Annotation by George Elmslie at the top
of the first page:
“This is NOT very interesting to anyone I fear Ho Hum. VERY DRY and only
meant as mere NOTES anyway for someone to enlarge on. Keep it anyway.”
Our native place is in the north east corner of Scotland near the
beautifully situation old town of Huntly, which is an old settlement even
for that country, going back into history [for six or seven hundred years]
to the days of Mary Queen of Scots who gave it is charter about 1550.
Aberdeen goes back to about 1200.
The ancient Picts were there, of course, long centuries before the Romans
appeared in the South of what is now England. There was some intercourse
between us highland Scots and the Romans, because shards and implements of
Roman make have been discovered in recent years in Aberdeenshire. The
Romans, however, never took us, and no Scot was ever in chains to a
Ancient hills covered with white and purple heather were all about us,
rippling, musical streams and glorious woods.
Aberdeenshire has rich farm land and poor, great fields in pasture with the
world famous Aberdeen Angus cattle enjoying life on them. At times the
fields are literally covered with gowans, a most charming kind of daisy,
about which Burns rhapsodized.
We were born on a farm for generations called Foot O’ Hill, and later moved
to Huntly five miles away. There we attended the famous Duke of Gordon
School built in 1839. Celebrated its centennial in February last. This
school is well known over the north of Scotland and attendance at it was the
pride of the youth of the land, boys and girls as well, for many
generations. There are few settlements abroad the empire where there are not
men who attended this school and dreamed of its romantic setting and the
games of early days. A very interesting type of school in two units with a
central clock tower and great arch at its base spanning the road leading to
Gordon Castle. On one side were the boys and on the other the girls, each
with its own play field and local iron railing enclosure. The Boys had a
wonderful play field – a beautiful flat grass acreage with a slope at one
side leading to the Deveron River, a stream noted for its
fishing and picturesque windings through rich pastoral scenery for many
miles, finally emptying into the Moray Firth – the sea to the north.
Close to the playing field was Gordon Castle, ever in sight and ever
alluring. A ruin, but the ruined beauty of it was grimly interesting to all
of us who were young. A fair spread of farms all about and aged woods. One
fairly modern wood was plants in Scots pine depicting the battle formation
of the Scots Greys at Waterloo. Very noticeably when the fields were covered
Our school was a busy place – outside of class rooms with games. Three of
four games of cricket would be going on at one time with much enthusiasm and
laughter. Some boys were wonderful players – not I. A very lively playfield,
indeed. Out-of-doors sports were much to the fore, with cricket, then, in
the ascendancy. Every village and town had teams and much visiting of the
teams with neighboring places during the season. A blacksmith might be
captain and a doctor or minister among the players. Democracy at play, and
it is functioning today as it was decades ago. Bowling greens were very
popular in our day as well as now, and in far off Chicago the public park
bowling greens have about 90% Scots players. We like to play games – win or
lose makes little difference.
Our farm was partly on a hillside and therefore poor. One of my earliest
memories was watching the sun rise over the hill at our back and witnessing
the light creep across that valley, gradually filling it all with sunshine.
On very clear days from the top of our hill one might see the North Sea. Our
summer evenings are still fresh in our memory – long sweet twilights, in
which for a good part of the summer we could read and play out-of-doors
until quite late. In fact, in June some nights were scarcely dark. In
November it was quite dark until 8 o’clock in the evening and pitch dark by
4 o’clock in the afternoon. Short days balancing the long ones. Much snow in
the winter time and wonderful sliding on the frozen snow film with hob nail
shoes for hundreds of feet at a stretch. The temperature was never much
below freezing but we had savage and bitter winds at all times. All in all
winter as joyful.
Most beneficent of all was spring time with farmers out ploughing in
February, giving a long maturing season for oats and barley, and for fruits
native to the soil. Such strawberries! Such gooseberries! And, not to be
forgotten, such flowers!
A stable countryside of men, women and children nurtured in the finer values
of human intercourse, facing storm and stress with a smile, perhaps a sad
one, and never forgetting the essential glamour of the homeland wherever
they might be. In far off Chicago it lingers with us who were born there.
Some of the earliest, human welfare societies in America were made up of
Scots. One in South Carolina is well over 200 years old. Scots who could
find no room at home on account of poverty of soil and restriction of
opportunity crossed the seven seas and will be found in all corners of the
earth and with them will be found St. Andrew Societies.
