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H. S. Adams residence, project
Purcell, Feick and Elmslie
Oak Park, Illinois 1912

Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1910
Text by William Gray Purcell
for 1912

Job Date (in Parabiographies): January 3, 1912

H. S. ADAMS, Oak Park, Illinois

Adams was a friend of Mr. and Mrs. Lozier through whom I first came to be aware of Frank Lloyd Wright as an architect [original draft: "...let me know that there was such a person as Frank Lloyd Wright"]. As a boy of fourteen they showed me a little pen-and-ink drawing Wright had made of the studio he proposed to build for himself on the N.E. corner of Forest and Chicago Avenue, Oak Park. This drawing fascinated me. You will see this very sketch in "In the Nature of Materials", Hitchcock, Plate 38.  I had never seen anything remotely resembling it, either as a drawing or as a record of building forms. Mr. and Mrs. Lozier were life-long friends of Frank Wright's stuck by him as loyal advocates through all his troublous times, his many vicissitudes with women. Wright built them one of his most charming and simple small houses on the north side of what what then Quick's pasture, now the County Bird Sanctuary, just west of "town line" in River Forest, Illinois. [Annotation on draft by WGP: April, 1954 - Have just learned for first time that this house is by Tallmadge & Watson] It is still standing in 1950. Lozier was a most engaging and delightful man, a designer of tin cans and labels for them. His wife was a "modern woman" with intellectual interests when that type of mind was uncommon. Indeed, with her interest in the Scandinavian pioneers for women's rights, she was looked at a bit askance by the fruit canning neighbors.

Margin caption: Frank Lloyd Wright enters our business arena

Adams, who was Chicago manager of Eaton, Crane and Pike, fine writing paper manufacturers, had been sold the idea by the Loziers of having a Frank Lloyd Wright house, but he was afraid of Wright because he knew of the many instances in Oak Park where Wright's houses had not only cost two or three times what the owner had started out to spend, but often no funds remained with which to furnish the house. A Wright house with the old 1890 furniture store equipment was simply a mess. Even the "Stickley" craftsman types were none too aesthetically comfortable in the rigid, insistent, machine-glorifying rooms of which Wright was developing on new form after another.

Using a technique which was later perfected by business men to get the public to underwrite the myriad experiments necessary to create today's automobile out of the "horseless carriage", Wright was using his clients and their money as a convenience for setting forth his architectural principles. "Form and Function" was fully expressed in his houses except in three very important respects - 1. this matter of furniture, - 2. the function of economic cost, and - 3. the house as a machine for living failed to meet many important creature comforts.

Lozier had followed my career for fifteen years since I was a grammar school boy and suggested to Adams that Elmslie and I might be the answer to his dilemma, so Adams employed us.

Cost and Pocketbook fail to meet

Our difficulty appeared at once. The minimum demands of the client for accommodation in his home were far beyond the amount of money he wanted to spend, and the architects, then as now, could obtain little cooperation from the client in modifying fixed requirements. Nothing but the bludgeon of the contractor's figures on the table, with the consequent bad feeling, would bring an ordinary business common sense into the picture. This process of going through the production of working drawings, and then tearing them to pieces, or rejecting them entirely and making new ones, was the regular thing all architects faced, not because the architect could not estimate in advance what the building was going to cost, but because there was no known way in which the architect got tough with the client (as I did with Wakefield, which see) in nine cases out of ten he stood the lose the business, and this he could ill afford to do.

Up to this point the matter was not one in which Mr. Wright was open to censure, because he merely used what had proved for him the best method of solving an almost unsolvable general problem which every architect faced and still faces; and Wright's method was highly successful.

Wright tried his hand first

What I did not know when I first wrote this account some ten years ago was that, before coming to us, Adams had already gone through the process of having Wright design him a house that was wholly beyond his finances. It was this disappointment that not only drive Adams to us, but made him so tough in his insistence that we should produce something as near as possible to a genuine Wright house. In fact, he brought along the published design he wanted "copied", and lead [led] us to believe that a satisfactory result in this house project would secure us the commission to remodel the Crane Paper Company's offices in Chicago where I was interviewing him. It would now appear that he intended using our plans to persuade Wright by concrete proof what he was unable to accomplish by argument. Mr. Hitchcock on pages 66 and 67 of his book "In the Nature of Materials" refers to this first elaborate Adams project of 1911, - the year before we came into the picture, - and also the the "barren and heavy version" of 1913 designed for Adams by Wright after we had produced out review and recommendation of 1912. But here are the details; quite a picture of American business pressures -

Adams was thoroughly familiar with all of Wright's buildings in Oak Park. After much discussion with Mr. Adams (I do not recall meeting his wife) we were obliged by him to follow closely the basic concept of a Wright house design which had appeared in the Ladies Home Journal, with a low cost estimate by Wright.

We however completely reorganized it, made it buildable and contractable according to our own ideas; tried to let our project reproduce from what seemed to be Wright's germinal seed, in a natural and organic way. Our cost estimates on the design studies were also much beyond what Adams wanted to spend, and I found myself unable to convince him that our estimates were not too high. There was something in his attitude for which I was unable to account.

