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Edward W. Decker summer residence, revised scheme
Purcell and Elmslie
Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota   1913

Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1910
Text by William Gray Purcell
for 1913

EDWARD W. DECKER, Lake Minnetonka

When one thinks about Decker's business connections as President of the North Western National Bank, his social relations at the Minneapolis Club, and his business acquaintance with every architect in the city, it is surprising that he considered employing us to develop his country estate at Lake Minnetonka.

Our preliminary interviews concerning their needs and our qualifications were comparatively brief. Mr. Elmslie produced a superb set of drawings on which to rest our case, but the attention the Deckers gave to the plans and the pictures was casual.

There must have been other still unknown factors controlling our selection. It is possible Decker liked bright young business men - perhaps fed up with all the stuffy business politics of the wise old dogs.

At any rate, it was our first opportunity in Minneapolis to do a distinguished and extensive layout, and Mr. Decker spent all the money that was necessary to make our architectural thesis complete in all its details, including some specially designed dining room chairs and a table, to go with the built-in furniture of that room.

The building is a distinguished work and would call for few changes to put it in step with today. It rests more comfortably in current atmosphere than the contemporary work which is so self-conscious of design. But more important, it recognizes the needs and emotions of the human person as the streamlined architecture must certainly come to do before these jazzy forms become an architecture which expresses the whole man in these times. (These lines written in 1940, twelve years ago, were truly prophetic, for during the past two or three years more and more educators are emphasizing the need of finding in architecture emotional expression for man's more worthy aspirations and ideals.)

This home was essentially a place for summer recreation and winter weekends, and we began by keeping the lower floor of the house not only as close to the ground as possible, but giving it the feeling of a slightly by definitely enclosed portion of the surface of the earth, with such practical boundaries as necessary for inclement weather. There were no "enclosing walls" in the main part of the first floor except through resultant supports and utilities. The bedroom floor rested on ten isolated brick piers and the broad fireplace. Between these piers came great window wall panels of glass from floor to ceiling and wall to wall, for porch-to-the-living-room separation, and a broad room-sized circular bay with continuous windows and broad seat below it.

From the dusty bins of a Minneapolis warehouse, came forth by some good chance a large stock of old ceramic tile of the 1870's of uniform size, with clean square edges, good organic patterns and beautiful flat eggshell surface. (All this in a day when the craftsman era was pressing hand shaped tile with walloping surfaces and 3/4-inch joints.) The selection included plain tiles of a similar character and harmonious color to provide the large quantity required for the entire lower floor and porches, all paved with these tile, laid with the closest possible joints and with so smooth and accurate a surface that when waxed they furnished an excellent dancing floor. As thresholds were eliminated between the living room and the porches, the resulting dancing room was nearly 100 feet long. The Deckers called for our services in designing all the decorations, furniture, carpets, curtains, and specially designed electric fixtures.

Mr. Decker was an interested and pleased spectator, and Mrs. Decker followed along with not much more than some general social comments approving what we recommended, so that the result was really an integral work in every department. After the main house was well started, we made plans for the service wing, which created an interesting automobile court at the rear and a fine terminal at that end of the house.

In connection with the Decker water supply, we found an old codger out at Minnetonka who was an expert in traditional cistern building. He was one of the last of his tribe, and in him one saw in action the successful method of the old rule-of-thumb engineering. The two enormous brick rain water cisterns were built with an inverted arch resting on an excavation carefully shaped at the bottom. From the waist up the dome forming the upper half was worked out one ring at a time without forms, the suction of the mortar holding each brick until a given ring was complete. Two thicknesses closely following on top of this pilot course made all solid for the next advance. It was Brunellesci's Florentine dome construction problem solved before your very eyes. When the flatter parts were reached near the top, some simple supports were used - but it could have all ben easily managed without resort to forms resting on the ground. Thus were built the vaults of Rome, of Mesopotamia and of Renaissance Italy. The final strength of the structure and success in its construction were selected and put together, each brick on its own merits to do its own share of the work. Its eventual destruction will no doubt be caused by small tree rootlets finding their way between the bricks in search of water.

Although I did not come to know Mr. Campbell personally until some time after this, sincere appreciation should be extended to the Campbell Heating Company of Des Moines, Iowa, one for the few concerns who seemed to know something about warm air heating and why. Old man Campbell had a lifetime of practical experience, and added to it the essential factor of scientific cogitation and primitive engineering which came very close to scientific solutions, in what was required of heating plants at that time. They did a number of successful jobs for us; an exceedingly difficult one, Byrne, #169 , Bismarck, North Dakota. Their particular forte was a square brick-set heating unit, a very effective job.

We designed a great tower for this dwelling, its top lifted above the tallest trees and covered with a steel umbrella held by a single stem. A single passenger elevator - a sort of glorified dumbwaiter - was to run from the base up into the umbrella stem. A stairway ran round and round the elevator shaft. The engineering of this tower was a very bold piece of work, especially the balancing of this sixteen-foot square steel umbrella on a 36 inch steel stem. Our old pal Fitch Pabody loaned us an engineer, Sonnichsen from his American Bridge Company, a man of imagination, who took great interest in the structure and assured us that our umbrella would stand anything that could blow in Minnesota. The platform under the umbrella was arranged with broad waterproof built-in window seat couches against the rail on four sides. Beneath were hampers were could be stored every gadget required by anyone who wished to go up there and spend the day. The view over Minnetonka and the surrounding countryside would have been superb. We planned to protect it against lightning with steel mesh over the entire umbrella connected by heavily insulated cables down into the earth, well away from the building. But Mr. Decker felt that the $6,000 which Haglen (sic) and Son bid for erecting it was a real extravagance, and so he decided to defer it until later, which meant that it was never built.

Perhaps it was this tower idea that caught his imagination and may have been a deciding factor in our securing the commission. Perhaps there was a commendable egotism connected with the idea, a sort of having something that no one else had, which would set his country place apart from the pretensions of conspicuous waste in the dwellings of his aristocratic friends.

We made a general layout for developing the grounds, keeping everything woodsy and informal. there was a slower garden of slightly formal plan to the west. The small amount of planted shrubbery was placed as reinforcement of the native growth. The long, beautifully curving drive through the trees approached the house in such a way as to give interesting glimpses first and then a good broad view of the whole project before one got too close.

By 1928 Mr. Decker had grown too ambitious, programmed himself as head of the "Wall Street of the West", which Marquette Avenue was expected to become. On the threshold of the depression he built the tremendous fifteen story Northwestern National Bank Building, a structure which stood two-thirds empty for ten years. When finally faced with the stark ruin of all his enterprises he dumped his entire personal fortune into the fight in an effort to save his friends, and on top of this was alleged to have engaged in further high financial practices with his customers' money which brought him and a dozen other Minneapolis bankers to trial for criminal diversion. The issue was long in contest in Minnesota and finally resulted in acquittal by a split jury when the trial was concluded in the small northern Minnesota town to which it was transferred on account of the high feeling of resentment in Minneapolis, by those who had lost their money in the banking debacle. Decker was a splendid fellow, a high grade citizen and good friend of mine. His intentions were of the best, but his fine sense of basic integrity seems to have gone out of balance by long association with the Twin City Rapid Transit Company, the Minneapolis Gas Company, and other utilities controlled by one of the most ruthless financial gangs of wreckers the country had seen.


   Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota [AR:B4d1.7]

research courtesy mark hammons