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Woodbury County Court House
William L. Steele, architect
Purcell and Elmslie, associated architects
Sioux City, Iowa  1915/1916

Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1910
Text by William Gray Purcell

Job Date (in Parabiography): February 1, 1915


Mr. William L. Steele of Sioux City was a drafter in the office of Louis H. Sullivan at the turn of the century. He became one of the leading architects of Iowa and in 1924 missed by only a small vote becoming president of the American Institute of Architects, a position which he would have ably filled with less deference to the eastern royal family and more regard for the common man than the administration which followed during the next few years. He was one of two or three outstanding architects in Iowa, a lifelong friend of George Elmslie, and later became the business partner of Thomas H. Kimball, certainly one of the most distinguished and lovable characters in the Institute, and one of its past presidents.

In saying that Bill Steele was essentially and primarily the business man and engineer, one not leave the impression that Bill is lacking, in poetic feeling, or a sensitive soul for what is fine and good. He is a ready writer and has done a large amount of hard work for the profession. He is clever with a pencil, makes cutes caricatures. He has a clear idea of the thesis of Sullivan and Wright - but he has not creative ability as an architectural designer. It was for this reason that he wanted George Elmslie to design the Woodbury County Court House when he had finally landed the commission. Thus it came about that Purcell and Elmslie were associate architects for the building. I had nothing to do with its design. Mr. Elmslie went to Sioux City and did about sixty percent of the designing there. The rest was done at our Minneapolis and Chicago offices.

Several instances occurred in connection with this building which illustrate how far outside the field of building, either architectural or aesthetic, the determining values of a building project may go.  The young architect who omits a keen understanding of the human nature of crowds, and the psychology of men and their politics, who has not got a canny perspective of events moving beneath the surface, will not go far, however able he may be in his chosen profession. Even the art of advertising is essential. No matter how brilliant your achievement, as the course of Frank Lloyd Wright clearly illustrates, the man and his work must find some sort of ties to people individual and collective. Wright was just as capable in the late 1920s but it took both publicity and the fortunate turn of the mass mind toward something the public called "modern", that outwardly resembled his thesis, to put him back again at the head of his profession throughout the world.

To secure the commission for the Woodbury County Court House was essentially a political battle. But in order to cooperate with the commissioners who wanted to see Bill land the job, and at the same time make no move that would furnish ammunition to the enemy, Bill submitted designs for a conventional style Court House, with classic orders and tin dome - the sort of thing that would not disturb the general public taste. Only when Bill had the signed contract in his pocket did he say to his friends on the County Board, "Now we will lay aside this mess of a building and design you something useful and beautiful - a building of permanent quality." Official approval of Mr. Elmslie's designs by the Board were given as a matter of routine, as Bill Steele's friends were in the majority. But not so with the public.

This absolutely radical building, different in every aspect from any public building that they had ever seen, or indeed had ever been built, was an insult to the unimaginative mind. A considerable body of citizens, led by the defeated wing of the politicians, started out to cancel the project. Probably the determining factor in our favor was the fact that Mr. Elmslie's designs called for the use of brick made by the local brickyard and as it owners and those who worked for it and did business with it represented a considerable block in the community, they, of course, were favorable, and fought for the design because of the cash which would be spent in the community. There remained, however, a great deal of opposition even when actual construction of the main walls was complete. The stark and unusual forms, plain to all, looked all the more forbidding without windows and doors.

About this time the Chicago Grand Opera Company arrived in town with a full complement of foreign artists, and when interviewed for the local press about the building, these people who had seen something of the modern movement in Europe, were high in their praise of the building. After that no word of dissent was heard from anybody.

Another and more serious opposition was that of the Indiana Limestone Association. Their efforts to have us removed were especially bitter because all public buildings had heretofore been built of Indiana limestone - occasionally marble or granite. Brick had never been used except as a substitute material or in an effort to reduce prices in very incidental court houses. Even in such cases the base of the building, window sills, trim and some of the cornice members were likely to be limestone.

But here was a building where brick was used by deliberate choice with terra cotta trim, and the quarrymen realized that this might be an entering wedge to displace their material in other structures. At any rate, to lose the dollar business represented by a contract for the stone for this building was sufficient, and they began a bitter campaign in the opposition newspapers, attacking us from every angle, personal and professional. Of course, such propaganda gained a considerable following, but the brick people in Sioux City backed up the chairman of the County Board, and the stone men finally faded out with the rest.

