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"Purcell and Elmslie Biographical Notes," by William Gray Purcell (November, 1949)

Annotation by Purcell on original file folder: "Purcell and Elmslie 60 pp data Jean Bangs. *Written for her when she thought she was going to do a # for us -- FORUM OR SOME SUCH.

[NOTE: This is one of several versions of this draft. WGP later edited one version, and those changes have been incorporated into this transcription where they were clear enough to be read; however, some editing was omitted because of obscure markings--MH]

William Gray Purcell and George Grant Elmslie were a team. Each could do something that the other could not do so well. Both could and did do what was needed for any project, first to last, to ready a building for use. Purcell never tried to produce ornamental detail. Why should he? There was always George the master for both. Ornament was but the flower and fruit of the work. The seed of the whole project held that ultimate goal of all life.

In their architecture, if you look for a characteristic style-form you won't find it. In the over 500 projects which were carried far enough to receive a number in the records you will find the social and economic pressures, practical requirements, creative opportunities and people, all crystallizing in the widest variety of assembly, form, pattern. The outside, inside, and structure of the finished product always affectionately related to earth, to people, to sky, rain, sun, wind, and to the future.

In it all there is no reaching for effect to produce an effect. True effect, yes. Effect as the poetic atmosphere of the result, as a complete response out of observation and intuition. Here, absolutely is no "Modern."

In this team if your look for one partner as aesthete and the other as executive, the usual "designer"-businessman, artist-engineer combination you won't find it. The realization of a finished mechanism to meet any purpose was brought to process by Purcell and Elmslie procedures under the idea that every move made by anyone connected with the project, owner, workmen, draftsmen, manufacturer, would find its consequent registry in the substance of finished work, and in cordial help to the owners who were not just clients but partners in the enterprise - "The People, Yes."

A simple decision by either partner, or by one of the staff, could mean a new direction for the project and a consequent building which would differ by that factor in its final working. Such seemingly small differences could be far reaching. The appearance became a result, as it always is under the firmament of Time.

Geography near and far and all the creatures - including bacteria benevolent and harmful appear both as a result and as active plasma sustaining thought riding the next process.

Such an instance was the Congregational Parish House at Eau Clair, Wisconsin, Wisconsin, built in 1915. Purcell and Elmslie recorded the required facilities in two widely differing diagrams and pictures.

One design had smooth walls, flat roof, arcade-like glass doors in uniform sequence, set back between a company of piers. Patterns of curbed flower beds made transition from vertical building walls down and out upon the level ground--a superb piece of architecture of great dignity.

The other was like a glorified "wanigan," a lumberman's forest operations center well known to these old Wisconsin lumber barons. It proposed a long undisturbed two sloped roof, rough stone walls, broad gable toward street patterned with a row of windows under plaster bands, under brageous eave projections.

Proposal two was less like a public building. In these preliminary [WGP edited out this phrase: "In design the general fenestration was less like a public building, the whole project more domestic in feeling."] studies there is no offer to encourage "modern" to "traditional" comparisons as between the two. Such words were simply unknown in the Purcell and Elmslie world.

Much thought was always given to the feelings calling for expression, and true functionalism out of those basic and most important relations between the building and the human being. The internal, inter-structural relations were assigned by them to the engineering, economic or building material level where of course they had their fullest opportunity to shape the finished building. This was done without handing the employer [client--MH] an essay on building fabrication and craftsmanship in which they had no interest. Purcell and Elmslie were integrating every factor concerned with building production and use, including the future occupants long before this new term "organic" was in the public mind as a good definition for architecture as building art.

In the instance of this Eau Claire, Wisconsin, parish house the final office decision rested on the heart before the head. To build for the business men who had their money in the pine woods. So a glorified edition of the biggest log cabin of the northern lumber camps was built and still stands. Everyone was satisfied with the decision. They were justified a few years later when the original funny old church of the 1880s which the community house served was burned, the parish house was saved. The new church building was designed of all persons by Norman Patton who got the job for the Oak Park Library away from Louis Sullivan in 1887. The wanigan Community House found a more comfortable relation to Patton's village "Gothic" church than would have been the case had the number one contemporary design been built.

