Purcell and Elmslie, Architects
Firm active: 1907-1921
Minneapolis, Minnesota :: Chicago, Illinois
William Gray Purcell - Part III. (July 27, 1955)
WILLIAM GRAY PURCELL SECTION
MY TWO APPRENTICESHIP YEARS ON THE PACIFIC COAST.
Events personal and professional combine to make a real long held dream of a life in the West.
WHEN THE SCHLESINGER AND MAYER BUILDING was finished in the fall of 1903, there was almost no work in Sullivan’s office. George Elmslie wanted me to continue on, in anticipation of work coming in, but I was very eager to learn construction; to gain practical field experience. George and I had been designing that Village Library together. I also made designs for the annual exhibition of the Chicago Architectural Club of which I had become a member. I also attended evening life class in a new art school directly across Quincy Street from the Sullivan offices, and occupying rooms on the second floor which, strangely enough, were to be occupied five years late by my grand-
father’s old newspaper The Interior. Its former offices had been in the old McCormick Block, designed by Sullivan and in which he had his own offices until January 1890. What curious coincidental tie-ins. That which was nearest my heart as a youth kept reassembling and making geographical pairs with what became nearest to me as a man, this all in continuum over a period of thirty years or more.
After the first of November I was assigned very little drafting. I had tried my hand at designing ornament under George’s direction without too much success. That expression was not for me. Perhaps I dimly felt the coming tie with George and saw no use both of us exercising that facility, even if I had it in me, which I didn’t. Sullivan’s office was just not practically busy enough for a young, eager and ambitious lad. Perhaps most pressing, I always had the westering urge.
Then too, along in late November, I had a sort of falling-out with my sweetheart in Oak Park; nothing really unpleasant, but hard to explain even now. It began to seem as it we were not going to make it as a married pair. We were engaged for about forty-eight hours and I even had a ring on her finger. This break made me anxious to get away from Oak Park. There were other minor family circumstances not particularly concerned with my architectural ambitions; I became much depressed. I wanted to go to the Coast. My father
understood how I felt and why, and gladly encouraged me to set forth.
SINCE 1888 MY TWO favorite aunts had lived in Los Angeles at Ninth and Alvarado and had recently moved into the very interesting house on the corner built a dozen years before by a lumberman from Wisconsin.
IT WAS A typical Midwest suburban house of the type popular at that time; might very well been designed by such an architect as Charles C. Miller, although not his. The aunts were glad to have me come; they were eager to have me secure an architectural job in Los Angeles so I could live with them. That would have been very pleasant for me.
I had stopped at the Grand Canyon on the way out. That was before the days of El Tovar. Guests at Bright Angel were accommodated in a little tent camp all very convenient. About where El Tovar now stands there were a one-room log cabin of the early days, with a great common room about 20 x 25, I should say, which served as a sort of sitting room and gathering place for the guests.
In Los Angeles I visited a number of offices seeking a position. The only place that I was cordially received was in the office of Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey whom I had met at the Chicago Architectural Club. Myron Hunt asked me to return in a day or so. He then said that business was slow but he would keep me in mind. In parting he surprised me by saying, “Why did you come to Los Angeles? San Fran-
cisco is the coming town. There you will find much more interesting work going on, and the new development of the University of California under the Phoebe A. Hearst plan is just now beginning under the direction of John Galen Howard who has come out from New York, having won the Second Prize and appointment as directing architect. Call on him, get into his office; you’d have a useful experience.”
After a visit of a couple of weeks I reluctantly bade goodbye to my aunts and went to Berkeley. Mr. Howard was very agreeable and at once showed special interest when he learned that I had just come from Sullivan’s office. He apparently wanted to find out more about this American that everyone was talking about, so he hired me. I worked for him for eighteen months, a very happy and useful period of my life in every way.
THIS WAS MY first life experience all on my own. Behind my other jobs I was still firmly a part of family and familiar scenes. It was pleasantly exciting.
UNTIL THE RAINS STOPPED I worked in Howard’s Berkeley offices over the old post office building on the southwest corner of Center Street and the Campus. During these three months I was continuously engaged on working drawings for California Hall. This was the third of the buildings to be erected on the new plan; the Greek Theatre which had been completed only a few months before during the summer of 1903; the Mining Building was then in process of construction.
When construction on California Hall was started April 1st I was placed on the job as clerk of the works, a sort of job superintendent, and there I remained throughout the entire term of my services to Mr. Howard, except for stormy days in the winter of 1904-1905.
At that time there were perhaps twelve men and five women, three of then draftsman, in the Berkeley office. A San Francisco office had already been opened for Howard’s private practice. This I never saw. Early in the spring of 1905, with a much reduced force, this Berkeley office moved into the new First National Bank Building on the southwest corner of Center Street and Shattuck Avenue, a Howard project which was begun late in 1903.
