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Ralph B. Thomas residence, project
Purcell and Elmslie
Minneapolis, Minnesota  1913

Text by William Gray Purcell
Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1913

Job Date (in Parabiography): October 25, 1913


This dwelling is really five dwellings in the most surprising sequence. Ralph bought a lot out in Lake of the Isles District, and we planned him a house along the lines of our square, open-plan type with flat roof and carried it to completion of the working drawings. He then decided that he preferred to live at Lake Minnetonka, so we revised this project and made new working drawings to conform with a property and new conditions at the lake. The contractors' proposals were all too high, but he did not wish to give up any of its size or conveniences. He decided, therefore, to build a large garage with a living apartment above, and for the time being use the garage as his living room, the tool and utility rooms as kitchen, bath, etc. The project was built and proved to be a most interesting dwelling. From it, we first caught the idea of using all glass sliding doors as an answer to both utility and decorative emphasis. These pushed back on the exterior of the building behind latticed trellises with pergola arms above. Placing the doors thus on the outside of the house with 3/4 inch rubbing strips enabled us to produce an absolutely weather tight joint which was essential in such large openings. The joy of being able to push back the enclosure of one entire side of a room from floor to ceiling and produce and obstructed screened opening without vertical mullions sixteen feet wide was a revelation in happy living, especially as the operation of these large doors was as simple as opening and closing a conventional window. I used this system again in the Rose Valley house, our operation number 368, and they were and still continue to be a daily contribution to modern living.

A year or so later, one bitter winter night, the wind blew a curtain out and over a gas heater which had been left burning in the bathroom. The Thomas family were asleep outdoors on the sleeping porch, and the house was a mass of flames before they discovered it. Thomas with great difficulty smashed an opening in the screen mesh and let his family to the ground just before the walls began to fall in. In the snow and sub-zero weather, they were obliged to go for help unclothed, a half mile to the Decker house. There were no fire fighting facilities within miles, and the destruction was complete - unbelievably so. Except for twisted beds, plumbing, and other metal objects, there was nothing left but perhaps a half bushel of fine charcoal. Not a stick of timber of any kind remained. Every last piece of the construction fell within the basement walls, to be consumed in a giant concrete stove.

Thomas decided to rebuild at once on the same site, as he had not yet accumulated sufficient capital to build a larger house, and it was a real compliment to the original project that the replacement followed the original project line for line.

It seems that during the construction of this second garage house, some careless workman must have stepped on an electric wire at it passed from stud to stud in one of the upstairs closets. This reduced the thickness of the copper this forming a heating element which in the course of years gradually charred the insulation, and one night about three years later set fire to the building, and again, one winter night, the Thomas family were forced to escape from the sleeping porch, and again the entire building was wholly destroyed.

By this time the war had raised the cost of building to double what it had been in 1913, the children had grown to college age, family requirements were changed. The original plans for the dwelling on the hill were, therefore, laid aside. By that time I had moved to Portland, too far away to be of much help, and George Elmslie was engrossed with banks and other larger scale enterprises in Chicago, Aurora, and Topeka. So Strauel took matters in hand and designed a totally new project of very efficient and satisfying character. Although fire protection was still as many miles from that site as it had always been, a house of frame construction was built and there it stands today.


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