In this connection another similar incident shows a certain permanent quality in this work which arises above ant sense of style-form or personal design. In 1912, Purcell, Feick and Elmslie designed a Sunday School Kindergarten room as an addition to Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. The room roved highly useful in the church school program and was well liked by all. A quarter century later, in a new era of art feeling, a time of new approach by all architects, George Dayton have a large sum of money to build a new Sunday School building and large chapel memorial running to several hundred thousand dollar. By that time (1937) with Purcell in Oregon [?. Pasadena--MH] and Elmslie in Chicago Purcell and Elmslie were not available as architects. The old Sunday School wing of the church, itself a complete building, was entirely razed with the exception of this one Kindergarten room which was preserved intact and imbedded within the plan and fabric of the new building.

That the really "functional" Purcell and Elmslie architecture of 1912 was so humane beneath its advanced and novel patterns that without any deference to so called traditional forms it could serve in comfort as a part of a "modern Tudor? church building is among other things, a tribute to the broad mindedness of the Architects, Magney, Tussler and Setter who designed the new Dayton memorial.

The passing observers of Purcell and Elmslie buildings have remarked and will continue to do so, that many characteristics of this work closely resemble the work of Louis Sullivan, and that it is hard to escape the conclusion that here is not a creative contribution arising from individual research, conviction and creation, but rather the beginnings of a new "style" tradition -- that is to say "Sullivanesque".

The paradox is that Mr. Elmslie for a decade before he left Sullivan in 1910, had been actually designing more and more of the work now generally credited to Sullivan's hand -- in such buildings as the Babson Dwelling and the Owatonna Bank for example, these works in their entirety - concept, organization, and detail, grew under the hand and direction of Mr. Elmslie Mr. Sullivan gladly provided this opportunity and encouraged Mr. Elmslie to proceed on his own initiative. The architecture produced after 1910 by Mr. Sullivan's office, under Berry and later by Mr. Sullivan himself as his own draftsman is plainly of a different character, a different personality speaking as compared with the 1900-1910 works by Mr. Elmslie acting not as "another pencil in Sullivan's hand" as Mr. Wright has recently tried to characterize his own relation, but as a well sharpened pencil handed Mr. Elmslie to use. Wright never was really in this character which he alleges, much as he would now like to set up the picture of such a relationship. In the early 1890s, Wright made no cordial effort to maintain and further any such relation with Sullivan as he pictures in his book -"Genius and the Mobocracy which Joseph Henry Jackson has aptly characterized as "Wright on Wright." In the ten years from 1900-1900, through lack of practice, Sullivan's Architectural hand and head had lost much of their skill. One sees only dimly the pre-1900 Adler and Sullivan force in the post-1910 Sullivan.

In public and commercial work where the work of Sullivan, and Purcell and Elmslie appear to have characteristics in common, historians in a similar mood of analysis, will also say of Purcell and Elmslie that in their domestic work there appear definite patterns and values that seem to be using using Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture as style-form.

Here we again have to combat the recurrent demand to reduce any moving accomplishment to static collector times that can be labeled for "book" worshippers rather than appraising their values as idea-movers and work records. Frank Lloyd Wright no less than Cellini, Ictinus, and William of Sens could live and work nowhere but in his own world. Whether Wright in his "Gold Medal" speech used the pronoun "we" for the sovereign "I", or whether for the first time was acknowledging the many young men of his office, and his fellow Western Architects of 1980-1920 who upheld his arm in the fight, may not be wholly clear from the context to be heard in the records of this speech, but in appraising the whole struggle to free architecture from "beaux art" since 1857, when Viollet-le-Duc opened this battle, one cannot over look the facts. The development of Sullivan's Auditorium Building, 1887-1890, from first concept, continued iun close parallel to the appearance of Richardson's Field Building, while at the same time incubating all the new material that was soon to flower in widely divergent types as Mr. Sullivan's own significant personal contribution to the new scientific age.

Again, Wright's first own dwelling in 1894, and especially his Nathan Moore dwelling, 1895 (original design, not rebuilt version after fire of 1922), lean very heavily on English domestic appearance values including the non-organic imitation "half-timber" paneling and gargoyled timber ends unrelated either to the structure --- or the American genius of that time. His carved dragon beam-ends fall inot the patter of Sullivan's silly little heraldic lions appearing on his designs to the very last. Sullivan, himself, might also have given more public acknowledgement to the contributions made to his personal art by those who worked for and with him. The genius of his partner, for example, Adler, is yet to be recorded for critical study. At the same time it cannot be said that Wright as employee got more than he gave back to Sullivan---especially considering the potent nature of Sullivan's seed as it flowered in Wright's tillage after 1894.

