Purcell and Elmslie, Architects
Firm active: 1907-1921
Minneapolis, Minnesota :: Chicago,
Text by William Gray Purcell
Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1913
Job Date (in Parabiography): Women's Club
Mrs. Ella G. Winter is now a public relations counsel under Moving Pictures Czar, Mr. Hays. Her job is to mollify the collective resentment of American women against the content of moving pictures, and to do her work so that pictures will not have to do more than a bare minimum in respecting public morals. She was at that time president of the Minneapolis Women's Club, and being an unusually capable executive, she made it the outstanding women's club in this country, herself becoming the most popular president of the national body.
In 1913, the little theater movement was gaining attention everywhere, and the Minneapolis Women's Club desired to build such a theater on the rear of their property. The area available was so impossibly small that one practically had to stand the room on end to get in the 225 seats they established as a minimum requirement.
In the plan laid before them, we anticipated the new relations between the actors and audience which were soon to appear in Europe, as the result of the work of Gordon Craig and Max Reinhardt.
The old idea was to create the illusion of a picture by carrying a grand frame called the proscenium entirely around the edges of an open faced box within which the action took place. The spectator did not take part in the production except to look at it. Our idea was that the ideas being presented in action should be made a more intimate part of the lives of the audience by bringing the action forward, using symbolic instead of naturalistic stage scenery and removing entirely the sense of separation which the old sense of a glorified public "show" gave to the production. Wit this idea in mind, we made a stage with a semi-circular front and somewhat in the sense of the old Greek chorus space.
Around this was swung the half circle amphitheatre, with unusually sloping ranks of seats like those in surgical clinics. We succeeded in providing the 225 seats without crowding and with adequate aisles, an ample lobby under the back rows of seats. We created a really distinguished room of considerable dignity despite its small size, and with surprisingly practical back stage conveniences. Our recommendations were so novel that they created any amount of discussion, but things seemed to be moving favorably in our direction when an impolitic remark to Mrs. Winter by a person close to our office aroused her personal antagonism. Further contact with the committee was cut, another firm of architects were employed and the theater erected from their plans.
These architects chose a conventional theatre arrangement with balcony and squeezed it in to tight in every department that one could almost touch the actors from the first seat in the balcony. The stage was so small that the actors looked gigantic. It required an unusually good play to take one's attention away from his cramped position in the tightly spaced seat rows, and one had to practically step out on the sidewalk to get in line for offering his ticket at the entrance. The result was highly unsatisfactory.