It is safe to say that this Sioux City Court House is the first public building in the United States based on the philosophic concept of form and function and expressing itself in free form. With the exception of a few buildings by Richardson and his followers in Romanesque, and I suppose an occasional building with Victorian Gothic details in the [18]70s, all, public building were designed not only with classical details, but were often literal transcriptions of ancient Roman buildings.

So far as I know, neither Wright nor Sullivan ever did a public building [this draft was dated 1953, pre-Marin County Court House-MH]. In Europe Nyrup [sic: Nyrop] was architect for the Copenhagen Town Hall, which must have begun taking form in his mind about 1900. It is a purely functional building, a fact missed by most, because historical, ethnic, social and community relations are so expressed in this building that it is at the opposite pole from the constructivism which the contemporary mind demands as evidence of modernity. The great difference between Nyrop's use of historical references is that all the forms that seem familiar exfoliate from the building's concept, and are not transferred irrelevancies.

One interesting reversal of habitual planning in our building is the removal of the grand stairway - an obsolete and unused feature in every public building since the advent of the elevator. And George placed the elevators in the most strategic and convenient location, directly in front of the main entrance.

Find the right sculptor for the large groups and some incidental accents was a problem to which we gave considerable thought. In this matter I had great satisfaction in renewing my contacts with Gutzon Borglum. I had first met him in 1912 at the time H. P. Berlage came to this country; and his support of Berlage and his views on indigenous American architecture gave Borglum a clear view of how democratic thinking could find expression in sculpture.

When one who has lived his architectural days in the world set up by Sullivan and Wright, comes upon the work of a man like Borglum, it requires no great discrimination with respect to sculpture, to see how superficial is the work of special pleaders like that of Lee Laurie, for example, on the Nebraska State Capitol. Laurie is not superficial and cynical in the same way as Paul Manship, but he is essentially a style-formist using the pattern and cliches of Mestrovic and other creative sculptors of our time, to create a result that can only be designated as "modern" and which has no deep fundamental sculptural integrity as related to Time, Place and Man. In leaving his partnership with Ralph Adams Cram, Goodhue, who designed the Nebraska State Capitol began to see the light. He had an earnest desire to say something in the way of living architecture, but he was spoiled through his long association with the style-form world, and it is not possible for a man to lay aside that to which he has been conditioned, and reconditioned into the fiber of his being like a coat. Of course, the Nebraska capitol was a great thing for living architecture in American because it finally broke the ranks of official bozart, but this was largely due to Thomas H. Kimball of Omaha who wrote the program for the National Competition and selected a jury that was not necessarily free in its own collective mind, but perhaps for no really architectural reasons, set against the old crowd because they had political control, and had had it too long.

I spent an interesting couple of hours in Borglum's New York studio, an enormous barn of a place, with some bright young fellows working for him. His fee for the Sioux City work was nearly double the allowance made for a sculptor, and we reluctantly gave up the idea of having him. He however gladly recommended one of his young apprentices who had recently moved to Chicago and upon him we called. Perhaps we did just as well in the end, for Alphonso Ianelli did a very sincere and able piece of work for a fee that amounted to nothing more than journeyman's wages. The great frieze over the principal entrance was fourteen feet high and forty feet long, and contained more than a dozen life-sized figures.

This represented an enormous amount of clay to be shaped. There were four more than life-size figures at secondary entrances. And all this for $3,500 ready for the "Teco" Terra Cotta Works (American Terra Cotta and Ceramic Company). Ianelli studied his work most faithfully, and cooperated with Mr. Elmslie in order to secure a nice relation between the feeling and texture of his sculpture, and the terra cotta architectural framing and other ornamental details in Mr. Elmslie's characteristic style which lay near it. All the architectural terra cotta, including the eagle at the top of the stair tower, was done by Christian [Kristian] Schneider. The ornamental detail is superb in dexterity, translating Mr. Elmslie's designs in a way that absolutely no one else could do, but the eagle is not especially inspiring, although modeled with a force that makes it carry very well at that height. Even in its perhaps too naturalistic forms it may have more meaning than the extreme symbolistic [sic] types of eagles developed on the drawing boards of our present day competitionists [sic], and done into stone by fashion following modelers. The most popular conventions of today refer to embryonic creatures which are so far removed from the sense of birds or anything that could take flight, that they become meaningless.

Annotation by GGE on the original Parabiography draft for the St. Paul Church [Commission List 86]: 

"I designed a chimes tower and clock for the Court House that was good using the chimney an an element of stablization. W.L.S. [William L. Steele] was afraid of cost, which was apparent, not a well-founded fear (at least I think so). If we had only had that to pierce the sky! I wonder where my drawing is. Have not seen it for years."


   Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota [AR:B4d1.9]
research courtesy mark hammons