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J. G. Cross residence, alterations
Purcell, Feick and Elmslie
Minneapolis, Minnesota  1911

Text by William Gray Purcell
Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1911

Job Date (in Parabiographies): [1911]


This was a new fireplace, electric fixtures, some very interesting leaded glass, in the stair windows, and a new front door and entrance which replaced an old turned post and spindle front porch which ran entirely across the front and cut all the sun out of the living room.  The electric fixtures were quite interesting. They were the inverted type, throwing all the light against the ceiling, and represented the very first beginnings of light conditioning, the first revolt against the "glare" which, with the new magic of electric light, had replaced the old homelike glow of rooms dimly lit with porcelain-shaded kerosene reading lamps.


In my boyhood home gas was installed in 1890--a gasoline gas plant in the cellar--but this light was only looked upon as a utility convenience, not for real satisfaction. For home-iness, sentiment, and because "they were better for the eyes," we were each evening a dozen years later still lighting a bronze standard kerosene reading lamp with a painted porcelain shade that stood shoulder high in the center of the living room, with another on the table, which was terribly hot on one's head when studying Latin and Algebra.

Machine Age Arriving

Electric light wires were first strung in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1891, but most of the "fixtures" were either just a clip holding an open bulb beneath the arms of the gas "chandelier" or more often, an open unshaded bulb hanging down on its cord from the ceiling. The electricity was so marvelous that no one seemed to mind the ugliness of it all or the unpainted wood channel strips in which the wires were tucked, streaking across the walls and the ceilings of nice rooms.

But I hated the miserable things boring into my eyes. They were counter to my sense of fitness. I resented a job not finished, not done right, not thought out in advance. I talked about it at home, but no one seemed interested, no one thought it important enough to bother about. Pushing on the idea with no results made me radical. I was against anything that didn't make sense, and then as now, most people were content to go along with habit.

Order Out of Conflict

I think it was then that my basic joy in the alterations and improvements of old buildings was born. I got this from my Grandmother Gray. She, too, loved to "rid things up," to have a "clarin' up spell," and her results always made me feel happy. To replace something that was ugly, out of repair, with another things that was good and useful seemed better than having more things, however new and shiny. The new things lost their newness so quickly, and most of them soon proved to be useless. The idea of the great difference between what things appeared to be and what they actually were began to take form.  I resented being subtly taken in by things that didn't satisfy me after I had really come to terms with them. The difference between a dead thing and a living idea, producing something which would keep on accomplishing its ends, got to be really important and I began to use this test in practical decisions.

Pressure of People

Dr. Cross's fixtures were bronze bowls set in a square tray and supported by four delicate square rods from the ceiling. They attracted too much attention to themselves, there were too large and heavy looking, but they were wonderful sources of light. However, was a very old house of the eighties, and there was no thought of bringing the rooms into any particular decorative unit--just a few new things to dress up the house a bit and amuse the family.

The Crosses had two rambunctious sons, and a gentle daughter. These changes downstairs got them interested in building a little apartment, two rooms and a bath, in the attic. This was soon accomplished and turned out very successfully.

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