Our idle reading in the young days was from the books of varied adventure
such as Captain Wayne Reid and others, and we had the weekly "B.O.P," as it
was called – the Boys’ Own Paper. In its pages were often found in serial
form, and the first time in English, the writings of Jules Verne. We were so
eager for our weekly installment that we went to meet the train carrying the
precious document. Local delivery was too slow for us.
The 6’6” town crier with his bell gave every one in town the news – and what
a voice he had. Stentor was a child compared to him. He always ended with
“God Save The Queen” – I can hear his voice, now.
Then, of course, there was our own Sir Walter Scott and his great novels and
captivating Border Tales and few indeed have read the Scottish Chiefs
without a thrill. George McDonald, a distant cousin of ours and born in our
neighborhood, gave us fine things also to read – “The Princess and the
Goblin,” “At the Back of
the North Wind,” and his many novels of Scots life and character. In the
subjective elements of his life he was much of a mystic, and naturally so
through his heritage, purely Celtic.
There was much singing in our house of simple songs, and ages old ballads.
Hardly a farm hand remained inarticulate – with the lark singing in the
sweet blue sky. The whole background fed the youth with unforgettable
memories when he went to foreign lands and helped to fill the vacant places
in his heart when in more prosaic places and circumstances.
The feeling for the homeland is much more serious than sentimental longing.
It is a deep well from which clear water is constantly brimming and
refreshing us. It is that fact which makes the average well-trained Scot a
good citizen wherever he may be, giving him a broad and understanding
outlook on the ways of life and beliefs of other people, as well as a tender
smile for their frailties, being deeply conscious, as a rule of his own.
Education in the Scottish schools in my time was of a fine and courageous
type. It could on occasion be savage and severe. School had a well defined
function and purpose, discipline and obedience were watch words, and woe
betide the lad who might cast an oblique eye on a comrade’s notes. There was
a breadth and humaneness back of it all. A whole parish would subscribe to
send a likely lad to the university. We were doing out best and worst with
Euclid and Latin, and some with Greek, by the time we were twelve years of
age and sometimes earlier than that. I know of no country with a yearning
for knowledge that Scotland has. The Scots, by and large, appear on the
records of time from peasant upward as probably the most literate people of
our age. Education is a passion, and it is no exaggeration to sat that the
average Scots youth of fourteen is easily comparable in general knowledge
and understanding with the average American of eighteen. The carry-on spirit
seems to be bred in the bones of the Scot and the pioneer spirit prevails
wherever they go and they carry the spirit of the homeland with them in
their old songs and rare inspiring tales.
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Some of our school mates when to North America, South America, India,
Australia, Africa, China, and the Malay Peninsula. They carried the spirit
of democratic freedom with them. A romantic race that always liked to plant
seeds in far countries and watch them grow. Seeds of various kinds but
mostly relating to the free spirit of man and his exercises in the art of
living and doing. That is the general background of most literate Scots.
In school we spoke Victorian English; out of school Aberdeenshire Scots,
locally called Aberdeen Doric, which we naturally liked the better.
The Scots are a reticent lot,
even taciturn at times, but with a little patient digging and forbearance
one may find a substratum of the mystic, especially among the northern or
highland Scots. In that purely Celtic element as it exists in lesser degree
in many nations may be envisaged the hope of the world. We believe that
science Is fast climbing the last barrier of materialism, as witness the
writing of Jeans and Eddington; and the world of matter as we now appear to
see it is crumbling, dissolving, disappearing. What is left? The Celt will
answer – a spiritual entity, no more, no less.
At our parents’ desire and with very little understanding of what I was
venturing into I went into architecture in my early days in Chicago. It
seemed a most interesting occupation, but it was years before I felt its
fascination and possibilities. The full extent I, of course, do not now
pretend to know except for all the dominating faith and belief that the best
in architecture, as in all things, is yet to be.
At any rate, at the start, in a strange and somewhat perplexing land
architecture seemed something that might be pursued and it appeared to fit
my Scots mind in whatever subjective value it may have had. Near the
beginning of my affairs, and after a session at a so-called business
college, I had about a year’s experience in Joseph Silsbee's office – and
architect and gentleman of fine distinction.
In this office at that time were Frank Lloyd Wright, George W. Maher and
Cecil Corwin, the head man under Mr. Silsbee. When Mr. Wright, clearly
at that time many of the essential elements of his future supremacy, left,
he shortly afterwards asked me to join him as a friend and hopefully
understudy in Adler and Sullivan’s office where he went after leaving
Silsbee. In that office I had the usual experience of the greenest of tyros
in witnessing good men at work, as well as the gay and ribald time servers
who poked quite a little fun at F. L. W and his youthful and graceful set-up
in personal appearance. However, it was all on the side, so to speak, and,
apart from an occasional vicious and snarling stab, no great harm was done.
