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Lyman Wakefield Residence
Purcell, Feick and Elmslie
Minneapolis, Minnesota  1911

Text by William Gray Purcell
Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1911

Job Date (in Parabiographies): March 29, 1911

LYMAN E. WAKEFIELD, 47th and Fremont

Our loyal friend, Edward A. Purdy, Democratic Chief for Minnesota, and Minneapolis Postmaster, brought Lyman E. Wakefield to our office. His interest was wholly "how much house for how little money." From the first we were obliged to make a box of it, and then the struggle began.

One day he got very angry because we couldn't put in all he demanded without his adding dollars to pay for it. He hammered on the draughting board, yelled and swore--scared a room full of draughtmen right out of their wits.

I am, ordinarily, not very scrappy in such clashes, but this time I came back and told him a few things. Surprisingly he took all I had to say and made no further fuss.

Falling Upstairs

This man became President of the First National Bank in Minneapolis along about 1920. It seemed simply an unbelievable selection until the debacle of 1930 made clear the type of man that fitted the needs of the local financial aristocracy. How cheap were they, and how tawdry! Their patter, their smart-trick deportment whenever they met, their elaborate ritual for placing each business "contact" in his right level, were all part of the economic caste system which they had set up. All of this artificial business "society" was due for exactly the deflation which it got March 6, 1933. The fact that this nationwide class had to ask President Roosevelt to rescue them, which he did, was what made them so bitter toward [him] when the danger was past.

Prehistoric Shirts

Wakefield was one of the few men I have met whom I thoroughly despised. While he was [typical] of the group of financial men who ruled the money empire, yet he was by no means characteristic of the country banker who was bound with personal ties to the merchant and farmer, and with whom we had the most agreeable relations. The real pest, however, was the occasional small country banker whose ambition to be taken up to the city was about to be realized--or who had just come up to the big town. Edward Decker, for example, President of the Northwestern National Bank, was a man of good heart who was contaminated by the Twin City Street Railway crowd in which he travelled--his wife, a squalling little farm lizzie who had to worry every minute to hold up her end of the social picture. Both would have been norma[l], happy people had they remained in the small town in which they had grown up, and Decker would have made less money and lost less. He came within an ace of going to the penitentiary for his high finance. Decker was a good friend of ours and a most agreeable man to work for.

Gold Not Always Glitters

Tom Wallace, Farmers and Mechanics Savings Bank, Ed Thrall, Minnesota Loan and Trust Company, and others were grand men, decidedly unlike the "big boys" who, sitting behind the long table at the North End of the Minneapolis Club dining room, were entrenched against the taint of common men.

There is distinct satisfaction in having gotten past this bunch with a membership approval in the Minneapolis Club for a Norwegian--Dr. Oscar Owre. It took some social "Big Berthas" and a couple of surgical operations on the socially fear-filled millionaires to do it. In those days "Swedes" in Minneapolis society were just "not allowed,"--and how lucky they were.

Exploring Common Things

To return to the Wakefield house, the most interesting element was a new approach to dormer window design and construction by Elmslie with the thought in mind of producing the largest functional window area with the least bulky mass form in the roof. He avoided both the large roof cut on the outside, and, on the inside, the usual long narrow corridor effect from attic room to attic window which results in the typical colonial arrangement. Later in Portland, 1923, this idea was again taken up and the actual mill-made window frame of dormers used as the structural member. This construction not only saves 8" of width-bulk at each dormer--no small matter in a little house--but the dormer itself does not look so woody and massive. I see this construction often in the Architectural press since the architectural emancipation from colonial measured drawings, which began in 1930.

In this Wakefield house we used double-hung windows and, in an effort to get larger rooms in the attic, we used too broadly projecting eaves. The thin edge of the eave seems, however, to ease this effect.

It is heartening to see how fresh this house looks after twenty-five years. Extravagances and caprices of streamline design make even the hat brim eaves seem conventional enough. The plan is good--lots of livable space--another $1500 would have dramatized certain values that are latent in the design--and this could still be done today. Miss Parker took a great interest in the design of the self-contained stair bay on the north, and worked out the pattern of the structural members to meet the window frames with no left-over scraps.

Vertical Load Follow-Through

In this house a very tricky structural defect got past us all. This is one of the most common slips in frame building design everywhere. It came near causing a major disaster is Wishard second alterations (#148) and plagued me again in the C. H. Purcell dwelling, Portland (#654) ,and is still embedded in this slightly out-of-level upper hall floor of that house.

Where the second and attic floor partitions did not come directly over the first floor and basement supporting walls, we failed to actually follow down with proper engineering analysis the accumulating concentrated loads. It all looked so simple and plausible. Wood framed dwellings so seldom call for any serious engineering figuring that one selects his joists by habit, and becomes careless. The result was that a large section of roof and two large floor areas, by an ironical fate, all came to a constructional focus on a single first floor wooden beam that was nothing better than a doubled floor joist. About the time the plastering was finished I noticed the depression in the floor--and so did the irate Mr. Wakefield.

With the cordial cooperation of our builder, F. N. Hegg, measures were taken to place an extra post in the basement, and the finished floors were shimmed to level, but it was inevitable that the drying out of the lumber and consequent shrinkage would again bring the floors and ceilings out of level. Hegg and I cut tall rods to the neat heights as they then stood and hid them up in the cellar joist to provide an alibi in case of future complaints. The check rods are doubtless still there as we heard no more about settling.

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