Purcell and Elmslie, Architects
Firm active: 1907-1921
Minneapolis, Minnesota :: Chicago,
Job Date (in Parabiographies entry): February 28, 1909
Mrs. Terrence W. McCosker
The Open Plan:
My particular interest at this time was in Frank Lloyd Wright and his small and beautifully integrated house plans. This great innovator and improvised on such a simple theme should have a full acknowledgment for his pioneering work at this time. His first little homes were built in the middle 1890s. Walter Burley Griffin and William Drummond, both in Chicago, were also building many variations of Wright's basic type. It was becoming almost a formula--like the little Early American center hall type, which literally thousands of Architects have produced with every possible variation to the last minutae of "correct" detail. The difference lay in the fact, that while we scarcely felt its presence yet, we were a living part of a spiritual tradition moving toward the establishment of a world in which the young men of later years could let their imagination go and find clients for whom they might build. It may be said that the Wright type as based on his philosophy was essentially fluid in nature and thus lent itself to numberless variations by unhampered minds such as may be seen in this day of continuous progress.
This McCosker house is a further extension of my practical reaction to Wright's "open plan" studies. Here we used a variation of the front-and-rear combination entrance arrangement developed in Wright's original Ladies' Home Journal Plan and first used by us in #5 . Later we used the idea many times with numerous variations. We gave this house a lot of study on plans and details and this started various trails of development, influencing our later work.
Stair comfort Weather tightness Inside casement window screens and their handling and hardware Basement window systems, their construction, location and effect on design Interior door use, with their swing, pass-through, and stand-back technique Wardrobe type closets Better working heights for sinks Outside icing of refrigerators Combination screen and storm doors Fireplace and flue design Careful planning of all rooms for furniture and lights, with furniture shown on plans--all these were new in 1908, and with generality of architects, they were unthought-of ideas
Technical Studies Rare:
Sullivan's principal preoccupation, apart from his daily work, was with Form and Function and the strategic issues of design philosophy, while Dankmar Adler, with his wise and practical mind, aided Sullivan in myriad details concerned with making the buildings work in harmony with the men who had to use them. George Elmslie saw both of these processes at work firsthand and when Wright left to practice by himself, much of Sullivan's planning and designing fell into his hands. Elmslie did a great deal of work in relating both Sullivan's main thesis and Adler's practicalities to the work that came from that office. There was great need at this time for continuation of such laboratory work as that of Adler. Walter Burley Griffin and the physiological and psychological studies which culminated in his plan for the Capital City of Canberra, Australia [P&E's entry], which he won in a worldwide competition, explored architectural relationships that involved many factors besides the mere practicalities, but the field of study was vast and it was not until the second generation of young architects ran away with the constructivist aspect of Form and Function during the late 1930s that the interrelations between man and his building as a living machine has a thoroughgoing laboratory investigation and recording. Publications like the Architectural Record's "Time Saving Standards" of the 1930s are a vivid illustration of the extent to which the architectural world became preoccupied with practicalities, but in examining these records as they were published from month to month, I was always struck with the fact that even in 1930 the mind of the architect was still inhibited by the old tedious Beaux Art approach to every problem, that is, but its appearance characteristics, with the result that every examination, purporting as it did to really exhaust the possibilities of a given problem, nevertheless omitted some of the plainest opportunities.
Preoccupation with Trivia
To apply that old "measured drawing" procedure which had been applied to an imagined system of aesthetics for traditional architecture, to an examination for the ways and means of modern life, is not only insufficient to establish a real basis for modern living, but is a negation of all simple human desire to have something of one's own. These men were too preoccupied with whims and witless realities. The results still remain in the world of vain endeavor and gadgetry, and complicate rather than simplify life. It is the same process by which the designers of the New York World's Fair of 1940 hung a collection of building grimaces upon an old Prix de Rome cliché and were only saved from a complete flop by the imagination a high-powered window dresser brought to the situation.
The old carpenter tradition had failed to meet the new demands of convenience, and women's magazines were beginning to print pictures and diagrams of various housekeeping rearrangements. In this first decade of the century a very few architects in the direct line of Sullivan's thinking were studying these things in their constructional form and function relations. Charles E. White, Jr., after a few years in Wright's office in Oak Park, Illinois, was soon to write numerous articles on various aspects of organizing and dimensioning convenience standards for the dwelling house. He wrote several pioneering books on architectural practicalities, but the resistance of women to all attempts toward improving their housekeeping utilities and thus lighten their work was continuous and persistent. A washing machine manufacturer told me in 1917 that the cost of merely securing acceptance of the washing machine idea, quite apart from its type, would run millions of advertising and selling costs.
The run of the mine [mill] architect, with a living to earn, contented himself with polishing up the old kitchen arrangement with its two pantries. He never dreamed of the breakfast nook with its delightful and labor-saving household economy.
In the McCosker house we introduced a simple and yet effective scheme of color, both exterior and interior. The house was therefore definitely color conscious in an era of sample card tints and their unimaginative suggestions on how to paint a house.
This house had the raised hearth idea which George Feick, Jr., and I had seen in Norway and which we had used in #5, #23, #33, etc. It was always well liked. Here also began a long series of studies of the mechanics of draft in fireplaces and flues which resulted in a practically perfect lifelong record for fireplaces. It was years before we really felt we had this problem solved, so that there probably was an element of luck in some of the earlier ones.
Altered somewhat about 1920, the McCosker house is still standing in 1940. Strauel and I planned them a garage about the time that the first Dodge car appeared. This was in 1916 and from then on the demand for private garage accommodation was practically universal.