Purcell and Elmslie, Architects
Firm active: 1907-1921
Minneapolis, Minnesota :: Chicago,
Job Date (in Parabiographies): December 12, 1907
ALBERT LEA COLLEGE FOR WOMEN Cargill Science Hall
This was our first large and (to us) important building, the first calling for considerable engineering. It was a small Southern Minnesota Presbyterian College, the money for it put up by a well-known Minneapolis grain man, a now forgotten philanthropist of that day who owned the "Cargill Line" in little towns all through the Northwest. To land the job, it would seem now that our offer must have shown a building and a promise of professional skill considerably in advance of others, as we had no political pull nor friends to help us. My recollection tells me of a committee of unbelievable ignorance, narrowness, and lack of any idealism. It was a shock to find such people running a "college." Who on earth would run and who would attend such a school! We had to answer most of ouor own questions as to how such a Department of Science would be operated, and how the proposed building should be used. Pure sentimentality had obtained Mr. Cargill's donation. "Science Hall" sounded important, but function as education had not been considered.
Thirty Years Ahead
Although the commission is dated in our first year, the project was developed and building built as of 1908. Until this day I have not looked at these plans since that day thirty years ago when they were filed away, as office records. I have never seen the building itself, for such were the circumstantial wonders wrought and imposed on the profession of architecture. These men without vision desired only to buy a set of blueprints; of building as a science and an art they knew nothing and did not wish to know.
Between this early building and today lies so long a course of days of such diversity of work and interest that my recollections of Cargill Hall had been of an unimaginative, routine commission of no especial import, but when thirty years later I now open this crackling old roll of tracings, how amazed I am at the vigor in the forms of this obscure college building - at the clean movement from end to end, from ground to eaves. Consider the silly Gothic and classic college buildings built everywhere before the first World War by our most distinguished architects, and the equally inept and meaningless designs shown weekly on the Educational Page of the New York Times! In refreshing contrast, this ingenious Cargill Hall is a building of today, direct, useful, free of cant and cliche, and eminently servicable. There is a certain atmosphere and distinction about it, too. It has a certain frank and honest serenity which seems to bespeak the idea and spirit of EDUCATION.
It is surprising how many efficiency studies we made before the design was crystallized, trying to relate the building to time and students' legs, before the plan finally crystallized. The lack of just this sort of study at the University of California, upon whose construction I had spent the years 1904 and 1905, with all the vast sums of money and world-renowned minds brought to this campus plan, since that first great International Competition of 1900, has resulted in a plan-less acreage of paths and buildings. The 20,000 students must be running, out of breath, to get to classes, the periods for which must be shortened to meet the distances between them, all because respect of persons and so-called architectural tradition has high-hatted the plain needs of physical and mental geography. In this connection, one should pay tribute to the magnificent and almost plan for the National University of Australia embodied in the prize winning plans for Canberra by Walter Burley Griffin. Before trying to develop a ground plan for the buildings and campus, he first organized the university curriculum into an integrated system of pedagogy, in which both the humblest and the most respected studies had their honorable and democratic parts. The astonishing thing is that the architect had to do the work that should have been done by the educators. The university idea being organized, he then platted his campus and designed his buildings to exactly crystallize this concept into buildings with time ways, walk ways, and shuttle channels for the busy young students.
Machine Age in Education
These Cargill Science Hall studies of ours, in the mass effort required to lift 200 girls, x stories, y times per day, nevertheless came several years before the now famous studies of how many motions were needed to take brick out of a freight car. This efficiency ideal was in the air of the time - but it wasn't in the architectural air - not by a long ways - not by just twenty-five years.
With what sincerity we studied and restudied the parts and the whole of this Science Hall project and took account of all its relations with campus and future growth! Jack London says in "To Build a Fire": "The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, not in the significances."
This building will appear to many who read this record very much as the Early American Architecture appeared to the Brown Decades of the 1870s. "What's there to it?...just rows of windows and a roof." But even aside from the relation of this severe form to the college buildings of that day, the whole mental and practical approach to the creation of these forms was so radical that only a lack of funds enabled us to secure acceptance of such a "plain" building.
If this college had had a large endowment, Cope and Stewartson would have had the privilege of raising the incidence of tuberculosis by several points in the student body for fifty years with their beautiful ashlar walls and tiny ivy obscured windows of the always popular Tudor Architecture. But such English buildings make lovely pictures in the catalog.
Thinking in Circles
The first concern if the designers of 1908 and of 1938 is to select honorific forms which can be added to the proposed building with as little disturbance to the construction as possible, and with a jolt to the pocketbook of the owner sufficiently small to keep the project moving. Whether the ritual to the Gods of Architecture be lifted from the England of the Tudors or the Georges, or whether it be skidded from Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright, the result is the same. The real building becomes a donkey for a load of rubbish. How much of the donkey can be realized and what concern the public may have for his value to society depends on the ebb and flow of his crowd mind and heart, upon fashion, convenience, and the grip which special and selfish interests may have on the publicity lanes during any given time.
Getting the Focus
We submerged ourselves in the concept of this building, and before one single element of the whole was permitted to crystallize into a working form, every aspect of it was thoroughly explored. Not one material thing was allowed to speak until it was certain that what it had to say was a very part of the story this building was born to tell. The smallest living tradition bearing on us and on our ways, as people, in America, in 1908, was considered; and much, of course, which neither we not anyone else could see or understand or estimate, here had its say in spite of us. On the other hand, not the slightest attention was paid to any of the prevailing currency of forms and fashions mistakenly called tradition.
Building my Own Career
The construction and equipment is very primitive - the ventilating system was dictated - the contractors the poorest - and we were allowed no supervisional control - yet in Cargill Hall we produced a very large amount of acceptable building for the fewest dollars - we had to; it was that evidence in our work which gave us the job. George Feick, Jr. worked out the strength of parts, did most of the tracing and the making of details. In these old drawings I see his testy pencil digging lines almost through the paper.
In addition to the intensive study in the philosophy of architecture, which I was giving to every building, I can see myself, all over the city and countryside, contacting prospects, making layouts and water colors, superintending, conferring, making speeches before clubs. George Feick was industrious, sincere, and outside the office was an agreeable companion, but in all this battle to free the Art of Architecture from the Brahmins, he just tagged along. I think that, perhaps, deep in his heart he knew it. Footnote: He died in 1947.