Purcell and Elmslie, Architects
Firm active: 1907-1921
Minneapolis, Minnesota :: Chicago,
Text by William Gray Purcell
Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1912
Job Date (in Parabiographies): September 23, 1912
E. W. DECKER Residence, Holdridge, Minn.
Securing this commission was one of those peculiar combinations of matching temperaments, tastes, and business circumstances in which all the factors fell together and pure chance seemed to have quite a large share in the favorable result. The Deckers were in many ways ideal architect's clients who gave us a beautiful opportunity to do the thing right, with no wishes that something might have been different or better. We were and are solely responsible for its successes and shortcomings.
Our first thought in this house was to make every part if it indoors feel a very part of the outdoors. This was unusual even in California in 1912, where everything was still "Mission Style", except for Greene and Greene and their ten years good work on the way to fame that was not to come to them for another forty years.
The Decker first floor was kept right down only one step off the ground. Instead of a space enclosing box with windows and doors in it, the lower floor consists really of a group of supporting piers filled between with glass and with various types of openings as required. Occasionally were formed minor solid portions as required to get the heating and plumbing to the second floor, and so on. In an old Minneapolis warehouse we ran across a cache of beautiful old stain-finish tile that must have been in storage since the 1880s. These exactly uniform, precisely flat tile were of that period. There was enough for the entire first floor and porches, layed with the narrowest possible joints and as accurately level as possible. The result was a floor which, when waxed, was a perfect dancing surface eighty or more feet from the end of the East porch to the end of the West.
We had a beautiful opportunity to design some special furniture, both built-in and free. Made a real blunder and learned a lesson in the dining room chairs, where the arms bumped your finger against the under side of the table apron.
We heated this house with warm air, because it enabled them to go there weekends in the winter and leave without the great mechanical bother of draining a hot water heating system. The plumbing traps were simplified and made accessible for oil fill drainage. The great length of the house made this warm air heating a difficult job with the mechanical apparatus available in that day. It would be comparatively simple today. Instead of pusher fans, we used puller fans directly in the heat pipes and cooled their bearings with little reverse funnels drawing cool air from the basement. Mechanically the system worked all right, delivered the heat, and in spite of the enormous glassed areas, would keep the house comfortable up to, say, ten below. But after that the load was beyond the capacity of the three strategically located furnaces. The noise of the fans in the pipes, however, was a very serious drawback, as the hum was conveyed, as in speaking tubes, directly to every room.
In this house I first learned that cold air was a pretty much solid substance and behaved very much as so much water would do in flowing about or damming up and causing trouble. There was an exasperating problem to make function a heat pipe to one of the maid's bedrooms. This brought the heating engineer from Mason City, Iowa, nearly to tears. It was solved when at the noon whistle he pulled of his heavy working gauntlets and banged them to the floor in a fit of final exasperation. They fell directly in front of the baseboard register temporarily shutting off the flow of cold air which was pouring down off the cold floor through the lower edge of the register and completely plugging the feed pipe against delivering any warm air. This temporary holding back of the cold air took the air weight off the warm air in the far end of the pipe near the furnace. Immediately the warm air began to flow into the room. A little two-inch sheet metal dam inserted in the bottom of the register face cured at once a difficulty upon which we had all been working, completely baffled, the entire morning. From this I learned to put registers above the base in the wall. Thus six inches of cold air, which might accumulate like a little lake of water on any cool room floor could flow away someplace else rather than down the heat supply pipes. For a complete analysis of the behavior of air as related to architecture se "HOT AIR DOESN'T RISE" in NORTHWEST ARCHITECT [vol 14, #1].
In this job also, I had my first contact and experience with septic tanks, installation being eventually successful, although some difficulty at first because the soil was so filled with clay that several times the usual size filter bed was required for disposal.
The Deckers were very appreciative, and continue to enjoy the house for twenty years, eventually losing the place as a result of Decker's extreme financial difficulties during the depression. Comparing this Minnetonka place with many of the elaborate and palatial homes built out there both before and afterwards, it seems to me now that we really caught the spirit of country life. We carried the conveniences and finish only as far as they could be carried, without disturbing those qualities which take a person out of the atmosphere of city living and give him the spiritual refreshment which he is seeking in the country. Many of the great and expensive places in Minnetonka were set to meet a scale of living which it is likely no one again will ever be able to maintain. Certainly they are a burden and not a joy to the owners. The requirements for many servants with few available, changes the whole picture.
This Decker house is semi-fireproof, and barring from accident, should become, with the passing of years, a very happy and useful heirloom for a long series of Minneapolitans. (It didn't, as you have read; lasted only ten years after the above was written).
[Note: this version of the draft is dated 8/1951]