firm active: 1907-1921

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John H. Kahler residence, project
Purcell and Feick
Rochester, Minnesota  1908

Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1908
Text by William Gray Purcell

John M. [H.] Kahler at this time was the proprietor of the Cook Hotel.  The Mayo Brothers were just beginning to be known outside the State of Minnesota.  Little did anyone realize what a worldwide reputation they were to make, the enormous amount of business they were to bring to the unknown village of Rochester, way off there in the Minnesota meadows.  George Elmslie says that Louis Sullivan tried hard through friends to secure this commission. Nor was I foresighed enough to realize that within a very few years Mr. Kahler was to build a twelve-story metropolitan hotel in the little city of Rochester and influence a volume of architectural work which was to mean a prosperous twenty years' practice to the St. Paul architect who captured it. [Ed. note: Ellerbe]

These drawings, lying wholly forgotten in out files, are interesting because they show so clearly the sense of  architectural laboratory brought to all our designing.  Moving from point to point, nothing was passed until every point was adjusted.  We were especially interested in the mechanics of creature movement within bounded areas, a person's entrance to and exit from units of a plan, and the articulation of people moving and turning, passing through doors which were moving or standing open - and so on.  About this time I made quite a study of the various motions of hands and legs one made in turning on a light in a just entered room.  From these studies were established principles for the most expected location and natural operation of light switches.

It seems to me that the quality of the drafted line in this uncompleted study shows a clear, exact, logical mind at work. This is my report on paper of a building completed step by step in my mind.  The drawing is recording ideas, not merely suggesting them.

An interesting detail of this project was the attempt to secure useful space in the attic through the use of a large monitor feature.  Just who was to use this space and how, as it was reached only from the rear stairway - I do not recall.  Perhaps I was just fascinated with the idea which I had seen in a clever house by Charles E. White  (see photo) [missing].  I had my first chance to use it in Stevens Cottage [#47]. 

I was also at work here trying to determine the minimum agreeable height for a window head.  Miss Parker and I settled this to our entire satisfaction in Goodnow [#191],  in 1913, at 5' 8-1/2" to the glass line for a 6' 0" man who could thus see the horizon under the top rail without ducking.

My kitchens were long in advance of their time.  The kitchen working places were being organized.  In 1908, ice boxes were not put in kitchens - but I was here locating it as close to the kitchen work trail as possible; the "iceman" had his resistances, too.

The idea of developing a scientific kitchen received its first impulse along about 1897 from that grand character, Thaddeus Philander Woodbury Giddings, of Anoka, Minnesota, to whom alone an entire volume of this record could be given.

Giddings was supervisor of Music in the schools of Oak Park, Illinois, and as a result of his solid work and persuasive politics, the Oak Park High School was one of the first educational institutions in the United States (music schools excepted, of course) in which credits were granted for work in music - voice or instrumental - with practice counting as laboratory work.

Another of Giddings' contributions will be seen in out Anoka Greek Theater, building #246 and #277.  But to return to our kitchens - in 1896 "Thad" saw his old mother baking a batch of cookies in their big farm kitchen and was appalled by at the amount of foot travel required.  The next time she did it, he platted her trail on a plan then scaled off the distance she had walked.  It was about a mile for just this small item in the day's work.  Too much, said he, and spent the summer building a 6' x 9' sort of food-making laboratory and two other rooms within the former kitchen area.  His new kitchen was, of course, along the lines of a ship's galley or dining car kitchen, from which the idea was doubtless born.  It incorporated a large number of ingenious and amusing labor-saving gadgets.  It was skylighted to preserve cupboard space, and I recall a revolving piano stool in the center, from which his mother could reach almost everything. The result was a success, for Thad, who liked to cook and was famous in Oak Park as a candy maker, knew what was required for every practical move in preparing a meal.  His mother must have been a very modern type of lady, as she approved of the kitchen in an era when the adult female was dead set against every attempt by man to lighten her work or improve her domestic manufacturing plant.  An advertising man told me that the sales resistance of women to gas for cooking, electric irons, washing machines, and so on, was unbelievable.  These things had to be literally forced on them with costly high pressure campaigns.  I can recall very well all the talk against such articles which were referred to as "new fangled." Even as late as 1923-Woerner house, my building #631, I was not allowed to install an electric cooking range without putting Mrs. Woerner's old wood-burning range "which she'd always used" alongside of it. She really suffered over this resistance, but she stuck to her idea.  She told me confidentially the next year, however, that after the first two weeks she never lighted the old stove again.

