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Citizen's National Bank, project
Purcell, Feick and Elmslie<
Watertown, South Dakota  1911

Text by William Gray Purcell
Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1911

Job Date (in Parabiographies): March 5, 1911

Citizens National Bank, Watertown, S.D.

(W.D. Morris, President)

W. D. Morris was a great friend of Garvin of Winona, and when Garvin learned that they were going to build a fine bank, he gave me a letter of introduction. My reception in Watertown was cordial and all seemed favorable. Our designs were revolutionary, but we had the arguments of economy and for producing the best possible plan in which a banking business could be successfully carried on. We might finally have landed this job, but, about that time, a high hat organization from New York, Hodgson Brothers, was scouring the country with expensively dressed high-pressure salesmen. They were preceded by fancy club stationery and accompanied with pin seal sales books and a lot of heavy New York financial names as their customers. When they came to a town they usually captured everything.

Competing with Big Business

It was plain that Hodgson Brothers never could have made good on their cost and service representations, and it was remarkable they they could have made these conservative and unimaginative bankers believe that an operation could be successfully directed from Chicago and New York. I learned afterwards that the resulting building was unsatisfactory. Every sort of difficulty was encountered in getting it built. Its final cost was outside anything that had been discussed when the commission to do the work was awarded to them.

The most outstanding structural, decorative and functional feature of our building was the very wide banking window. A number of stories of the office building were carried on a steel truss acting as lintel for this window that must have been forty-five feet long without intermediate supports.

It is possible that setting up such concentrated loads at either end of this opening in what was, to us, a rational architectural treatment might have been a bit bold. Much more money and much more complicated engineering were constantly being employed in order to applique imitation Roman columns, with their elaborate entablatures on to the front of the vast majority of banks in the country, a process which entailed every sort of structural falsification in order to hang up the pieces of terra cotta or stone with which these features were composed. When such a classic assembly was finally built, its parts were so unrelated to rational construction that all available ingenuity of draughting room, specification writer and contractor was insufficient to keep it weather proof. Compared to all this expensive gadgetry, our simple and rational excursion into a couple of really significant structural elements and a steel girder was a very mild extravagance.

Inverted Logic

The following is one of the most amusing of these architectural perversions of the time and illustrates the length to which aristocratic designers could lead their ego sensitized clients, and brought a prompt and well-deserved retribution from Father Time and Mother Truth.

A bank was built on La Salle Street on [in] Chicago about this time. The designer called for a group of great stone classical columns at the only point where the natural steel supports of this many-storied building could be located. The times raised up for this engineering crisis, an architectural Anaias of no mean imagination. This crafty architect hollowed out the drum-like sections, of which such Roman columns are often made, until they resembled great polished napkin rings. When the steel columns had reached the height of the proposed columned "order of Architecture" these granite napkin rings were let down over the steel, like rings on canes at a county fair. When all was in order, the space between the steel and the great stone rings was filled with cement. "Ha," thought the architect, "no one will even dream that these seamless granite drums have a steel shaft within." But during the hot days of summer the cement and steel expanded and neatly split all the drums. Just how the dignity of these custodians of our cash recovered from the cracks in their full dress shirt I never learned.

A. Warren Gould, by whom I was once employed in Seattle, solved this problem in another manner. He split his Greek Doric columns in two, vertically, reamed out the long halves until they looked like sections of giant wooden gutters, and then he clipped them around the steel supporting posts of the building with the joints pointed as smoothly as possible. Whether Time and Truth have peeled this banana I can't say--but they will.

Academicism Gone Mad

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Beaux Art indirection in architectural design is the Cook County Court House in Chicago where granite Corinthian columns six storied high and nine feet in diameter are built of small pieces of ashlar to form a thin stone tube of chimney around the steel supports of the building. To carry this silly arrangement called for the largest steel girders used to that date in building construction. And in the past forty years their cost in electric light has been wasted to offset the shadows of these great fluted cylinders.

   Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota [AR:B4d1.5]
research courtesy mark hammons