution break through after the question has been asked over and over: "What is this building meant to be? What is it meant to do for those who will experience it?" When great men get answers to those questions they produce classics.
Every one of the buildings in this exhibition -- from the Bachus house which cost less than $3,000 to build, complete with its built-in furniture and specially designed fixtures, to the block-sized Woodbury County Courthouse or the great Winona Bank -- every one was conceived in this way. These architects addressed each of their opportunities earnestly, without haste. Few of their contemporaries took them seriously, but Purcell and Elmslie took their work seriously. They conceived first of the Form of the building, next its geometry, and, finally (but inextricably with Form and geometry), its texture. Thus pleasures of the spirit, the mind and the senses were served.
It is time, now, long overdue, for us to redeem ourselves. Our grandfathers and grandmothers did not do well for these men. The indictment of the half-blind taste is not rightly limited to a generation of midwestern miscreants. In California, the Greene Brothers and Irving Gill and Bernard Maybeck, in Chicago, Louis Sullivan, in Glasgow, Mackintosh, in Vienna, Otto Wagner, in Minneapolis Purcell and Elmslie were driven from the practice of architecture by an international and nearly contemporaneous failure of taste which occurred for reasons too complex to discuss here. Frank Lloyd Wright went into exile, and into that strange Faustian compact some psychiatric biographer must unravel. But their works remain alive and in our midst. We can give honor to those buildings, right here. It is not necessary that they should all be bought and shipped away to museums elsewhere before they get the deference they deserve. It is time the Great Betrayal came to an end, that these classics be welcomed home. That is what this exhibition is all about.
Roger G. Kennedy
The Ford Foundation
The Northwest Architectural Archives was established in 1972 at the University Libraries to serve as a center for the preservation and study of the work of regional architects. Its resources include such material as drawings, specifications, project files, photographs, and correspondence.
Acknowledgements hereby are made to the Danielson Brothers, Minneapolis, and the Merchants National Bank of Winona, Minnesota for financial support for the exhibition, and to Stephen Leighty of the Archives' staff, who designed it.