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Merchants National Bank
Purcell, Feick and Elmslie
Winona, Minnesota   1912

Text by William Gray Purcell
Parabiographies entry for Merchants Bank of Winona

Commission Date (in Parabiographies): November 21, 1911 [1912]

Note by William Gray Purcell about this manuscript:

The Merchants Bank of Winona was completed and occupied in 1912, so it is perhaps fitting to open this year's record with the following exchange of ideas, written and rewritten, 1938 to 1945, by rough drafts of manuscript between George [Elmslie: G.G.E.] in Chicago and myself [W.G.P.] in Pasadena.

Returning to it after ten years [this draft is dated 8-1951] I find it contrasting out different approaches to basic design.The one begins in analysis, the other in synthesis. Mine mustpass through the word laboratory, his passes through the graphicmeadows, on the way to the building forms.Behind the "logic" which he very properly rejects as inadequate,are the subconscious pressures from his having fully experiencedthe mental conditioning of logic while recognizing itslimitations and dangers. On my part, I am not fooled by thesophistries, and my thinking is also preservation of "feeling," and disclosure of a life in the building, which defies the very analysis I am at pains to set forth.

So at very base, we operate as architects, rejecting the over-pressures of both graphics and dialectics.

THE WINONA BANK CAPITALS - Building #132, 1911-1912

A colloquy by George G. Elmslie and William G. Purcell, 1945.

W.G.P. I notice, George, that another critic is taking a crack at the Winona Bank Capitals, as they have done about every so often during the past quarter century. The criticism is always based on the theory that these capitals are not "functional" because that material which meets your eye when one looks at them, is not that substance which is actually supporting the great lintel; that the form of this capital being of friable terra cotta, does not look as if it could support any such load - "therefore, such material and such design forms at such a point are not functional."

G.G.E. Well, Willie, we recognize that reasoning, of course, as the constructivist point of view. At the time this bank was a-building these same critical minds said that:

"IF the "form and function" theory was going to reduce a building to these pure constructional elements" which they now demand, and further that:- "IF such a building retained that literal relationsh between actual construction and appearance values" they all now so rigidly insist upon, but which they then rejected with horror:- "THEN, in that even" (so they heatedly averred in 1900) "there would be no Architecture and the fine art of building would be reduced to the production of mechanical cages or containers."

Of course, they were logical enough if one accepted their premises; but neither Louis nor any of the rest of us were advocating such a materialist application of form and function. Critics were obliged to set up some such straw man. It was the only possible answer to an otherwise unanswerable argument.

Contemporary critics have been driven out of their eclectic position by their own false logic. The fatuity if applique-ing borrowed style forms upon steel and concrete buildings at last appears ridiculous even to architects. So now they say "if any elements appear in a building other than the pure machinery of assembly, support, and enclosure, then the one who uses such non-structural inessentials has gotten outside the field of architecture!" The sophists didn't all die with Rome.

W.G.P. Yes, the way it looks to me: - The inorganic but "book" mind which must rest its thinking on some decided-upon-in-advance set-up, regardless of the changes in process during production of any work, must of necessity be continually engaged in inverting and re-inverting itself in order to make its intellectual theology fit that moving flow which is life and which no static system of thinking can capture and hold for academic "research."

G.G.E. We know that a perfectly clear analysis has been made of this situation over and over again in our own writings, in all of Louis Sullivan's basic philosophy. Perhaps it might be worth while to re-state the thing - against the novel but still static qualities of philosophic inversion in architecture which has swept the country during the last half dozen years. (ie 1935-40)

W.G.P. Let me see if I can say this thing; we will stick to the Winona capitals as our text; you say if I put across the idea: -

A steel plate girder during practical erection cannot be successfully brought down to rest upon a brick pier without a bearing plate. Such a bearing plate could be stone, but in a brick building with a very heavy girder which could crack a stone cap with one little bump, steel is more practical, less expensive, and more in the feel of the structural sense of the combination. But it would not be advisable to leave the one-inch sheared edge of such a steel bearing plate exposed, because it would rust, and dribble streaks down the pier. Therefore, it should be convered against the weather with some sort of building material, and the logical one is more brick, or terra cotta.

G.G.E. But your answeres will tell you that there is a 3'6" width of exposed steel plate under the soffit, and the edge of it is also exposed, taking no harm when painted. Why cover one and not the other?

