Purcell and Elmslie, Architects
Firm active: 1907-1921
Minneapolis, Minnesota :: Chicago, Illinois
122 South Michigan Avenue
June 12, 1936
Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright
Spring Green, Wisconsin
Dear Mr. Wright:
I read very belatedly with great interest your review of Professor Morrison's biography of Louis Sullivan, as it appeared in the Saturday review of December 14th.
There are a few errors, preconceptions and preoccupations of mind in your comment that may be duly stated, in the interest of Truth, if that element is of any importance to you. You are the judge of that.
You refer to the "backwash" of the later work shown in the book and specifically attach my name to the old Bradley house in Madison. It may be said, much as you may prefer it otherwise, that the design conception was wholly Sullivan’s. Professor Morrison attributes a bit too much to me in this one case. I made the working drawings and the detailed working out of the basic design even to his deep false wooden brackets which conceal and stultify the horizontal steel cantilevers that support the balconies. Sullivan threw up the job when building operations began because Charles R. Crane, whose daughter is Mrs. Bradley, refused to pay him money, not due or even nearly due. I was engaged by Mr. Crane to see the house finished at a weekly wage after I had left Mr. Sullivan. Later on Mr. Sullivan thanked me most sincerely for having done this for his old friend, Mr. Crane. Mr. Purcell and I did a lot of work for Mr. Crane afterwards, as he did not care, after this episode, to take on the Master, who doubtless realized the ineptitude of his own unbusinesslike attitude in this ease as in others. When with him, I had to defend him, time and time again, and pacify his clients. I served him in his temporary weaknesses as well as I could and resolved more than one difficulty.
Sullivan threw up the big Cedar Rapids church, referred to by Morrison, for the same reason--the matter of remuneration. The architect who succeeded him, a Chicago church "expert", made a ghastly mess of the original design and the chairman of the committee wrote to me to inquire if I would please look things over and help them out. I naturally refused. However, he wrote that he was coming on to see me and I finally agreed, for Sullivan's sake, to
spend some time in an endeavor to bring back
some part of the original idea. I did this without compensation and in
principle, at least, saved the situation from being a dreadful conglomeration.
Sullivan never knew about it. If he had he would again have thanked me.
You also refer to the Owatonna Bank which you now class as one of his master works. Once in the nearly twenty years when you were not on speaking terms with him, you glassed it as a high wall with a hole in it. Some change in feeling? It may be said as I wrote you before that not only were all the working drawings and every last detail of decoration, inside and out, mine but the main motif of the design as well. I suggested to him, as I also told you before, that one arch would be more impressive than the three on his design. He thought this over and drew a big arch thirty-six feet wide and said "George, is that what you want?" I also devised the brick counters with clear plate glass above and only grilles where the tellers were. That worried him and he sent my sketch to the owners for approval. They approved the system, which was quite new at the time. I hope this notation will clear your mind and keep the record straight, which is all I care for.
On the Schlesinger and Mayer Building he formed the window shapes in the upper stories, which were the characteristic element of the design. I did all the rest--all the ornamental work and also the design of the shape and the complete working out of the projecting curved corner, which was not on the original design.
On the Condict Building, which you class as a master work, he made the basic design to palm of the hand size but never touched the detailed working out of it.
For the last fifteen years I was with Sullivan, he left, and gladly, much for me to do. He trusted me and I had a great feeling of trust in him.
The work from 1910 and onward was done all by himself except for the services rendered by a very able young chap who came after me, Parker Berry, who deserves a vote of thanks.
I worked for Sullivan for ten years for half pay and acknowledged by him as such. It was his desire and clearly understood that when he passed on I was to succeed to his affairs. It was so noted in his will at that time. However, the end came and no business at hand or in sight. I had to leave. My very great affection for him induced me to stay as long as I did, even when friends for many years had urged me repeatedly to leave. I do not regret what I did but I lost many years, as related to my own welfare, and now think that my contribution to his life was worthy of some regard, even from you, instead of the captious and snarling insult you offer me in your criticism. During those years I contributed at least fifteen thousand dollars to his budget that I could have earned elsewhere. Did anyone else do as much for him or defend him as much as I? I did more for him than you, and all the rest put together, and if you were honest, instead of greedy for a posthumous honor, you
would candidly admit it.
He explained his theory of ornament to you as you once said. He did to me also but being in no sense as facile as yourself it took me a long time even creditably to draw it, to say nothing of organizing forms to suit myself. He looked over my efforts critically and judicially and when he saw fresh interpretations and now shapes, he was greatly delighted. I never copied any of his motifs.
Kindly note and believe it or not, I have no personal interest whatsoever in making these comments; merely detailing events as they occurred and conditions as they existed. I have no desire to exploit myself at any ones expenses I was not bred that way. Facts interest me.