Anyway Mr. Wright didn’t give a whoop what the men said or did. He was then,
as now, the individual supreme.
That the men did not enjoy seeing Mr. Sullivan working with and talking so
much to his new assistant goes without saying. Mr. Wright, in his
Autobiography, discloses many of the incidents in his office experience, and
I can vouch, by and large, for their accuracy.
I do not remember the first work as a tyro that I did – one thing one week
and another the next. There was no idling by anyone. Paul Mueller, head of
the office, seemed argus-eyed. He was a very able man and generally very
friendly to us all. He had only one comment to make when one of the men
failed to understand what he had said or meant him to do. In an accent
slightly Teutonic he would say, “What is de matter, have you water in your
ears?” Just that, no more. Then he would very quietly tell him all over
The master would come into the drawing room in the Borden Block in the early
forenoon and walk, usually with a cigarette in his hands, directly to
Wright’s table. He had a slight hiatus in his walk which Wright in his
biography called a strut. Other have referred to this strut also. It came to
be known as a Sullivan characteristic wherever he was seen. The Sullivan
prideful strut. As a matter of fact, he had a slight congenital malformation
of the hip joint on the left side which, in later years, he indicated to me.
But he always and ever, notwithstanding his overwhelming difficulties in his
fading years in the business world, held his
< page 7>
head high and his eyes shown with beautiful liveliness and clarity to the
end of his days. He claimed that his eyes were never tired or his brain
either, no matter how great his activity in work or how preoccupied in
I had to stand the music of the office as best I could, not being a very
facile student or observer. However, by dint of perseverance, and after 1895
when Adler and Sullivan dissolved partnership, Mr. Sullivan allowed me a
great deal of freedom and from that time until 1909 when I left I did much
designing for him and had full charge of all the ornamental work. In
connection with the latter, this may be said. Some keen observers noted a
great change in Sullivan ornament after I left, and the reason for the
change is that Sullivan went back to 1895 and pursued his course where he
left off. I pursued my way and have done so ever since, using the basic
philosophy of the ornament, which is available to all who care, and did my
work in my own way. What I have done has been criticized in a thoughtless
way and ignorant of the circumstances.
I owe an inexpressible debt to the great master and to his teachings. He
could at times be a severe critic, quite vitriolic, but even then as I look
back on those days he was, in essence, very fair. He was very liberal in
giving me of his time and very considerate of my shortcomings in every way.
For my own good I doubtless remained with him too long, but it was his wish,
as disclosed in his testament at the time, that I should succeed him and
carry on as best I could.
I was in partnership with William Gray Purcell and George Feick Jr. in
Minneapolis from 1910 to 1912. My function in this group was as planner and
designer; Mr. Purcell’s as general contact man and genial office critic on
all things; while Mr. Feick was engineer and specification writer. After Mr.
Feick departed Mr. Purcell and I combined as Purcell and Elmslie until about
which time Mr. Purcell went to Portland, Oregon to continue in the practice
of architecture, and executed some very distinguished work.
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My association with Mr. Purcell was a most happy one. He has a really
brilliant mind and most salutary spirit, as well as being of the ablest
exponents of the Sullivan philosophy in the country. Since then I have been
I think the world of architecture owes a debt to the master that it can
never repay. The debt will loom larger as the years go by. How futile seems
most of the work at home and abroad. There seems to be so little of an
animating spirit believed in. It is so appallingly dry, so set. Alas! So
little truly organized, and if, organized, organized to death, which is just
as bad. Or like stripping the vivid and lovely flesh from our bodies to see
the vertebrate from of our structure. This latter is now called, if you
please, modern architecture. It needs a resurgence of the spirit of the real
pioneer, the lyric poet, the clairvoyant Sullivan, to animate it, to give it
vertebrate life and a nourishing blood stream. We hope that the art of
building may emerge from this dry and bloodless state into one of high
spirited elegance and beauty, rimmed with a bland and lovely richness in
human interest. There is such a needless waste of endeavor these days in
trying to do something to a problem instead of the simpler manner of
permitting the problem to so something to us, to inspire us. It has been
many times said that the solution of a problem is in the problem itself
primarily, and it must be imperatively the source of our inspiration, no
matter what the seeming handicaps may be. Someone may say if he had only a
little more money and a few feet more of land what a wonderful thing he
might do. The contrary is the truth. The handicap is superficial and has no
meaning in creative work; the greater the handicap within reasonable limits
the greater the possibilities for real work, and bringing new
interpretations to life and usefulness.