W.G.P. Because from the exposed brick edge of the soffit there is a direct drip and the girder plate is under and back behind the brick edge, free from the extremes of water and of sun heat. Where the paint on the girder's under plate meets the brick, which rests on it, gravity is always pulling the water away from the joint. On the other hand with the bearing plate both gravity and capillary action continuously work the water in under the lower edge of the paint.

Old Jacoby, our Cornell Professor of Bridge Design, used to say, "Be sure to take care of your bearings, the rest of the design will come along in due course."

G.G.E. That sounds like good laboratory engineering.

W.G.P. Wouldn't you say then that the wide difference in density between steel and terra cotta, the toughness of one and the friability of the other, give them two totally different and opposing size-mass characteristics, through which they develop their practical usefulness and their varied technological expressions as building material. For example, to cover the edges of a one-inch bearing plate of steel with one inch of brick or terra cotta tucked in between the top of the brick pier and the under side of the steel girder would introduce little impractical pieces which would soon fall out and be destroyed by the elements. But further, and we now approach the principle issue, such little bits of material provide no adequate opportunity for architectural statements concerning the spiritual qualities of the building.

Therefore, the only thing one can do is to produce sufficient space between the top of the brick pier and the under side of the steel lintel to accomodate a structure of terra cotta or brick which recognizes both its compressive strength and its friability but at the same time may offer mass enough to form a practical and substantial part of the building at this point. The opportunity to do this can only be established by expanding the bearing plate vertically into a cast iron horse or chair of sufficient height to provide operational space for the protecting integument of terra cotta at this point. But since the steel girder with its brick facing is a tremendous load, and the brick pier is proportioned to carry this load, (doubtless larger than necessary) the amount of space which could be provided for, outside of the necessary engineering area called for in the design of an adequate horse or chair, would not be sufficient to build a brick work enclosure thick enough to stay in place. Therefore we adopt terra cotta.

G.G.E. Hold on there, Willie. I don't know about all that verbal process, as you analyze it from mechanics to the poetry of the thing.

The efflorescence of the "capital" was designed first and we accomodated our metal within to the "design" we had laid down. It could have been vastly simpler, but we did not feel that way about it, and that is all there is to it, and the ways to do it are limitless.

W.G.P. Fair enough, George; in a true expression, according to the philosophy of "form and function" as we understand it, while misstatements and denials cannot be tolerated, the designer, as you say, is not compelled to explain this chair structure unless he chooses to do so, any more than Nature is under any inevitable compulsion to explain the bones of the wrist [by means of] marks upon the skin which covers them. It is a perfectly natrual and logical place to make statements with respect to the inner structure if and as the designer may feel them to be consonant with the message of the whole building; and it is also a perfectly logical place to make some architectural statement about the significant transition which takes place at a point where Pier becomes Beam, if the designer elects to do so.

G.G.E. You structural accounting is all true enough, but too much ratiocination, to use a jaw breaker, and not enough sensibility. The process of logically (if you like) taking care of the one inch plate is simple enough, and there is perhaps no "logic" in the deep efflorescence of our capital, only a certain quality of sensibility that may vary from place to place in designing all such details.

W.G.P. Very true, but for the moment, let's finish the materials-of-construction ratiocination anyway. We know that terra cotta in sizable pieces, which is sound and endyring as an enclosing integument, even when of nominal thickness, is a logical method of covering and protecting our chair or horse. And furthermore, terra cotta can be securely anchored with metal rods and backed up with cement mortar to make a solid and weather resisting enclosure at this point - as enduring as any other part of the building.

Now the way I am proceeding to tell this story; - having satisfied all of the structural facts insisting upon engineering and meteorological solution at this point, we may proceed to those more important aspects of the situation which concern the poetry of the relationship, and some expression within this detail, concerning the entire building, its meaning, its relation to the community, to its time, the people, and the use they have for it, all of which is the ultimate goal of true architecture.

Terra cotta is a unique material. Superficially, it may resemble stone. To the casual passerby it can be made to very closely resemble ordinary stone or granite when it is first erected, but it does not "weather-away" and take on a patina of age as does stone. Plain undecorated surfaces of terra cotta tend to acquire a reculiar warp in the kiln which in the varuing sunlight makes the pieces look very ceramic-like and un-stone-like. All terra cotta designers used to try to make terra cotta look like masonry. That imitative factor was what made this fine naterial go out of fashion with architects.