One day, in later years, I showed him a bank we had done on the Pier and Lintel basis. I never saw him more delighted and pleased. The owners of the Owatonna Bank preferred it to their own.
I was never untrue to Sullivan, not an hour in all the years I was with him. I happen to have first hand knowledge from the Master himself as to your behavior on your agreement with the firm. It is not a pleasant story for your friends to hear and need not be told by me. His vitriolic comments on your ways and means will remain unsaid.
I was loyal to you too. You have forgotten how often I went to Oak Park to do a bit of drawing for you.
I knew Sullivan in those twenty years of his mental maturity. You missed knowing him all those years and you missed a lot. It was pleasant to know of the renewal of your relationship and to note it in his diary. A friend in need is a friend indeed!
I gave Professor Morrison access to all the Sullivan material I had. Most of it I gave, later, to the Library in the Chicago Art Institute--drawings galore, drawings made in Boston and Paris as well as a great deal of unpublished literature. They now have the original manuscript of the "Autobiography of an Idea", and many other treasures which I preserved. The drawings you have are doubtless contained in the well known sketch book. Precious indeed, but not to be compared with the material I was privileged to give.
All of the available Sullivan vital material and miscellanea were turned over to me at the desire of Max Dunning and George Nimmons and I did as well as I could to preserve them for posterity. Why did not you step in and look into these things yourself in your role of newly assumed spiritual legatee? You did not care enough. These two men were very close to Sullivan at the end and very materially helped him but, being men, they said nothing about it. No telling the world at large here, of buying him a suit of clothes! We all contributed to his burial expenses.
You say Professor Morrison drew all his
information from me. Paul Muller helped him probably as much as I did in his
historical research and appreciation of characters in the scene he depicts. What
a story Paul told me of his relations with you on the Larkin Building! It seemed
perfectly all right for you to gyp this honest and splendid man and to try your
damndest to discredit others for your own benefit.
Morrison is a fine follow, as you would realize if you had met him. I have known him since first he thought of endeavoring to illuminate the pathway of Sullivan through the years. He and his wife called on you but you were away. He deeply regretted not having conversed with you regarding the Master. He traveled abroad the country in the interest of Sullivan and dug deeply, personally into all existing records to got the complete, if possible, story of his life, as crystallized in building form and in the messages of his great pen as he set forth his incalculably vital philosophy. It was necessary to do all this and I think it was extremely well done. That Sullivan was a greater philosopher, prophet and teacher than an architect is indubitable, and the book brings that out very well, with its wealth of quotations. The gracious thing for you to have done would have been to assume the role of kindly mentor, and in simple language have pointed out with good humor and grace wherein the book did not meet your conception of what it should be, instead of your insulting comment on it, on the author, and on myself. Professor Morrison did his own thinking. If he saw fit to dedicate his book to me, it was his own business. It was, in truth, the last thing I expected.
Why not, in the years of your great maturity, exhale a modicum of kindliness to others, endeavoring to do their bit? No man can afford it so well as yourself. But alas, you are not endowed with so human an element, only with a curious quality of vanity, and a rather vulgar and childish egotism. You seem to have it in your mind that you yourself do your work, whereas the impulses are much deeper and more universal than the mere ego which you adore.
Mr. Adler - as to whose greatness, I cordially agree with you - once wrote a critical thesis on "Form Follows Function”. In it he referred to an essay Sullivan had written previously as follows, - I quote from memory - "That very brilliant writer, Louis Sullivan, in an article on ‘Form Follows Function’ does not go far enough in my opinion. He should have said that Function and Environment determine Form”. Sullivan laughed, naturally, at his former partner's lack of understanding of the spirit involved in the simple slogan. Did Sullivan need to go to school to Adler? Hardly! They gave and took like all good partners, I suppose. Sullivan was born with his philosophy and lived with it and needed no tutoring from anybody.
Adler’s daughter, by the way, is delighted with Morrison's book. She apparently did not feel that her father was belittled in the biography.
Perhaps you could write Sullivan's life, without exploiting yourself, and explain more fully the spirit or psyche that dominated it. I do not know. If
you did it and were no more truthful, in
parts,, than you were in your own autobiography, it would be indeed sad. Perhaps
you could divest yourself long enough of your pride in the greatness of your
achievements to do so. I doubt if you will ever tell the truth of your years
with him, and of the twenty years, that followed your exit in disgrace until you
met him again.
You once said to me,- "How long will it be before the world recognizes me as the Master and Sullivan as the man?" I make no comment.
You, of course, are a great genius, and no one !mows this better than I. But I do bespeak entrance into your mind of the still, small voice of truth, of fair play, dignity, and high honor, and the exit of your strange claims of omniscience when you come to write on a great Master and an infinitely greater man than yourself.
[signed] George G. Elmslie