But the silence has yet to be ended with respect to the big war for democracy in architecture which were made through the office of Frank Lloyd Wright by Walter Griffin, William Drummond, Charles E. White, and long line of sincere and able young men to this very day. Outside Wright's office we cannot omit also recording a small army of building art men, whom any careful account of Wright history since 1984 is certain to appear like an attempt to build up little known persons at the expense of reputations now glistening a streamlined publicity.  Such advertising of present day world procedures is as unrealistic as the equally high-pressure abuse that was heaped on us in those days before the dressmakers, show-window fixers, and grocery package advertising artists finally knocked out the American Wing of beaux art with all its silly machinery for maintaining the social and front essential to success in such a pastry world.

In order to understand Purcell and Elmslie it is necessary to report the details of this history and anyone who wants to know enough of what really happened to secure a clean base for his own architectural piece of mind and further progress, will also soon find that the legitimate leaders of 1900, Sullivan and Wright, while of no less stature than time has built them are nevertheless of a different character than we see them now. How this can be is very evident in the changed view of Sullivan since 1924. Even Wright's "Genuis and Mobocracy" represents a picture of two very different men than Wright could or would have produced about himself and Sulloivan in 1894,1934 -- and today.

If, perchance, the generality of sincere workers for American indigenous architecture come to appear as actually no heroes to some modern student -- they at least were not the enemies of "beauty and order" which they were thought to be in 1900, nor were they on the other hand the horrid fathers of today's cult-ugly, intellectualized aesthetics. Even politically partisan architects can hardly overlook the paradox that Communist art in the U.S.S.R. is now plainly bozart in a big way. The new Soviet capitol looks like, of all things, Bertie McCormicks fancy newspaper headquarters totem in Chicago. In U.S.A. same commercialized sales technique as movie puppets, race horses, cheese spreads, and what not, but behind this over excitemented [sic] chromium front there is solid value both in these two men and all who helped them which we propose to account for.

For the architect of today, Wright and Sullivan constitute almost the sole exhibit by which the qualities and spirit of the years between 1890 and 1910 are known. The flood of bozart design which preoccupied the architectural press and the architectural, schools from 1893 to 1935, is the negative factor in evidence and between these two conceptions of recent Art history "traditional" and "modern", between the old chestnut worms and the eager beaver youths who are very unwilling worms, the phoney battle now rages. But when clearly seen, todays' arguments are a battle of sound and fury without force. Mr. Purcell has stated his position very clearly in a piece he wrote in 1942, on Architecture and the movies.

"To really love in a traditional house you have to tear into it and violate practically every precious design and detail the measured drawing draftitect was so proud of, and to live in a so-called "modern" house you have to cover up half it it and then proceed to complete what still shows.

"But," you say, "those scenic movie architects you praise so highly use all the familiar details of Gothic, Georgian and Greek "styles." How come that this movie stage set production is admired as a living art, but when an architect does the same thing in a building he is now, these past ten years, cast into a minus - 23-thousand candlepower darkness by these insufferable nickle-plated Sopholiner Streamitexts.

"Well, authoritative architects have always claimed to be traditionalist when the designed patterns in a tradition of appearance, but such procedure is not a tradition at all, only a sort of stamp collecting series. That one things looks like another thing signifies nothing. A ping-pong ball looks like and owl's egg but it won't hatch. Terra Cotta Gothic, a thousand pieces all alike pressed from the same mould, is like trying to copy a Whistler etching with a T-square and triangle.  The vital relation lies between the shape of the object and the shape of the idea that fathered it. There is no existing useful relation between your material shape of now and that recorded shape of them.

"Even the form and function Greeks has pilasters. The Persians had "Tudor" arches, and Eighth Century Armenians had groined vaults and clustered shafts for hundred years before "Gothic." The French Cathedrals of 1200 A.D. had concealed wooden trusses to carry the roof over their interior stone ceiling vaults. More surprising, the builders of Pisa Cathedral didn't bother with merely copying Roman work, they sailed down to Rome in their boats and actually carried off old stone columns, cornices and classic carvings of every sort. But the resulting building they built with them was not Classic or even Renaissance, it was a new and living architecture of great and lasting beauty.

