firm active: 1907-1921

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Henry B. Babson Residence
Louis Sullivan and George Grant Elmslie, architects
Riverside, Illinois  [demolished]   1907/1908

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

Job Date (in Parabiographies): [1912]

Alterations in Babson house of 1908


Both George and I always felt that this was a most unfortunate operation. It was the beginning of a series of changes in this magnificent Louis Sullivan house which eventually destroyed it, and with it Babson's good life on this Riverside estate. We didn't want to see these changes made. The idealism which Babson brought to the creation of the original house and its setting, with which Jens Jensen [Footnote on draft: I had good letters from Jensen, past ninety years of age, in 1949-1950. He died in 1951 at his country home, Green Bay, Wisconsin. See A.I.A. Journal] the famous Chicago Park landscapist collaborated, would have had its fine edge disturbed by the great financial success which Babson made in business.  The nature of his architectural adventures after 1920 indicates a turn toward having more and more of everything, more and more tying of his family occasions and setting into the honorific forms of the conventional social picture. (American restless drive to find happiness through personal set-scene rather than creative living.)

The change in our relation with Babson, as client, corresponds with the final breakup of the Babson continuity in Riverside. This followed the construction in 1923 of a new "living room" or grand salon in the North Garden of the Sullivan house of 1907. As finally built and now stands, this overdone project furnished with period furniture and Renaissance tapestries came to have an exterior which looked like a glorified factory, smoke stack and all. It destroyed the unity of the whole project outside and in. George, (as "Purcell and Elmslie") had made numerous sketches for such a living room in 1918-1919. These, while very good in themselves, were also ill advised because the whole idea of any such addition was inorganic to any useful purpose. The first designs for this salon were very quiet and gentle buildings, highly articulated, all in the feeling of the original design as it was. The gallery connecting the new addition with the main living room and dropping down to the new lower garden level were very well handled and could have been quite charming and domestic even if over elaborate. But George didn't like any of his own trial solutions because they violated the whole concept. As a home, the 1907 dwelling possesses a distinguished and ample living room, needed no other.

Grandeur given time to mature

But George would not come right out and tell Henry not to do it. All studies were laid aside for several years and around 1923 this addition was again taken up and the catastrophe as it stands today was built. I was spending some weeks at the Minneapolis office when Strauel was at work on some of the drawings. It made us both ill. It has nothing of Sullivan, nothing of P and E, and is certainly unworthy of the sensitive judgment which George himself could bring to any work. His heart was not in it.

At this same time very great changes were made all through the main house by the decorative department of Tobey Furniture Company of which Babson had become president. George was dismayed; expressed his feelings to me in complete discouragement. The gorgeous mahogany paneled ceiling of the Living Room was torn out, the lovely bronze electric fixtures junked, the entire project made "fashionable" in ways that were to become unfashionable in half a dozen years. Inside of three years Babson had tired of the whole business, moved to a Chicago apartment and the house stood empty for ten years until sold for a pittance to a Catholic Women's Order.

* * *

I have been at some pains to refer, thus briefly, to this disintegration of the creative continuities of a family and loss of interest in the unique setting which had originally been given them.

I am of course not concerned with Babson's not continuing as a client with Purcell and Elmslie. But in view of the respect which the world has now come to give anything carrying Mr. Sullivan's name, it seemed to me that one is justified in feeling that Babson really lost something very personal in his life when he shifted base from the organic world of democratic architecture and went in for a setting aimed to express prestige and the aristocracy of success, which included an $80,000 yacht and life in a Gold Coast apartment on the Lake Front.

* * *

Returning to the Riverside dwelling: at this time George made plans and Fournier made the working drawings for a complete reorganization of the servants' wing, which did no harm to the dwelling as a whole and greatly improved its convenience. A very lush new guest bath on the second floor had casement windows opening into a sort of stage set on the far side of a closet. For this John Norton the mural painter, who had done a lot of fine things for us, was retained to paint south seas glamour, with lovely ladies, all flooded with concealed sunshine which turned on automatically as one entered and closed the door.

John Norton went to Europe and left the work to be executed by two assistants, and George Elmslie still set in one of his most intransigent Scotch moods, as a result of that terrible factory-like addition which he tried to make himself believe was O.K. (but couldn't bring it off emotionally) hated even to go to Riverside, and so neglected the necessary supervision. Babson disgusted over paying John Norton's $1,500 fee for another artist's work, began to get fed up with the entire overdone project.

Even before it was finished, it had ceased to provide him any kind of rewards, practical or spiritual. He and George had words over errors and omissions on the job and that closed the wonderful twenty years of friendship. Except for one minor personal errand that did not improve matters, George did not see Henry again for another twenty years. But the old, generous Henry Babson with characteristic initiative called on George, ill at his home, in 1949, asked him some technical questions and left him a handsome fee. A nice gesture for auld lang syne. Henry Babson was a very fine quality man - our good friend - just too much "success", plus of course in the latter instance, plain failure to receive the good business service he had always had and had a right to expect.

General Applications

It seems to me that for both researcher and architectural student some firm conclusions must be drawn from the flow of events outlined here in part, about the Adams and Babson projects.

First, that in viewing the works of architects as they stand at any given future time, one cannot assume that what is seen is any sound evidence of the thought or intentions of the artists who produced them. No matter how resolute the architect, he cannot stand against the pressures of his time and client. We have seen that at times even Wright could not do so. And no architect can forsee what others will do to his work. Even his prestige, and firmness to back it up, at once produce still another type of negative factor which does not operate in any free creative field. The continued necessity for working in the midst of all these pressures is no doubt the principal cause of the neurotic and anti-social deportment of so many great artists, even those untarnished with exhibitionism.

Second, neither artist nor client are static personalities. Both change their objectives, are changed by those with whom they choose or are obliged to work. Ambition, illness, economic difficulties, women plus and minus, the repair of misjudgment, the strategy toward opportunity, and the paradoxes of fate, all operate to continually remake a man. Babson when he exercised unusual imagination and generous spirit in discovering and employing Sullivan in 1907 (see Morrison account) was not the man who spent, in 1923, around $100,000 destroying the superbly organized home and estate which Sullivan produced for him - and then within three years walked out and left it dead and empty for a dozen years.

The well known ravages-of-time, meaning ordinarily the physical disintegration of buildings due to use and the elements, are nothing compared to the destruction wrought by taxes, shifts in community character and the inexperience of silly minds who can't resist remodeling their homes.

I trust that those who may be interest in our buildings will try hard to discount what they see and dig for what we said with form, color, and placement.

Look at one of our projects after 25 years! Those awful colors are not what we chose. That ill-adjusted wing was added by play-boy Sterp. He sold it to Mrs. Kingstone who changed the windows and concealed two-thirds of the original building with a glassed-in porch. Or consider the wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Hill, Jr., who blasted down the entire masonry and reinforced concrete Decker dwelling at Lake Minnetonka. Built in this year of 1912, it was thus destroyed in 1948, while still in perfect physical condition and conforming with current mechanical convenience and service demands. These Hills retained only the garage and chauffer's [sic] quarters in which they live - for what good reason God only knows. "Later they might build another" [Footnote on draft: August 1952 - they have!] (and for the moment more fashionable house) which they will later be able to sell to the next social and economic generation, who in their time can again replace it, by which time a North American equivalent of the Cimbri and Huns of 2052 A.D. may be preparing to descend on "Zenith".

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