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Singer Building, project
Purcell and Feick
Bismarck, North Dakota  1908

Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1908
Text by William Gray Purcell

Job Date (in Parabiographies): March 31, 1908

I. P. Baker's Singer Building, Bismarck, North Dakota

Architecture for Merchants

This project for a building, to be only seven [annotation by WGP: Correction  9/15/55, 7' 10-1/2"] in width, was a unique opportunity to dramatize the idea that everything in or upon the building of a merchant, which appeared to the eye of a passerby, was in reality his signboard.  By means of all the forms of our architecture he would be offering his wares and services to the public.  It seemed, to us, absurd to design carefully considered architecture and then let someone else attached painted or carved announcements of irrelevant form, material and color to this architecture.  The aesthetic of each system would destroy the other.

The merchant everywhere, of course, after his building was completed, never paid the slightest attention to the architecture for which he had paid, and permitted the sign man to do his worst.  This little Singer Building, in Bismarck, to be erected in so very narrow a space between two buildings, a plot of ground left over through some primeval surveyor's error, was an ideal building to treat as a large vertical "sign-board" with a tiny door and show-window in the lower part.  It was only some legal accident in the writing of the lease with the local Singer Sewing Machine agent that started delays which finally cancelled the erection of this building.

Creative Selling

It was a matter of keen regret to use to have this project fail of erection.  The project antedated by a quarter century attempts now common enough, to unite the forms of advertising announcements for day or night use with the structural and architecture expression of the building.  The first example of this actually being done was the alteration of the old "paint store" of S. W. and S. E. Pebbles, on Lake Street, in Oak Park, Illinois, by Frank Lloyd Wright, which dates from about 1909 or 1910.  This Peebles building presented vividly to my mind the idea of a merchant's window being a sort of diorama calling for a frame - and in the Electric Carriage and Battery Company we set out to make the large plate glass windows of the facade into a sort of elegant framed exhibition case for the electric automobile.

An Early American Custom

Peebles' Paint Store, opened soon after the Civil War, is my picture of the village club of primitive America.  Saturday nights I would take Grandfather's hand and we'd walk "over town" in the twilight.  "Lon" and "S. E." were there behind the counter; Brown, the harness-maker, a very thin man with enormous black handlebar moustaches, would be seated on a keg.  Others would come in until quite a committee had assembled.  Not much business was transacted - that was not expected.  The Blaine and Logan - Cleveland and Hendricks campaign was discussed; not very hotly, as practically everyone was a Republican.  In our town Democrats were looked upon with genuine suspicion - that day was too close to the Johnny Rebs of the Civil War, only twenty years before.  My father would come in from getting his Saturday shave at Schneider's Barber Shop two doors east.  Next door old man Scales would be dragging his massive bulk away from the cigar counter, to hand over to customers paper and envelopes, or candy, the daily paper, a few magazines - there were not many published. If we were early, we'd see dear old Mister Robbins, the rival harness maker, who looked liked the poet Whittier.  From him all the boys got their whiplashes, made of leather trimmings.  He loved boys, and we all liked an excuse to go down into his smelly basement shop.  His fingers and hands had been so reshaped by his trade that they looked like a new sort of tool.  His son, who had become prosperous and important, was ashamed of his old tradesman dad and, blinded by his own importance, never realized that the whole town loved his father and laughed at him - rather cynically.


   Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota [AR:B4d1.2]
research courtesy mark hammons