Purcell and Elmslie, Architects
Firm active: 1907-1921
Minneapolis, Minnesota :: Chicago,
or Adventures in Lake Place and Taliesin
Still restructuring the Lake Place pages, looking for their best reflection in the electronic mode. Think I am going to scrap the existing image categories, and divide it up by element to show the sequence from idea in the drawing to the final realization. Not yet sure if that is sufficient, as there are over 100 letters from the design process to be posted yet, too. This set of pages is going to be a major time sink; which figures, since they'll probably be among the most visited. Finished my comments from last night, below. Verbose, but worthwhile.
A structural day. Sketching through Lake Place mostly, observing the collaboration of research as a sacred art (I was an archivist, no doubt, in my former Atlantean incarnation). After a few available minutes elapsed, I ran off to do errands and deal with other work necessary to lean into the future hereabouts. So, precious little product is visible, but there is a creative act engaged here. The comparison of Tarot cards ups to mind. As these panes of text and image come and go through my keystrokes, they reveal an intelligent pattern. Sadly, too, I see how little, really, remains, but what great remains they are.
The experience, the living presence of consciousness in this architectural design can be demonstrated to turn upon itself in a four-dimensional way. You walk in the building. This motion is the direct act of reincarnation from an earlier being on the sidewalk, the effect of the fresh creative design coming alive in the physical experience of the building, written in moral and ethical waveforms, as well as horizontal lines and Roman brick. If you get the metaphor of consciousness as the action of a mirror, you have an important realization about the organic gnosis. The next step, or perhaps jnana, asks the question of how our minds are engaged with physical experience. The progressives realized that we are co-creative with our futures. Our anchor upon the land remains only as long as our buildings do.
What you experience is a deliberate psychological adjustment. The psychology of these buildings is about purity and integrity. This persuasion clearly occurs to users of their architecture, who frequently identify with these buildings as "like" themselves. In other words, they feel native in their identification. Within the altered spiritual state of the Potala of Lake Place, or the Olympian Farmers National Bank, putatively by Louis H. Sullivan but clearly being very largely whole from the hand of George Grant Elmslie, there do regularly occur sweeping conversions of souls. I have seen for myself in many cases others make the discovery of these buildings. They walk in, they wake up.
Some people insist on walking in. I got to have a few friends over to Lake Place. You can't have a fire in the chimney, "God forbid!" cry the insurance adjusters. So I bought a dozen fluted glass tealights and arranged them within the raised hearth. I had some nice pastries and good coffee for an eventual dessert. To my delight, I had been given permission to have over four architectural colleagues to watch the sunset come through the house. That and sunrise are two key experiences with Lake Place. Fill that reflecting pool to the brim, like the old Hess-Ives separation shows!
So I was getting ready for their arrival. The hanging lights crafted by Robert Jarvie are perfectly original in present working order, and the patina of their light combined with the tall lamp with the four little blades of leaded glass hanging on the finials is neat day or night, even late afternoon. Sweet. A little ambient jazz in the background off a cheap boombox somehow sweetened by that tented ceiling, and the doorbell rings. I don't know this person.
"Oh, the house is open tonight!" the lady said, turning the knob on the the screen door and swinging back a layer of obstacle. Only my body stood between her and the miracle adventure calling to her at my back. Without missing a beat she continued, "Can I please come in?" Simultaneously she thrust her foot across the threshold. Oh, how many times have I been on the other side of that door? Have you? A total stranger at the portal of a precious building (mine are always by Purcell and Elmslie), please allow me to introduce myself. Can I worship at your altar? Never say it out loud. It rattles the natives. Even avoid, "Did you know you own a mystical experience?" All she did was ask to come in.
My predicament hovered in mid-air for just a moment, and after a little missing time I chose fatal communion.
"My, this is even nicer inside than it seems!" says Ms. Another Satisfied Customer standing in front of the portrait of W. C. Gray, getting a full gander past the front door. This very engaged woman entered, hung around for a while as I did a Purcell chant while taking her upstairs and down. I never knew what attainment she might have gained, but we offered her a beverage and a seat on the back porch once my three friends (one didn't show) arrived; she said no thanks and left. Only a short time later, word around the Minneapolis Institute of Art was that Mark Hammons threw parties at Lake Place. Never mind I had gone through all the proper procedures to have a total of five people, including my humble self, in the house for a couple of summer evening hours. Most of the time we sat on the back porch drinking lightly of decent cabernet and slivering some antique Wisconsin sharp cheddar, before getting to the espresso. Really nice.
But, of course in a museum environment based largely on philanthropy the politics of appearance--and the power of unfounded gossip and rumor--is a primal force. There could be no semblance of improper favor or privilege, I was told. Out, out of Lake Place, damned Mark Hammons. I later learned that this woman at the door whom I kindly admitted and shared my knowledge was a poseur. No doubt, she resented that anyone should actually have the experience of the building, as opposed to the observation. Her kind stood around the neighborhood, Purcell reports in his Parabiographies entry for Lake Place, and clucked, "Well! Something strange about those folks to live in something that looks like that!" Sigh. I hope at least one group of happy souls since have taken an evening's refuge there, lit candles in the fireplace and stirred forth intellectual conversation about the house. The old biddy is still probably lurking in the bushes to nail their sorry asses with her particular brand of jealous obsession.