"And so what? -- all O.K. to proceed as before with 'designing' in this or that 'style', borrowing here and there?

"Don't fool yourself. If your building is alive it is spite of such forms, not because of them. The Capitolaffales or Moderne Greek Style is still applique, still bozart, nothwithstanding all its meshed masses, stopped stories, clipped cornices, flaunty flutes and other camouflaging stylistics. Honesty does not rest in the words you use but in the integrity and potential of the idea conveyed by them.

"If unlike the scenic architect whose function is to be much concerned with re-establishing circumstance and atmosphere, no architect of buildings finds himself able to avoid a pointed opening that looks Gothic or a post that looks Greek, or a roofy box that looks Colonialish, he will have more success in overcoming the past if instead of consulting Vignola or his 'working photographs,' he will spend the margins of his creative day filling his sould with some other era than the immediate style patterns with which he is concerned, let him refresh his working forces with grander views, -- the color of Chinese art, the rhythm of Japan, the rich folk brew of old Norse. The resulting mental chemicalization is likely to precipitate at least some true metal, and his building give back a glow of life that can never be kindled by measured drawings."

"In taking to heart the success in architecture of the imaginative theater artists, be careful no to 'go theatrical.' Do as he does, not what he does. The Architect's work also must 'tell a story,' must 'speak to the feelings.' As 'property man' in architecture you must, like the scenic designer, 'see' the scene as all-of-a-piece, but be certainly aware that the larger Stage you set is for Life itself."

As early as 1907, Mr. Purcell was saying and writing, "Tradition is the flow of experience acquired by doing. It may appear as a sequence of forms and design patterns, one resembling another, or in two forms of wholly unlike appearance. But the essence of tradition lies in the mental stream - and in the resulting forms are a sequence in appearance values that is a matter of chance and no sound index of tradition one way or the other.

"In 1906, after a glorious day with English cathedrals I stood on a highway bridge with Dr. H. H. Powers and watched the Edinburgh Express glide under our feet and rush away into the twilight said he, 'The material form of that building hurtling itself through space has no forms in common with a Gothic cathedral but I begin to feel that the finest of railway trains lie in the direct line of the cathedral building tradition.'"

Thus it is that the battle is not between traditional and modern --- but between those two evils and the still small voice of the basic American will and power to build over working for the people and against privilege.

What today's students do not know, without much research is that the superficially false France-American Renaissance concealed a very large amount of sincere and imaginative work by almost unknown men towards whom Sullivan and Wright were at the same time both captains and beneficiaries.

One can here only touch on the history of these transition days, but in the very large amount of published writing on Architectural history, philosophy and criticism by both Mr. Elmslie and Mr. Purcell over a period of forty years there is nowhere a word of anything but loyal appreciation for Mr. Sullivan, and a determined and continuous and effective effort to uphold the hand of Wright in the battle he was waging for a free architecture.

From 1899 to 1903, Purcell took the battle into the enemy's camp at Cornell University's College of Architecture, and he never let the Architectural students forget Sullivan's logic and Wright's romantic buildings. The faculty was alternately enraged, supercilious and conciliatory, with the exception of a former carpenter, Clarence A. Martin, who subsequently became Dean of the College. He thought Purcell's views made sense, gave him considerable encouragement on the side and went along with "progressive" architecture as far as the hostile pseudo-French atmosphere of the school and its French trained professors made possible. This amusing situation became embarrassing indeed for the school, when a faculty jury was very reluctantly obliged to award to Purcell the Andrew D. White prize because every other design for a new campus commons was a conventional piece of Parisian exhibitionism. Purcell offered an organic building so obviously related in spirit and mechanics to the history and needs of the University that its relation to what Mr. White would expect in plan and design simply could not be ignored. Here at last was reality come home to an imitation world. Although, riding high with the Prix du Rome spirit which was the accepted base of all architectural teaching and all office design at that time, the imported French faculty just could not face the distinguished mind of Ambassador White with a prize building that looked like a Louis XVI love nest or a "Palace for Guests of the Empire."