[Annotation by WGP on draft: Giddings story told more fully in Northwest Architect, Volume 5, Number 5, 1941 - "They Used to Make Fun of Anoka"]

So many came to see Giddings' famous kitchenette that he made a complete set of plans and details for which there was so much demand that he began advertising the plans for $10 in Everybody's magazine . He got orders from all over the United States, and in a few months the testimonial letters began to pour in from grateful housewives.  Most amusing was this very first fan mail, and there was no doubt that his Anoka kitchenette represents one of the first moves toward scientific domestic engineering.  As a budding architect, I talked with Thad about this, and was all fired for reform, but it was ten years before I had a chance to put my views into practice, and event then, model kitchen plans were only beginning to appear in the women's magazines.

But Giddings' world-moving kitchen was a small but characteristic incident in his own life.  This remarkable pioneer in education is certainly on of America's most useful and interesting citizen's, and no small part of his success is due to the element of humor which he included in everything he did.  He was one of the delights of my youth.  I first really became acquainted with him when I started to make myself a canvas boat, and after weeks of struggles had gotten no further than the keel and three or four ribs.  One Monday morning, on the way to high school, I walked with Giddings, who was our Supervisor of Music, and told him about my boat.  He laughed heartily and said, "Suppose we make one and go canoeing next Saturday?"  That sounded unbelievable.  That afternoon he dropped by the grocery store and picked up half a dozen wooden cheese boxes of the day.  These were wooden drums about 20" in diameter and 10" deep, made of a sheet of split wood, steamed and bent to a ring.  That night he removed their bottoms, sawed through the ring, opened out the curly peels of tough wood, and these he screwed in a row to a keel strip.  They were readily bent to a canoe shape, with their scattering top edges bound in place between a pair of gunwales either side.  The next night he tacked on the canvas and gave all a preliminary coat of paint.  Thursday night the boat had its final coat of paint and two paddles were whittled out.  Early Saturday morning we started off with our canoe to the Des Plaines River and had a glorious day camping out.  That night we parked the canoe under a pile of brush and went again on subsequent Saturdays.

This little episode illustrates so clearly the character of the man.  Nothing was hard to do.  Everything he did was fun, and at the same time it had a certain deep philosophy as to life and its meaning.  He provided self-startes for all the different things people young and old longed to do.

Thus, thought objective action they found emotional release and resulting satisfaction.  The modern disintegrations resulting from joy riding, movies, competitive athletics, were not a problem in those days, but as they began to appear, Giddings was among the first to find answers to these destroyers, and today is using the same technique to build real joy for more boys and girls.  There must be literally one hundred thousand young people who are better and happier because Thaddeus Giddings lived and still lives in the world of youth.

He was ordinarily called a "queer genius," and yet if we consider the diversions of life that people finally come to agree are worth doing, we see that he was simply more sensible, more imaginative and freer in spirit than those whose hobbies and recreations were bound by social convention.

For instance, Giddings found that he did not have sufficient time to keep in touch with the great number of people he met and to whom he felt under friendly social obligation.  So he instituted his Sunday morning breakfasts. These were primarily for the grade teachers in the public schools who came under his direction as head of Public School Music.  Giddings would prepare the entire breakfast before they arrived, and, seated at the head of the table, would engage in a merry feast not entirely uninterrupted by merry discussion.  These breakfasts were so much enjoyed and became so famous that for some years there was a continuing contest to secure invitations to them.

Giddings lived in a seven room flat, and the extra bedrooms were always available to anyone who wanted to drop in, or to one who, in those days of no automobile and only limited street car transportation after midnight, found himself marooned in Oak Park far from his home village.

The housewives in the apartment building where he lived, were both scandalized and indignant at a man cooking and giving meals to lady school teachers - an unheard-of procedure - particularly in a Professor who should have some dignity.  These apartments all had rear porches, and it was there that on early Monday mornings, in good weather, the women were accustomed to doing their weekly washing.  Thaddeus chose a likely day and was up with the sun.  When he saw that all his neighbors were busily at work over their washboards, he appeared on his own porch in shirt sleeves and a large apron, and there proceeded to do his own washing with elaborate splashing of suds and general mild burlesque of the whole performance.  This, of course, soon got around town, and caused the greatest amount of merriment.