One photographer I know rose to a whole new level of the organic universe when he discovered Frank Lloyd Wright was not the only truly superlative progressive studio. This goodhearted soul then worked for a grant to photo-document the extant canon. He afterwards handed me the slides, and that work is now coming to the intended audience as they appear in these web pages. Another success story for the Graham Foundation for Advanced Study in the Fine Arts. Nothing in this work ever so pleased me as an expression of approval I received from Carter Manny when I saw him last, now years ago, at the exhibition of designs by Arthur Dyson held at that way cool old manse near Lincoln Park and the Chicago Historical Society. Carter Manny shook my hand and said he was pleased to see that I had completed and published the work the Graham Foundation supported in two grants. He was referring to the recent publication of my essay "Purcell and Elmslie, Architects," thoughtfully included in Art and Life on the Upper Mississippi, 1890-1915, edited by Michael Conforti. How Michael, who can be abrupt but is really a sweet soul, ever had the patience to get such work out of me remains a mystery. I was only coding an entire archival information retrieval system at the same time!
Except for that one verbal wreath of praise from Carter Manny, the essay sank out of sight. I saw only one review, but people told me there were several. In one, I heard, I got blamed for typographical errors, a neat trick given that I never saw a final galley. I was being too difficult to work with for the poor souls on the project to bother further with me. But, blemishes and all, the text remains the most detailed expression of the firm to appear so far. Now the web site is pushing back the underbrush, and establishing this effort as daily work. I have to limit the hours, and it is a genuine concern. I survive by intermittent freelance, which has proven difficult to manage. I get my little fix of this energy, then, because it is reliable.
The psychology of the materials is fundamentally wholesome, psychospiritually-active with a radiant light. Here are directions to lamaseries distant in time and only present, in the vast majority of cases, in tattered or diminished state. Demolition is the American way of life, but P&E knew--saw within their own lifetimes--that would be the case, as did even Louis Sullivan. Even in the shadows of recorded memory, however crystallized in manuscripts, correspondence, drawings, and photographs, we glimpse a living relationship between the organic remnants still, whether set in their original places or foundered on the shoals of museum galleries. On contact our consciousness flickers, like a mirror ball, with what went before, and the objects of cause are purposeful filters of experience. We are born again within our inner being. And we hold only shards.
I taught a course of Purcell and Elmslie for the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and saw first hand the total astonishment on first contact with the work of the firm. To me, it was unimaginable they didn't already know. Even before I heard the names of Purcell and Elmslie, I photographed their buildings on casual trips into the countryside; just innocently awakened highlights of an unconscious journey. In the summer of 2000, in the Hillside Studio at Taliesin, a brace of Taliesin apprentices armed with my Minnesota 1900 essay were mesmerized from 4 pm to past the sacrosanct 6:30 dinner hour. I used PowerPoint to the bursting point. The presentations were so enormous they could only be moved by CDROM. No bandwidth in the Wisconsin country estate of Frank Lloyd Wright, but there was a decent computer.
And so, as I chanted the litany of P&E, I saw at least six individuals attain kohlinar. Transmission occurred. Their consciousness expanded in deeper realization of organic architecture. It was no longer solely a personal thing of Frank Lloyd Wright. "I never knew there was anyone as good," said one. While blithely conducting this initiation, I sailed right past my own dinner engagement. My reward for ritual priesthood was an invitation to Tan-y-Deri. Lang Yue and Susan Lockhart, members of the Taliesin Fellowship, hosted a dinner for Lang Yue's distinguished parents from Beijing. The Feast of Shabu Shabu, a high holy day in my book. First of all, there was enough good red wine. And, to my delight, Qichang Zhao--Director of the Academic Council, the Capital Museum, and Director of the Beijing Archaeological Institute, and his wife--a descendant of an empress of China, an accomplished singer of Beijing Opera, and a scholar of classical literature, tackled the translation of the antique Chinese calligraphy on the Siang Tan, Hunan YMCA rendering of 1916! Who would have thought it possible, after my own years of wondering what it meant, for me to be thus serendipitously gifted? That's how the rewards come in this vocation. To give is to receive, albeit almost always unexpectedly.
Being at Taliesin, staying there, is a whole other dimension of sheer terror for a city guy like me. All that wide open historical space, sanctified and hallowed. And haunted. I swear I felt a psychical attack in my initial tour of the Guest Wing, the appellation controllé of the series of bedrooms on the lower floor of the main house that usually sleep the more significant visitors. Nothing but the complete gutting of that interior and the full upgrade of climate controls is going to heal that level of mold. Now, you can say I had a reaction to the mold, and my jaw froze shut, momentarily, but I could neither breath or speak for a considerable moment. My recall of the experience is that I felt an icy invisible iron fist grip my throat and press down, countering my ability to move my jaw. It hurt physically, tingling with little shocks.
Later I was told that the Rose Room, where this happened, earlier on was the location of the boiler for the first draft of Taliesin, built in 1911. That's where the murderous cook went and hid, in the belly of the furnace, while the house burned down around him and charred the corpses of his victims. I thought such coincidence with my own experience of present evil was outright spooky, as I had not yet read a personal biography of Frank Lloyd Wright and really didn't know the details of the murder. More strangeness on the Path.
Finally of late, I chanced upon several references to Thomas Tallmadge's "report" on the true originator of the skyscraper for the Marshall Field estate. I got out the original essay and went through again. Why do I react to the text as a whitewash? I don't even care who "invented" the skyscraper, really, as like all great ideas it was probably in the heads of several architects at the same time. But it did bring me in later meditations about events in our time to think that the destruction of the World Trade Center is the death knell for the form of building called the skyscraper. Aside from being stationary terrorist targets of grand scale, they are a strange form of ecological suicide. Their megawatt compressors and motors and switches won't work in a world whose resources are totally depleted. Sustainability and the mechanics of skyscrapers appear mutually exclusive. There was a Reuters piece today, a report stating the present rate of consumption of the planet would overtake reality in 2030. Soylent Greene and Greene. Architects, take note. Start digging. The future of architecture may be underground for the next swing of the pendulum.
FUTURE TOPIC: The Spectral Zone of the Drafting Table.