If practical work-a-day proof be needed of the goals of both Purcell and Elmslie in, say, 1912 and 1914, two surprising items of untold history will forceabl[y] point the relations. When, in 1912, Wrights was about to depart for Germany on the erotic hegira which he recounts in his autobiography, he had a very large amount of work in progress --- construction, drafting, client-prospects. Wright wired Purcell for an appointment and came to Minneapolis in an effort to persuade Purcell to go to Chicago and take over his business during the two years he planned to be away, the idea being that meantime George Elmslie could run their own business and keep all intact. Many factors finally determined the partners to forego this seemingly attractive offer and Mr. Wright eventually arranged with Mr. Herman von Holtz, a former drafter in his Oak Park office and an able and experienced Chicago Architect who was also in sympathy with Mr. Wright's views on architecture. Upon Wright's departure, bag, baggage and Mamah Borthwick, von Holtz at once assumed command of the executive, technical, financial, and esthetic problems presented by Mr. Wright's teeming office.

A von Holtz diary of the following years would read like a script writer's dream, a story calling for the full dramatic resources of both Hollywood and Wall Street.

The Sullivan twin of this episode and Mr. Elmslie's contribution to its partial solution is no less a fantastic rebuild of expected procedures. In 1911, Purcell went to Cedar Rapids in an effort to secure a desirable commission for a Methodist Church. . . . The full account will be found in the autobiography of William Gray Purcell, year 1911. This second episode while most surprising is too long for this brief memorandum.


The long tutoring of the world mined both, public and profession, to persuade it to judge architecture by literary tags as labels for style patterns is still pressing on criticism and appraisal. Old and second generation dilettantes [sic] are still debating the synthetic word regiments parading for architecture and these ineffective literary show pieces are in turn becoming more and more detached from the characteristics of living building they are intended to define.  And now we see emerging in a new Teutonic non-building but constructivist aesthetic, which is engaged in systematic furtherance and appraisal of the new form and surface tokens which academic put-to-gether-ness has produced. While the new-self-satisfied style critics build and architectural "literature" with assemblies of trick terms -- the practicing architects match them with a built build-up of spars and slabs, t-squared into molds of this new adjustable philosophy. "The People, Yes," --- stand in the cold waiting for less brain, more heart. Thus, the same old Louis XVI's eight design procedures breed a new aristocratic intellectualism --- no less a fashion front than the old bozart but now based on Dali-crow-ism, Maholy-Nagy, and the glorification of sterility and nastiness.

If proof of the utter futility in the most important work of the day be needed, the United Nations Building would point the case. Here again an Architectural Aristocracy operating in a vacuum produces a wholny unfunctional building that will destroy the United Nations if it should continue to occupy it, which is highly improbable.


If the United Nations is still functioning in 1959 it will not be occupying the buildings now being erected for it in New York.

August 6, 1949.

If it dies as did the League of Nations -- these buildings intended to house it will have been a factor in bringing on its demise.

The above is to say that the present project is wholly unfunctional -- that it does not meet any basic need of the U.N. - in fact it provides serious interferences with its operation. The project does not even meet the mechanical needs - it is not even a successful archive system.

This project is pure Bozart-style form Applique architecture Not exfoliating architecture.

Compare with "New Theater" 1901 - killed by Carrere and Hastings (now Empire Theater. Maybe pulled down Think so Failure from the first.

[This paragraph heavily edited on draft mss. I picked up only some of the corrections--MH].

As for today's teenage graduates in architecture they appear to be saying, "If we had lived back in 1900 -- we with our keen logical minds, would have seen the silly, sugary stuff what then we 'design.'" However, there is today just as much call for pioneer thought and action as there was in 1900, and it is right now hard to think alive and see the world of tomorrow morning right side up. In the health of man as in the health of buildings, we find sanitary design procedures that sterilize, quarantine, and insulate everything else, and that is in itself a kind of anti-social or moral dirt, a deadly disease by what you have failed to catch, and from the divine source came forth again _____ the goodness of the earth freed from the puny importance architecture will then serve with men unafraid of smudging its silly polish.

[WGP indicates that the following seven paragraphs are to be omitted--MH].

You cannot take the today's picture of 1900 organic architecture as represented by the 1940 press and movies and get any valid meaning for 1900. Things were just not like that then. It was a deadly battle -- a battle for life -- Sullivan and Wright were the spear points that struck fire against McKim, Mead, and White's roman holidays, York and Sawlyer's burdened orders, Carrere and Hastings cynical sophistries, Cope and Stewardson's Tudor college buildings. All over the field in the West the struggle went on in poetry, sculpture, theater, social arts. Thus it was in the world where Purcell and Elmslie saw one needed commission after another go to the popular business agents of New York Renaissance. The situation wrecked Sullivan completely, by 1906 he was really finished -- with the 16 years more of weak work, and impotent waiting for the honors that came within ten years after his death. From 1918 to 1933, the successful architects and the historians had also crossed off Wright and this was not wholly due to his 1919-1922 years in Tokio [sic].