We had as yet made no working drawings and Adams was "sure he could get this design or one like it without raising his budget." While discussions were going on and unknown to us he took our plans over to Wright and gave him an account of the whole situation. Wright accused us of plagiarism, and George Elmslie thinks Wright was somewhat justified. Wright was more or less nasty about the situation, handling the business in such a way as to pry us out of the commission, a thing that was not hard to do in view of the cost picture and Adams' continuing eagerness to have a genuine Wright house.

Adams finally gets a house

What finally happened was that our work with Adams had succeeded in bringing his demands into some relation with his pocketbook. Wright, on his side, had our project and its obviously sincere cost schedules to temper his own expansive ideas. From all these circumstances and two trial heats, Wright was for once able to start out on a project practically related to what our de-mutualized client wanted to spend. The result was that Wright did a good home [original draft: "really stunning job.." GGE calls it "fine"] for Adams, which did not run too much more than what the owner thought he was willing to spend. This Adams house has a very difference character from any other Wright house. It is much more literal structurally, free from many of the minor excursions in imaginative form which characterized that period in Wright's work. I have always felt that instead of a case of plagiarism by us, Wright subconsciously found himself in an atmosphere different from that in which he ordinarily worked, and the our views and sincere efforts to solve this difficult economic problem and the general common sense with which we had charged Adams' mind, actually had a very large influence on the design of this house of Wright's, which stepped out of his normal continuity at that time. Except for the general basic concept which belongs in the 1910 period, this Adams house has a lot of atmosphere that is more like Wright's late 1920s. It curiously has very definitely some of the feeling of our Thomas house, operation #222 , 1913, and my own house, operation #256, 1913.

The final design as built suppressed

Although completed in 1913 this Adams house in Oak Park does not appear in Wright's Wasmuth portfolios of 1914. Neither Adams house appears in the Hitchcock list, which covers only the 413 projects pictured [MH: this is apparently untrue: see page 120 "Harry S. Adams house, 710 Augusta St. Oak Park"] It is not a well known house and seldom published. This whole episode is tied up with Wright's unwillingness to give any credit whatsoever to the contributions of others to his projects. For example, on one of his houses he said to Walter B. Griffin who was virtually an unacknowledged partner of Wright's at that time - "We'll have a little contest. You do one, I'll do one - see which is best." Griffin solved the project with so unique a solution that Wright had to acknowledge it in toto - and the house was carried to completion under Griffin's direction. No acknowledgement!, Griffin's name never mentioned by Wright, although Griffin made very extensive and basic contributions to many of Wright's projects.

Our service as Architects convinced our competitor rather than our prospect

A very interesting paradox in the last chapter of this story is that a few months later Wright came to Minneapolis to see me. He asked me to tale over the management of his business for two years as he "would be in Europe for that period." As I had never worked for him, he must have come to have considerable respect for my business and design ability, as some of his work in prospect had not been designed, half of it was in early and as yet unapproved studies, and all of it called for plenty of experienced creative judgment.

Purcell and Elmslie decline a pseudo-partnership with Wright

Why my partner, George Elmslie, and I felt obliged to decline this then apparently flattering offer and what came of it I have recounted in another connection [Footnote on draft: The legal contract document which Wright then executed with Herman von Holst will be found in my files], but the whole three year continuity of Adams projects throws a circle of light considerably wider than such a minor episode would ordinarily generate.

Falling into this general pattern of Wright's relation with his associates and the sources of his ideas, is the interesting story of the very well known Thomas House at 210 Forest Avenue, Oak Park, built in the summer of 1901.

Who "designed" Wright's Thomas house

Wright began by designing for this project one of his characteristic low lying "Prairie Type" houses, with the first floor a couple of feet off the ground, and had secured Mr. Thomas approval. Back at the office Wright laid the sketches before Walter Griffin and Miss Marian Mahoney (later Mrs. Griffin) to produce working drawings. Griffin who knew the location well said to Wright, "You are missing the key point. You have designed a project which calls for a larger lot with a free space on all sides. Adjoining this property on the south there is that row of red brick Hatch Flats only ten feet from the sidewalk, cutting off all your sunshine; and, to the north, Ed Cook's dwelling set back 25 feet, and north of Cooks, Muther and Goodwillie set back about 35 feet. This means that some useful part of this Thomas house should come forward to line with the flats, providing some afternoon sun and a look down the street - but keeping the main mass back to line with Cook's ancient frame house. Now here we have Ontario Street which runs straight west from the center line of Thomas' lot. As you have planned it the house will be submerged under the high three-story party wall of the flats."

"It would seem to me that the obvious solution is to be found in eliminating the basement entirely, lift the main floor up 8'0" above sidewalk grade, and raise the lawn grade a couple of feet in front - except where the walk goes in on a level. This will put a shoulder against Hatch, face the project northwest toward the better class dwellings on Forest Avenue, and give you a nice view west along Ontario, and southwest through 'Austins Wood'."

This beautiful virgin forest across the street occupied about two thirds of a very large block about 1000' x 1000' uncut by cross streets. It continued undisturbed for another 35 years, and has now, 1952, been presented to the village by Mr. Harry Austin as a city park area of five acres.


   Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota [AR:B4d1.6]
research courtesy mark hammons