In the gay nineties, with little packaged amusement to be bought and limited cash to buy it with, candymaking was a standard method of entertainment for the girls who "had company" Friday or Saturday evenings.  Until Giddings entered the picture, the product was mostly molasses taffy, although fudge came in about 1893 or '94.  

But Thad gave the candy rite a new twirl.  He learned how to make fondant like the professionals, for a giant kettle and with the help of anyone who wanted to come, he was soon producing candy in twenty-five pound batches of a quality and variety equal to anything that could be had at Kehoe's or Kranz' in Chicago.  As the candy went into circulation at once at the cost of the ingredients - sugar was 3-1/2 cents a pound at that time - he no doubt would be branded today as a "Red" straight from Moscow, and the candy division of the Chamber of Commerce would see that his bad influence was liquidated.

Thaddeus anticipated the automobile trailer of 1936 by forty years.  In 1896 he built what he called a van, nothing more or less than a horse-drawn "trailer" fitted with every sort of convenience gadget for housekeeping on the road.  It was mounted on an old farm wagon chassis.  In this contraption he toured all over Northern Minnesota during the summer vacations.  The high point of one of these touring summers was his return down Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis, seated in the driver's seat of his van, barefooted, overalls rolled to his knees, his black pointed beard under a big farm straw hat and holding the reins with his toes.  For a number of summers Thad put a shed on a river scow chassis, fitted it up with housekeeping conveniences, and spent his vacation on the upper Mississippi clamming.  He found enough good pearls to pay expenses, sold the shells to the button factories, and passed around fifty dollar necktie pins as gifts to his friends.

This river world of clammers, as story writers later discovered, is a rich new treasury of Americana, and none of its humor was lost in the fund of anecdote which Giddings brought back as part of the summer's harvest.

In 1910 when the only place for boys to swim was the old swimming hole, if there was one, or the Natatorium in the basement of the Y.M.C.A., if there wasn't, Thaddeus seems to have decided that Anoka, his home town, needed to have its kids organized during the vacation period.  On his return from his year's teaching in Oak Park, Illinois, he got a few of them together.  In a week or so they built a swimming pool.  He erected a ten-foot post beside it.  On top of the post he fastened an old upholstered easy chair from his home, shaded with a large canvas teamster's umbrella. And here, on top of this pole, in a bathing suit and straw hat, he sat all summer long as a lifeguard.

Knitting has been a lifelong recreation of his, and when I was in High School, a pair of socks knit by Giddings was a museum treasure.  During the World War the Associated Press made headline news of the Minneapolis School Director who knit socks for the soldiers on the street cars as he went from school to school.  The effect of this performance can be best imagined if you will picture Thad as a large man of vigorous carriage with a figure leaning a bit toward the best tradition of Italian tenors. Black hair and eyes, Van Dyke beard, white skin and strong nose, he guarded his voice from colds, due to being in and out of superheated school rooms all day, by wearing a black wooly greatcoat which came to his heels.  Galoshes below, and a peaked visor grocer's cap on top, with a turn-down flap over his ears, completed the picture.  The sight of this formidable male in the corner of a streetcar quietly knitting a grey sock was enough to break the market a point or two for any clubman whose flat tire had forced him on an eight-thirty Hennepin streetcar.

Returning to architecture, I have already told you about his kitchenette, and under our building [#277] you will learn how he organized an out-of-door theatre for Anoka and there carried on summer entertainments for many years.  At the beginning of the depression Giddings and a school music teacher named Maddy conceived the idea of the National Music Camps, and in Northern Michigan built one of America's finest and most useful educational plants, resting on the soundest of pedagogical ideas.  As early as 1894, Giddings was convinced in his own mind of the educational value of music in its intellectual, psychological and sociological aspects.  He saw that music study provided the emotional shock absorber which reconciled youth to head work.  Free of negative labels, music offered mathematics, history, rhetoric, aesthetics, and even athletics.  Music study was cosmetic for the old drab routine schooling.  As he said to his Oak Park School Board who thought music was a "frill," My students who major in music are the only High School graduates who have a skilled trade with which they can support a family from the day they leave school."  He is adored by thousands of men and women, boys and girls all over the United States, and no one remembers his hearty good-natured laugh more than I do.  On his seventieth birthday in 1939, the city of Minneapolis gave him a tremendous ovation, got out a burlesque edition of the city newspaper in his honor, and at a large banquet, presented him with a check to cover a Minneapolis building for his Music Camp.


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