Even as late as 1933, Thomas Tallmadge, the American Architectural Historian announced the end of Sullivan and Wright. Tallmadge lived just long enough to rewrite that part of history for the second printing of his book -- the change had come just that quickly. The factors that opened the doors again before they finally clicked is another and fascinating story.

In the face of all this just what is it that Purcell and Elmslie means. I think their principle contribution was the continuous pressure to take architecture back to the human being and the actually lived work of satisfying personal enterprises. They felt ashamed that Architecture of all the arts did not realize what was stirring in men's hearts. As Sullivan said, "Architects have their backs to the sunrise" -- i.e. they were indoor minds. Purcell and Elmslie said, "The architect's are by-passing the deep needs of people. The architects fiddle while even the tailors, the printers, fabric weavers, photographers, gift-crafters, show in their art more creative respect for men and women and their works and play than do the architects."

Because of Mr. Elmslie's unique ability to design and draw beautiful ornament and because Purcell and Elmslie were among the first American Architects to make bold use of color in all their buildings especially enamelled Terra Cotta in up to a half a dozen colors, the decorative aspect of their work tended to be used as a sort of tag and to obscure the more important and significant factors of their basic principles.

Mr. Elmslie's ability and technique in the creative design of exfoliating surface, movement by line ornament, enrichment of area, with the sense of importance due margins and the great variety in his member termination is truly remarkable. Mr. Purcell believes that in no historic past has invention and mastery of an orchestration of ideas and form and pattern been carried to any such symphonic extent. He calls attention to all the play and counter play in Mr. Elmslie's ornament. Themes are developed with foils of unending variety and surfaces like the invisible tracks of bird soarings. In this rich growth always springing from germinating seeds of feeling or intention, are rippling cadenzas of increasing or diminishing buds -- geometrical ladders joining with token thorns and so on, no end, and no repetitions.  The successful materialized results were due in part to Kristian Schneider, a modeler with the American Terra Cotta and Ceramic Co. Schneider had first come under Sullivan's spell in the Schiller Theater Building, 1893, and from then on developed his art in close cooperation with Sullivan and Elmslie. He learned to work from the very simplest of small scale drawings with no needs for details. Every pencil trace of Mr. Elmslie's delicate draftership carried full meaning and instruction -- mutually understood. Schneider with all his virtuosity of hand and experienced taste in manipulating the plastic clay, could not originate designs and his attempts to produce ornament for others are stale and uninteresting. What George Elmslie did was really poetry and it took Elmslie to conceive and Schneider to call it out of the clay.

That even the most beautifully designed ornament can work out in the building with results as unfortunate as ill-practiced music-making is to bee seen in Sullivan's Condict Building of 1902, in New York City. Here the Atlantic Terra Cotta Co. without Schneider were wholly unable to give life to the unfolding substance although Mr. Elmslie full size detailed all the patterns ---something never attempted or necessary in any Sullivan or Purcell and Elmslie job.

Claude Bragdon, 1860 - 1947, was better than an average architect, but in many fields made a considerable contribution to high thinking and sound living. Frank Lloyd Wright once said of Bragdon's philosophical works that, "Bragdon took the drum apart to see what made the noise." It could be said of Purcell and Elmslie that they were also eager to find out what made the noise but took no drums apart. Indeed, it was their idea to not only hear and see all but to find new drums and start new drummers.

As early as 1912, Mr. Purcell said to the Minneapolis Women's Club, "There are two intellectual procedures for the artist who would understand his times, to live heartily and to express true emotions."

"First he must know life while it is alive. Scientists, sculptors, painters and especially architects keep saying in their works that 'if we could only get life to hold still, we could see it plain.' So in their pursuits the adherent of so-called traditions took their [Note by Purcell on draft: I said and wrote this dozens of times in all circumstances. Yes, even as early as 1908."] objects apart. But when you have disassembled a living thing in its working day, or a social group in its time continuity, it is no longer alive.  What the pieces did, meant, hoped is no longer in evidence. One must see life on the move--movement is all the evidence of life we have."