<inserted unnumbered paged with correction and addition to above page 9>
Mr. Purcell and I were associated with Mr. William L. Steele on a court
house in Sioux City, Iowa. Mr. Steele was chief and general administrator
and we aided in plan and design. This was a happy combination on account of
Mr. Steele’s understanding and genial spirit combined with a brilliant mind.
At other times I was, personally, associated with Hermann V. von Holst, as
designer, in various undertakings with equally happy results, based on
similar ideals of work.
In the middle nineteen thirties I assisted Mr. William S. Hutton of Hammond,
Indiana, in the design of several large schools. This was another happy
combination of mutual ideals, as Mr. Hutton is a man of unusual distinction
of character and very able in the conduct of building operations large and
My early days in Chicago were all hardworking days and what little I have
done was with my nose to the grindstone. But I loved it all and in mature
years regret none of the struggle for what recognition at home and abroad I
My reading is of a very diverse order. I greatly enjoy Hudson, Conrad,
Tomlinson – tales told in marvelous prose. I found out that, much as I enjoy
and endeavor to absorb the simpler parts of Jeans and Eddington in all their
cosmic grandeur, the difficult and quite un-understandable parts are
marvelous soporifics after a trying day. In poetry give me Shelley and Keats
and, of our day, Alice Meynell. The Celtic tales of the duel personality of
Wiliam Sharp-Fiona McLeod have had a profound influence in my life. I read
them off and on all the time. They are all written in a pure and beautiful
style, finely adapted to the subject matter. It was a red letter day for us
Scots and the world when Peter Pan was born, and also when a “Doctor of the
Old School,: so typically a Scot, was set before us to help us dream of
service to our kind, no matter in what field of life we may sojourn.
My work has been varied in its nature, comprising the greater part of the
work in which an architect may be engaged. The plan itself, is, naturally,
and as with many of us, my chief interest, and while the design is, in a
sense, secondary, it does not have a lesser place in the result desired. The
plan is the thing. The two interests or elements are developed
simultaneously, and yet a limitless number of expressions may be given to a
plan conception – austere, simple, rich, romantic – depending largely on the
frame of mind at the time of conception, with, in all cases, a full
recognition of the function. As the orchestration of a simple theme in music
is, as we all know, limitless in possibilities, so it is in design.
Architecture is a broad and inclusive art, embracing in its fold sculpture
and mural painting, easel painting is generally recognized as a secondary
phase of the fundamental art of mural painting and sculpture apart from
architecture is also secondary and in most cases without much significance.
Some monuments are really fine pieces of architecture, but the real home of
painting is on our walls and sculpture on our buildings. In many cases I
have combined the
three elements in one with the aid of such very capable and imaginative men
as John Norton in painting and Alfonso Ianelli and Emil Zettler in
I include mural decorations and sculpture in my building cost budgets
wherever reasonable and at all possible. I have been asked how I got the
owners to pay for these allied arts. The reply is simple. I merely told the
owners all about what I had in mind and the reason for it. Very few of my
clients ever failed me. All were more than merely delighted when the art
products appeared in or on the buildings.
Architects are slowly and painfully, because of fixed and outmoded ideas,
becoming more frank, less afraid; developing courage; and I believe that the
three arts combined in eloquent and integral form have a great future. Apart
from purely symbolic forms in sculpture and painting, representing the
enterprise in an intrinsic manner, a good deal of the work of my associate
artists in form and color have been executed from purely local and
historical sources – giving the people who come and go something of their
own – and why not –
Most of my thinking I endeavor to do away from the drawing table and its
deterring, and at times baleful, influence. That was one of Sullivan’s basic
ideas in relation to work being done, of whatever nature, and all of us who
were employed by him were supposed to operate on that mental basis and he
was always quite content when we were so doing with no actual drawings in
sight at all. To me that is the best and happiest way to basically integrate
problems in plan and design. There is plenty of time for merely drawings. If
pencil erasers were abolished, for one thing, better work would be done and
subconscious thinking, our most fascinating and precious faculty would come
into its own. Facile draughtsmanship may be a dangerous endowment and alas!
Too often takes place of real communion with a problem.