G.G.E.We were not interested in what the passerby thought on the score of its looking like stone. Organically terr cotta is only a selected kind of clay mixed up with what they call grog, that is broken up crockery, and all ground together. It is like brick except that clay plus grog is used, whereas in brick we use only clay of the fire clay type or the shale type. Great improvements have been made in the manufacture of terra cotta. The beautiful terra cotta fountain figure in my Topeka Building and Loan Association interior is a lovely yellow majolica-like glaze, all in one piece and must be over five feet high. Perfect. You ought to have one for your garden pool. The water drips from under the leaves beautifully. Terra cotta can be enamelled or glazed the same as brick. Brick and terra cotta are consanguineous and so should be together.

W.G.P. That's right, George - I think as do you, that the obvious and candid treatment of terra cotta is some flowering or treatment of the surface with the use of color, texture and pattern to express the inherent plastic qualities and possibilities of this sensitive and valuable material. Decorative ornament arising out of the clay and native to it in form and quality is the most natural opportunity presented to the hand and spirit of the designer. Having arrived at this point, here we go back to our steel chair again, because for me the question at once arises, how much of the height of the pier shall be given over to this covering of the structural chair or horse. This decision does not rest in the engineering of this cast iron structural seat for the great lintel, because, if we agree for the sake of argument to having arrived logically at the idea of having a chair or horse at all, one is entirely free, from an engineering point of view, to have this feature of almost any height, although its horizontal area is limited by the size of the pier and by the further necessity to allow a resonable space for the terra cotta around it.

G.G.E. Of course from a strictly engineering point of view, this cast iron structural chair or seat can be any height within quite extended limits. But one could "logically" say, "Not so good", to putting in a different kind of short piece-of-column where not implied or needed. [Footnote in draft: This design idea was actually used in Mitchel [sic] S.D., bank in 1916 - brick pier with stone cap - but here the girder was not steel but reinforced concrete built in place.]

We did not put in this chair of the height you see it in the finished building on the basis of constructional logic - or lack ot it. We thought to use a chair because of the shape of transition decoration, and it could have been 1/4 the height it is on the basis of sound constructional logic and it probably could have looked like the very devil.

I say, Willie, that its present shape is fine and beautiful, with its slight flare suggestive of delicacy. Therefore, it is the poetry, the architectural sense of this enclosing material at the top of the pier, which is going to determine not only its height but all its other qualities.

W.G.P. Well, O.K., fair enough. So here comes the critic, who from time immemorial has been busy trying to appraise whatever sort of bearing block some creative man or people chose to have appear at the top of a pier of brick or shaft of stone, and he says of our terra cotta envelopment, "A capital." Furthermore, a capital to him is the surface appearance of something. In the minds of critics capitals have long since ceased to be principally significant as structural bearing items in a "building". And still further critics of our day have always accepted along with the pretense of the designers that all terra cotta was stone, and since the terra cotta is not transparent and one cannot see our steel seat within, he says, "Here we have no from and function."

G.G.E. We know, of course, that a true architect is under no compulsion to design his building in order to satisfy the inverted logic of the critic. The professors who have cataloged and rationalized a vast body of structural and architectural misstatements, not only believe the nonsense which they have so carefully systematized, but demand that everyone else shall accept their theology as the spirit and the substance of Truth.

W.G.P. The architect is under the stress of dealing with the public as he finds it. To even find an opportunity to build buildings at all is a tough job. After that an architect is definitely on the spot to satisfy the mind and the heart of the people; and that is one of his chief functions, the rest of him is engineer or contractor.

G.G.E. He would not be on the spot if the people had not been misled - as they have been.

W.G.P. True enough and as corollary truth to what you say, it is the function of the architect to lead the people as prophet, because when the architect is properly nurtured in true values, he sees things, potential in the seed, which they will come to see only by growth toward flower and fruit, but have not yet seen. In this process of experienced prevision the architect can gently and gradually educate the particular genius and character of any people and lead them toward an appreciation both of the science of enclosing space, and toward the art of relating such enclosure to the groups of people who are to use it and the masses who are to see it.

G.G.E. It's a potent story. Not to be told in words - the building does the speaking, will be understood in time.


research courtesy mark hammons