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Oscar Owre residence
Purcell, Feick and Elmslie
Minneapolis, Minnesota  1911

Text by William Gray Purcell
Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1911


Dr. and Mrs. Owre were fine people to live with and have come to be our lifelong friends. Their brother, [Dr.] Alfred [Annotation on draft by John Jager: Dean of Dept. of Dentistry, U. of M., later in same capacity in Columbia U., the man who advanced dentistry nationally--and world-wide. Great thinker and educator!] whom we had come to know intimately and who believed sincerely in my architectural philosophy, told his brother to employ us. Mrs. Owre, nee Katherine Riis and daughter of Jacob Riis, was an old friend of the Elmslie family. Cousin Jim Elmslie took her to her first party at Richmond Hills, Long Island, where the Riis family all lived.

Cost or Estimates

Oscar was scared to death that his building was going to cost him more than he could afford, and had been told by all his friends that every building operation carried on by an architect was loaded with heartbreaking extras which would spoil all his fun, if not ruin him financially. He was advised to buy a house instead of building one.

We assured him that if he would cooperate we would tell him what his house would cost before he started and that is what it would cost--and no more--when it was ready to use. We had lots of fun planning this house and they were delighted. , After organizing the whole project and securing figures, Dr. Owre was told that the place would cost $17,275, everything complete, ready to move in and live in it.

When the final bills were audited, there was still about $35 left in his budget. Even the roller shades and curtain rods were paid for, and of course, the lawn, shrubbery, decorations and all equipment were on the place. He never got through talking about this.


One of the most amusing aspects of the job arose from his especial complexes due to the fact that he was a surgeon, working daily with the most delicate instruments on minute portions of the human anatomy. He was so skillful a technician and had so conditioned his mind to exact progress that he could not refrain from bringing this background to the carpenter work being done on his house. He was scandalized when he saw carpenters taking a nail out of their overalls and driving it at a convenient location in a board. In all seriousness, he wanted me to insist that the four nails which held the plank to the fence post be laid out with a steel square and ruler, little crosses made, small holes drilled with a brace and bit, and then the nail driven into this hole. It was pretty hard to convince him that not only would men refuse to go along with any such foolishness, but that the resulting cost would be many times the normal cost for sound construction.

One of the sad accidents on this job, in which perfection was always expected, came with the roof.

Superintendents Take Warning

Instead of galvanized iron gutters, Dr. Owre was willing to pay for everlasting copper at considerable extra expense and for copper nails for fastening the shingles. Shinglers hold their nails by handfuls in their mouths for convenient access. The craft custom is centuries old, and only within the last few years have some mechanical substitutes been provided for feeding nails to the shingler's hammer. Galvanized nails on account of their rough edges are hard enough on the mouths of shinglers, but copper nails are much worse. Consequently, because of their increasingly sore mouths, after the first day or so the shinglers dropped the nails on the roof and they rolled down into the gutters. The thoughtless workmen then walked on the nailhead edges, and this cut literally hundreds of tiny leak holes through the sheet copper of the gutters. Nothing could be done about it, except to solder up these holes, which was, of course, a patch job. The alternative was the removal of the entire roof, which meant a cost of $300 or $400, and probably a lawsuit into the bargain. The situation was a great disappointment to Idealist Owre.


A few years later we built a special desk and bookcases for his study on the second floor. I worked out a special drawer on roller bearings which could be pulled out full length to hold a full sized Merriam Webster Dictionary. It was arranged so that the great book could be left open at the page most recently consulted, and this cut the time necessary to proceed to the next. Immediately at his left elbow, it was a great success. I always wanted one.

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