As for the education of an architect, I may say this after a good
deal of experience with various types of preparation. The earlier the start
the better for the youth because he will be able to absorb gradually and
effectively with his early day plasticity of mind some very vital things.
One great architect declared that his real training for his life work began
in a fine kindergarten that was at his disposal. When the young man leaves
high school and enters an architectural school of the standard type, it is
almost invariably too late. The plasticity is gone to a pathetic and tragic
extent and the capacity to absorb is meager indeed. There are exceptions to
prove the rule. The best thing that can be done in the finer architectural
schools is to dissolve some of the crystallization that is well underway,
rendering our normal creative faculties and impulses of very little use.
Moreover, in the architectural schools the students are taught, as a general
rule, the arbitrary nature of styles as though they were principles and laws
when as a matter of fact they are no styles, only methods of approach, and
style is a resultant and varied in degree and quality as generations and
civilizations vary. There are no fixed ideas, only an external and
ever-changing flow. If the students are taught Function and Form by any
happy chance it is on the basis of their being dry wells and not ever
flowing fountains of inspiration. The graduates know forms but have no
understanding of the spirit that stands behind them.
The cultural values in the average curriculum are very desirable and by no
means to be lost sight of. They are very useful and delightful acquisitions,
but for the pursuit of the fair divinity their value is not of an
overwhelming nature. The HERE and the NOW are what are really vital and the
essence of which must be pursued with tireless assiduity. Shall architects
be merely time serving onlookers on a progressive civilization, content with
books and photographs as sources of inspiration for their work, merely
semi-cultured aesthetes with much knowledge of the past, little of the
present; or put on real working clothes and learn the vital significance of
buildings as the greatest of the arts, by laying stone and brick for
a while, mixing mortar and sawing wood. By all means in our power learn, the
while, the strength and durability of the old materials and the new, know
the social organism from top to bottom and its myriad needs and aspirations
and realize the vast power within your hands to leave a finger mark on
civilization as a token that you have passed through it as a citizen and a
man of usefulness to your day and generation. Let us absorb a sound and
understanding knowledge of the well-nigh incredible inventions as food for
our creative impulses, and go our way.
In architecture, as the art of building, there are no fixed formulas, no dry
standards of any kind. In design much has been written about “composition”
an though it were a fetish of some kind, something to worship, without
realizing that after all the myriad words in its favor it is only an
arbitrary assemblage of forms and, therefore, by its very nature a dead
thing. There is only one vivid and vital quality in architecture, as there
is only one in nature itself, and that quality is defined by the word symbol
Organic. So, unless architecture is organic in its complete integration, it
represents in no sense the art of building. Only organic architecture is
alive and is, as such, vivid and responsive to the conditions under which we
live and eloquent of the spiritual association of Function and Form. We, in
our ineptitude of understanding, call great works in music composition. So
used are we to hackneyed expressions. A Beethoven sonata, a Brahms symphony,
or a Bach fugue are not compositions in the sense of the word as usually
understood. They are grand organizations, not compositions at all because
they are living things.
Let us labor on this frank and consciously deliberate basis, for on this
road and only on this road may be seen the real contributions of the ages,
of all the races of mankind, civilized and barbaric, for our inspiration,
gleaming in the sunshine.
Let us for illumination in architecture and allied arts while on our way
read Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats; his Autobiography of an Idea; and
numerous essays. Read the works of L. March Phillips, Roger Fry, Clive Bell,
Strygowski and his great works on the origin of various phases of organic
architecture, and others, not forgetting the fine arts of John Ruskin, whom
it is the custom nowadays to ignore.
The apprenticeships of the Middle Ages and down to a later time were
doubtless the ideal way in which to bring to a full flower and fruitage the
innate capacities of the young man in the arts. The youths of the
Renaissance began their life work at about 15 years of age, some older, some
younger. That does not mean the specially gifted few, necessarily, who rose
to grandeur, but practically all of them, good, mediocre, or witless. The
groundwork was thus laid for real accomplishment instead of, as now,
cramming the naturally plastic minded youth with a farrago of non-essentials
and devitalizing the creative faculties that all sense of reality is lost
Let us hope that we shall have schools of architecture and the crafts where
a likely lad may enter at 14 or 15 years of age, or even younger, when he is
free of mind and plastic of spirit, happy in thought, and thus truly on his
way, without handicap, to worthwhile life of usefulness to his generation.
There are several such schools already, but not for boys so young. It is,
perhaps, the only way to get out of the present Sahara and into a wholesome
and invigorating environment – if there is any validity in the story of