And again: Thirty-three years before the bomb, Purcell said, "The world shaking force is not produced by the vast engine filling the eye with multiplied evidence of what if any purpose -- but rather like dew, and earthworms and softly lifting reservoirs -- the great force is a very tiny but absolutely correctly adjusted effort multiplied to some astronomical factor with a time factor diminished close to zero."

Purcell developed a lecture for art students on his "Theory of Increments" and illustrated it by accomplishments in widely varied fields. The general idea being that the "importance" factor ascribed to men and events, often obscures the key factor which is changing the world, while people of its day pass it so casually, that looking back we wonder just how in the world they missed the tremendous potential under their hands. So it is logical that Purcell should call his autobiography "WHY?" Thus Purcell believes that this current battle between so called modern and self-styled traditional is as phoney as the claims, for example, of both American Fascists and American Communists to be the true and original spirit of America, for architecture inevitably forecasts the thought and battles of people. Nor does he think that the true democratic continuity is either art or politics is sort of an average or middle course. It cannot so be, as he sees it, because the so-called "right" and "left" described by such weasling words as progressive and conservative simply stand duty for two quite similar drives for power over men and society. That is to say money and political power for one segment and political powers and money for the other -- the beneficiaries both being special, and mutually excluding social tribes.  And so in architecture and it could not be otherwise, the observer of today who cannot see the bozart authoritarianism in the United Nations Building for example is simply letting smart tokens run off with his insight.

The true democratic continuity of the nation as expressed in architecture is not even a third point of opposition in this triangle metaphor because right and left keep tending to merge and the assumed force triangle becomes a line of opposition with the driving point moving away from its combination reaction.

In all "modern" it is not at all difficult to see the "authentic" mind busy at work, packaging and labeling the stolen forms even when they are taken from contemporary organisms, commercial or artist contrived. Functional furniture, for example, is now advertised as "authentic modern" or "traditional modern," (not meaning "modern" lifted from "historic" but "modern" inspired from "modern"). The whole mess glorifies an insincere commercial word, sort of a French explosion in an art museum. At that it might prove to be a wholesome bomb-out of old trash!

As a final conclusion to Purcell and Elmslie architecture as a completely different concept of the relation between people and the meaning of their daily utensils, Mr. Purcell calls attention to the large amount of today's new designing which is all of borrowed and allique trick-designer-assemblies, while on the other hand we find a lot of things way back for a hundred years which were truly organic solutions in spite of the more or less naive ruffles which scarcely concealed the good body beneath. Indeed the ruffles were functional too -- the first reaction to the sewing machine -- it did not reduce labor and economize time multiplied everything.

One also cannot fairly appraise the work of these men without the "time-when" factor accounted fro in each remaining work and it details. This Purcell and Elmslie partnership was at the peak of its activity thirty-five years ago (1914). In the world of architecture most of the accomplishments now considered important have happened since that time.  So if the buildings carry on an aura of general relation to 1910 - 1920, and the work of what artist does not, one can nevertheless see the fresh clean forms which both their inner and outer battle produced.  In fact, it is now forty-seven years since Purcell produced his first and perhaps most significant work. The monument of William C. Gray, in 1902.

A basic characterization of the Purcell and Elmslie contribution to to architecture as a function of experiences in practical daily living, rather than the intellectual study of construction or material, is well illustrated by the following sequence which also illustrates Purcell's view that "tradition is a continuity of "know-how."

As early as 1912 he had felt that the long continuous rows of windows, all with casement windows outside and screens inside, presented the housewife with just too much machinery Inside screen bothering curtains and furniture. The twice a year labor of alternating fifty or so screens to storm windows and back again was too much, and all the house walls were too cluttered up with millwork, too much expensive hardware, insufficient storage available etc.

What to do?