Each morning about 10:30 Mr. Howard, accompanied by his office superintendent Harrison and sometimes by his engineer Scott, would make the rounds of the tables observing the progress of the work, discussing details, making comments, but orders as to what to do always came through his executives. Sometimes when some building had to be finished quickly to meet a deadline, all hand would come back after the evening meal and work late. About 10:30 p.m. in would come a “China-boy” with a big basket of food which had been planned by Mrs. Howard and everybody would knock off for half an hour, have a feast and general good time.
MR. HOWARD WAS a very well known figure among Architects, east and west. He was a power in the American Institute of Architects.
What impression did Mr. Howard make upon me as a personality?
HE WAS TALLER than I and I am six feet. He had a sandy beard, a sort of French spade type rather than a pointed type of beard, a mustache, and hard that matched, his hair being somewhat darker than his beard. In walking he carried himself very well indeed; his manner was genial rather than proud. He was an exceedingly thoughtful and gracious person wholly genuine and sincere. He appeared wholly interested in you as a person, and whatever you happened to be talking about, he gave you absolutely undivided attention as long as the interview lasted. I never saw him exasperated or disturbed by any situation in the office. He spoke in a vigorous and very intelligent way. He seemed at all times to have complete mastery of any situation, knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish. He was quite ready to accept the views of others. No one had any hesitation in offering an opinion which he received and studied for what he felt it to be worth. Before all, his deportment was that of the perfect, considerate gentleman at all times. I have attended parties at his home, meeting his wife and children. The atmosphere was most pleasant and hospitable. His new home built in the summer of 1904 was burned in the fire of 1923.
One may characterize Mr. Howard in relation to the architectural scene of that day by saying that he embodied in his approach to architecture, in his personal deportment, in the area of his intellectual
and business interest, what might be called the typical and ideal representative of the Ecole des Beaux Arts of Paris in America during that period from 1895, say, until his death in 1931, age 67. He was born in 1864. He had made an outstanding success, secured honors in Paris and returned to America to start in practice with apparently everything required by the architects of that day. The first building of his that I recall seeing as the principal tower of the Buffalo Exposition in 1900, Howard and Caldwell Architects. This was an excellent example of the typical Bozart approach to a building of this type and according to Bozart standards, first class work. Today it appears French Renaissance pastry, unrelated to anything except itself and the tradition of design that had been gaining momentum there since the middle of the nineteenth century. This tower was a token of the catastrophe in architecture which Viollet le Duc saw coming, and against which his famous lectures on architecture of 1830-1854 were directed. Le Duc’s protests and keen analysis had no effect on the world march of this system of architecture and its method of preparing young men through a standardized education to carry it out. Howard’s great white tower on the Berkeley campus was another catastrophe which choes how far from reality was Bozart thinking. (See “A Cracking Shell,” by Jacob Stone, AIA, NORTHWEST ARCHITECT, March-April 1951, Volume XV, Number 2).
IN THE UNITED STATES the whole French program was riding high in 1905. Nothing was to stop it until the revolt of the students in American colleges of architecture along about 1930.
THE CHICAGO FAIR of 1933 was about the first break in the solid Bozart ranks, but at that what was done in Chicago was a very poor showing, either of constructive revolution or creative design. The only significant contributions in that show were minor details. The mural paintings of John Norton will be remembered and doubtless there were many other things of interest, but nothing important toward the development of an American Architecture. (See “John Norton Mural Painter,” NORTHWEST ARCHITECT, November-December 1954, Volume XVII, Number 6.)
Out of the records of the University of California there has been slowly brought up during the past few years a remarkable history, of which I was hardly aware at the time I was working in Berkeley, although as I now look back, what we know now explains some of the tense atmosphere and some of the things that were said and done. This is the story of my acquaintance with Maybeck and how with no small amount of vindictiveness John Galen Howard succeeded in having Maybeck removed as Head of the Architectural School and himself installed as its Head in Maybeck’s place. The detail of this transaction have been recorded by others and can be consulted by those who are interested. I have no reason to doubt the circumstances
as they have been recorded. University documents in the case are available to all.
THE QUESTION IS: “Is this side of John Galen Howard’s character in keeping with what people saw of him, with what we knew of him as a personality outside this particular battle?”
I DON’T THINK THERE is any inconsistency here. What John Galen Howard was in his private character and what he was as the official representative of the spirit of the American Wing of the French Ecole des Beaux Arts in this country, and one of its most successful exponents, made two different areas in which the man expressed himself. I have no doubt that in contriving, by whatever means, to put Maybeck out of the architectural school, he felt very righteous and entirely justified. It was assumed by practically all architects that there was absolutely only one way to teach architecture, that there was only one architecture which was worthy of the name, that it could only be successfully taught by professors who had passed through the school in Paris and received its imprint and authority, and that anyone like Wright or Sullivan or Maybeck who taught anything else, preached anything else, was simply a traitor, in fact, what is today called a Communist. Such men were believed to be thoroughly bad and whatever methods were necessary to put them out of business was held to be entirely justified and right. That is undoubtedly the position of those in control of architecture and the architectural schools; that
was the position of professors in Cornell in my day, Clarence A. Martin alone excepted.
William Gray Purcell - Part IV. (September 19, 1955)