Ralph Thomas, a Minneapolis engineer while waiting to save enough funds to build a house they [P&E] had designed for him at Lake Minnetonka, decided to go ahead with the two story garage and live in that a few years. While studying how to adapt the car-room for living, it occured [sic] to someone in the office to fill the big sliding garage doors then in common use with all glass, and slide them back outside the house supported by track extensions. This seemed just the ticket/ The sixteen foot opening was then filled with permanent inside screen and one vent outdoors to close the great opening. A group of storm door units of nominal width inside met with the five months of severe cold. This outside operation procedure proved no hardship. In this Minnesota climate especially it was very good to have everything open in the hot humid summer, and all snug in winter. The result was a sellout for all who came to see and enjoy it. This so far as it known was probably the first all glass, all openable floor to ceiling glass wall in an American dwelling. In this, Purcell and Elmslie anticipated by a quarter century the most used, characteristic feature of current dwelling design. And here is no connection whatever to any Wright or Sullivan forms. Also from that time on Purcell and Elmslie garage doors were glass doors, something wholly unknown until that time. This episode shows Purcell's view of the operation of tradition in a living world.  A truly original feature with a really tremendous potential arose not so much out of unique, personally thought out concept, as that it just emerged, more from the economics,  than from design or construction occasions. But when it appeared although for the first time it was recognized and put to work over and over again, improved with each repetition. That is as it should be. Originality --- even the very word says it, is not some trick one thinks up but some act of imagination that looks accurately into the matrix where necessity operates. True creative originality is selfless as far as author is concerned while he is creating. Completely absorbed by the fascination and variety of the world of men and ideas he goes down into the substance of a situation and filled with knowledge comes up with whatever unexpected treasure will serve the pressing needs of the man on the surface at that point in time. Purcell has put it this way.




Objects which have been created under particular circumstances and to meet specific needs do not have an identity that can be recognized and understood by simply looking at them. Discussion of Architecture --- perhaps due to the sudden rise of photography and half-tone reproductions has been tied too much to appearance. The eye is only, one of the senses which needs to be satisfied by architecture. The cathedral builders know what odor and music could do. Those great buildings acknowledge the inner feelings of a-man-walking that he may know the significant of space-area and content. They include an acknowledgement that both the inner and the outer life are a vast pageant -- "the caravan of days" as Sullivan called it, the galaxies of thought.

Any building must be identified with its time and the living use of it, by the people who own it. It also cannot escape the thought of its neighbors. That is why old buildings of any age or character acquire qualities which were only potential in them when they were new. An architecture which is only logical, or clever, or very intellectual, or important, holds all the possibilities of going stale. Architecture must first of all the arts be of the people, by the people, and for the people --- and by people I mean those units and families and groups that, whether lowly or influential, represent that meet alive and constructive forces that are truly characteristic of any society. Not the people who make the news but those who make the nation. The cynical aristocrats sneer the the statement that "we are living in the era of the common man." They shuffle the meanings when they say they believe in the "uncommon man." But the common man has proved to be the uncommon man and fathers the able man. If we don't really believe in the common man we are aristocrats, not democrats. ( See "The Aristocratic Influence in Art," by L. M. Phillips, Contemporary Review, August, 1910 - one of the great critical documents of modern times.)

Purcell and Elmslie felt deeply the rightness of all the cunning links between necessity and the parts and the entity, of things that served necessity. They aimed constantly to violate no integrity in any building relation. It was not the logic but the poetry and humanity that they felt pressing upon their work. The functions that most interested them were associated with the emotional possibilities in all that was to be done.

They were blessed with an office force and personal associates that changed very little during the most active years. Strauel, Haugen, Fournier, Frank, Miss Parker, Clapp, and later in Oregon, Bailey, were there for years. After the partners separated in 1921, Strauel kept open the old Minnesota office and for another ten years drafted many buildings both for Purcell in Portland, Oregon, and for Elmslie in Chicago. Purcell often went pack for two or three months at a time to work with Strauel on special problems.

Purcell and Elmslie was but a special period of intimate work together, for which each partner had had a long preparation which was, in all the important ways, parallel with what the other had been doing. The influence of what they built together, 1910-1920, continues even to the present day. The production continued to show the factors which had been shaped by the partnership.

The writing on architecture, 1910 to 1920, which appeared in The Western Architect, The Craftsman, The Independent, and other publications was done in collaboration, but the public speaking was done by Purcell. Since 1920, he has done much speaking, East and West, on art subjects and for a number of years wrote regularly for The Small Home and The Portland Spectator. For the past eight years, he has produced the leading piece for the Northwest Architect.

(WGP adds: Probably some note should be inserted here on the range of subject matter.)


      Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries [AR:B4d4.21(a),    Box 24, File 10]
research courtesy mark hammons